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Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver discusses his career and personal life

37:02

Other segments from the episode on July 13, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 13, 2005: Interview with Billy Joe Shaver; Review of Judy Henske's new CD "She sang California;" Commentary on language.

Transcript

DATE July 13, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Billy Joe Shaver discusses his career and personal
life
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is the songwriter that Johnny Cash described as his favorite: Billy
Joe Shaver. He's going to sing a couple of his songs for us. Shaver's songs
have been recorded by Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan
and Elvis Presley. Shaver wrote all but one song on Waylon Jennings' 1973
breakthrough album "Honky Tonk Heroes." In the '70s, Shaver's songs were an
essential part of country music's outlaw movement which broke out of the slick
Nashville style. He's recorded several albums of his own and for years
performed with his son, the guitarist Eddie Shaver. Eddie died of a drug
overdose in late 2000. Just about a year earlier, Billy Joe Shaver lost his
mother and his wife to cancer. You can hear his heart breaking in some of his
recent songs.

Billy Joe Shaver reflects on his life in music in a new memoir. Last summer
some of his musician friends got together to perform his songs in a 65th
birthday tribute. Now a CD of those performances has been released called "A
Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver." It features some of his best-known songs,
including "Georgia on a Fast Train," "Ride Me Down Easy," "Bottom Dollar" and
"Tramp on Your Street."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore does a song of yours called "Heart's A Bustin'."

Mr. BILLY JOE SHAVER: Ohhh.

GROSS: It's a beautiful song and before we hear it...

Mr. B. SHAVER: I know.

GROSS: ...I'd like you to tell us the story behind the song. I assume you
wrote this for your wife, who died in 1999 of cancer. Was she alive when you
wrote it?

Mr. B. SHAVER: You know, that's a real old song.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that.

Mr. B. SHAVER: And the strange thing about that is that I wrote it and I hid
it from her. Because she'd have to be dead. You know? And somehow or
another I knew she was gonna die before I did. Or maybe I knew she was gonna
die and that song would be there. I don't know. But I knew she was
gonna--something was gonna happen. She was gonna die. And I wrote this song
about this old lily; I guess it's in the lily family. I don't know much about
flowers, either. I'm a redneck. And this one, though, is--it looks like a
little--it has the petals coming out and it's a little bugger and it's just as
white as it can be, as white as snow, and--but on the inside of it, is a petal
that looks like a heart. But it's broken. It's broken kind of almost half in
two. And it just looks blood red. It just looks like it's bleeding. You
know? And I don't know that--the correct name for that flower but the
hillbillies and stuff around here call it a heart's a bustin'. And that's
where I got the idea for the song.

GROSS: I'd like to play the Jimmie Dale Gilmore version...

Mr. B. SHAVER: Oh, please, do.

GROSS: ...of your song, "Heart's A Bustin'." And this is on the tribute
album, the "Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver," which was recorded live last August
in Austin so here's "Heart's A Bustin'."

Mr. B. SHAVER: It's so wonderful.

(Soundbite of "Heart's A Bustin'")

Mr. JIMMIE DALE GILMORE: (Singing) Heart's a bustin' grew down by the river
that flows by the old paper mill. In the springtime, we stood there together,
at the top of the old stone fort hill. Many a-time I've been lonesome. Since
you left, I don't know what to do. Like a flower that grows on the hillside,
my heart's a-bustin' for you.

Mr. GILMORE & Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Heart's a bustin' is a beautiful
flower...

Mr. GILMORE: (Singing) ...that looks like its heart's burst inside.

Mr. GILMORE & Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I miss you so much, your sweet,
gentle touch.

Mr. GILMORE: (Singing) I'll love you till the day that I die. One day in a
year when the time's right, the Indians flow round the bend, I don't know
when I'll go, but somehow I know, someday I'll be with you again.

Mr. GILMORE & Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Heart's a-bustin' grew down by
the river.

GROSS: That's Billy Joe Shaver's song "Heart's A Bustin'," as sung by Jimmie
Dale Gilmore and featured on the new tribute album to Billy Joe Shaver. And
Billy Joe Shaver is my guest.

Your wife, to whom that song was written, died in 1999. I know you'd
separated several times over the years.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes.

GROSS: You were married three times.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Married three times, yeah.

GROSS: The last time you were married, she had cancer. She had colon cancer.
Did you know that this time it was forever, that that was--that you'd stay
with her till the end?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah, I knew. I knew. I was doing a movie. I was doing "The
Apostle." I met Robert Duvall and then about 10 years later he calls--they
called up--he didn't call me, but they called me up for a screen test to come
down here to Austin--I live in Waco--and come down to Austin, do a little
screen test and see if you got what it takes to do this part. So I did. And
it wasn't that hard, and I went down to Louisiana, Lafayette, Louisiana.
Anyway, I called my wife because he put me in a presidential suite--which,
actually, I asked the bellhop--I said, `Man, is this the right place?'
Because I didn't even set my bags down. It was a huge place. It had big old
tables and TVs. Ah, well, anyway, I called--I didn't have nobody to share it
with.

So I called Brenda up and she's living with some convict then. She thought
she was in love, I guess. Maybe she was. And I finally convinced her to
drive to Lafayette. And she got in her truck and drove. She had one of them
little minivans. And she drove all the way, and when she got there, she
was--look, I never seen her before. She was real blowed up--You know?--and
real tired. She went directly to bed and Johnny Cash and them came while we
were filming and stuff and she still didn't get out of bed. She just stayed
in that bed for three days. I couldn't even get her hardly to turn over she
was so exhausted.

And I knew something was wrong with her, and when I got done I just got with
her and I took her straight to the doctor, and he's an old fellow here in
Nashville--he was older--and some reason or another he hadn't read the charts.
We didn't do any blood tests. Didn't read the charts right or something. And
she had advanced rectal cancer. And then we took her over and she had surgery
and all kinds of things--chemo, she went through all that stuff. I stayed
with her. It was almost three and a half years. And I got to do a lot of the
things for her that she didn't--you know, that I--that she had done for me.

We bonded so hard on that last trip there that, I don't know, I just fell back
in love with her again, and it just never had died, and when she passed, it
was terrible. I mean, it wasn't terrible. It was--I was happy for her
because she was in such pain, but it wasn't long after that my son passed but
my mother had passed about three months before that. And my stepmother--not
my stepmother, but my mother-in-law had passed about three months before that.
So there was a lot of dying going on. It comes in threes like that. And I
don't know. I was real happy for her in a way, and then Eddie, he never got
over it.

GROSS: Your son?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah. He just never got over it.

GROSS: Yeah, you said that your son and your wife were so close in age. She
was 17 when your son was born.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah, she just turned 17. Yeah, she was...

GROSS: You said they were more like friends than parent and son.

Mr. B. SHAVER: They were. They were so cool, man. They went everywhere.
They just had so much fun. And all his wives were jealous of her. You know?
I mean, because they just had so much fun together. They just run, did
everything, and he was a great guy and she was a great girl and...

GROSS: You had performed with your son, your son, Eddie. He was a guitarist,
singer, songwriter.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes, sir. He was great.

GROSS: And you recently finished up an album that he was working on when he
did and I think he was--What?--36?--when he died?

Mr. B. SHAVER: He was 38.

GROSS: Thirty-eight.

Mr. B. SHAVER: I think it's 38. I'm not sure. I don't know. I can't
remember nothing.

GROSS: I thought before we talk about your son a little bit, I would play a
track from that final album.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah.

GROSS: And this is actually him solo. It's called "Necessary Evil." And
some of the tracks on here you overdubbed on after your son died but this one
is just...

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes.

GROSS: ...a solo Eddie Shaver. Do you want to say anything about this
particular recording...

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes, I do.

GROSS: ...about what you liked about your son's performing style?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Well, my son had played with Booker T., played two--the first
two years that Dwight Yoakam went out, he played lead guitar for him. And he
played with Dickey Betts. Dickey Betts gave him his 335 that belonged to
Duane Allman and a '55 Strat that--when he was 13 years old. And Dickey had
recognized quicker than I did how much talent he had, and he played with me
from then on. And he was my lead guitar player, and we just had a
three-piece, and we just kicked ass, you know? I mean, he really was great.
And he had a--he was ready to do an album. Two days later--you know, after
he'd passed. And he was a world-class player. I miss him a lot. It's just
so--it's not hard but it's--you know, I've learned to accept what I can, you
know, and go on.

GROSS: Well, this is Eddie Shaver and this...

Mr. B. SHAVER: And I caught him out in the garage on this one, and he was out
in the garage playing this song, and it wasn't about two weeks before he
passed, and I--he--I don't know where he come up with it. But I just stuck a
little old tape recorder out there. I had no idea it would come off so clean.
But I stuck it out, said, `Hey, run through that thing again. I just want to
learn it.' And doggone if he didn't just--I mean, he just had him and this
old amp. It looked like it wouldn't hardly run but Eddie had tweaked with it,
messed with it. The thing had about one or two tubes in it. And he made it
run and he--somehow he knocked that thing out just perfect. It was--it's
pretty amazing, really.

GROSS: So this is actually something recorded at home on your tape machine.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah, in the garage.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah.

GROSS: Well, it's now featured on the album "Billy Joe Shaver: Billy and the
Kid." And here's Billy Joe Shaver's late son, Eddie.

(Soundbite of "Necessary Evil")

Mr. EDDIE SHAVER: (Singing) You're a necessary evil. That's what you are to
me. You're a necessary evil. You know that's what you are to me. You're the
first thing I gotta have and the last thing I really need.

GROSS: That's Eddie Shaver, the late son of my guest, Billy Joe Shaver, from
Billy Joe Shaver's album "Billy and the Kid."

Billy Joe Shaver, how did your son die?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Eddie passed away, oh, New Year's Eve 2000 and he died
of--they say a heroin overdose and I--I'm not sure. I just don't know. I
wasn't there. He got--fell in with some bad companions over at a motel there
in Waco, and some people he didn't know, and I guess they started early. I
thought he was in Austin 'cause we were doing a show that night out at
Poodie's, which is out by where Willie Nelson lives, and somehow or another he
didn't make it. The police come got me and took me over and I don't know what
happened. I really still to this day don't know what happened. And I tried
to stay in there with him while they were checking to see if he was brain-dead
and the police read me off and they wouldn't let me back in, told me they were
gonna arrest me. Oh, my God. Waco justice, I'll tell you what.

GROSS: Your wife died in 1999 and your son at the end of the following year.
What was the next year like for you having lost both of them and your mother,
as well?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Well, it was very lonesome. But I had my dogs that she left
me. She left me two pit bulls. And one of them was older and the one that's
with me now, she finally passed away, but if I hadn't had them dogs, I don't
know what I would have done. That's--they kept me going 'cause I had to feed
them and get out and go.

And Willie, Willie Nelson, now I gotta give him credit, he's the one that
talked me back out into the world. He said, `Come on, Billy.' He says,
`You're supposed to play tonight. It's New Year's night.' He throwed together
a band. Because my band just--I don't know if some of them were over there
with him or not, I'm not real sure. But they might have been because they
scattered like--I couldn't find them. And they left. And so I didn't have a
band but I went on.

Willie said, `I'll throw something together,' and Willie sat and played all
night long and I'd go up and sing every once in a while. I owe Willie a lot.
He's been such a good friend, and he took me down to his house and we spent
the night there and hadn't talked in quite a long time. We were--been knowing
him since '55 so been knowing Willie a long time. And he told me a lot of
things because he knew a lot. He's a wise man. And he gave me some money
and, you know, it's hard to be broke when you're in a situation like that.
And then he paid for my son's burial. And I didn't have any money at the
time. I later got some money from Sony and I tried to pay him back and he
wouldn't take it. So I just don't know.

GROSS: When you say this was New Year's Eve, was it actually the night that
your son died or a year after that?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah, he died that night, New Year's Eve. He died on New
Year's Eve.

GROSS: And so that night you performed with Willie Nelson? He convinced you
to perform?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah. He said, `Get back on the horse.' And I'm a cowboy.
So I did.

GROSS: And did...

Mr. B. SHAVER: And then I just went on and worked from then on. I just kept
on doing--working. We had lots and lots of work so we--I just kept on
working. I--Kinky Friedman is my friend. Kinky Friedman had a lot to do with
it, too. He throwed together a whirlwind campaign and, you know, a
campaign--not a campaign. He wasn't even in politics then. He just said,
`Come on. You got to go to work, and quit thinking about this stuff.' And I
did. And that's about it. I've been working as hard as I can ever since.

GROSS: My guest is songwriter and singer Billy Joe Shaver. Shaver and some
of his musician friends perform his songs on the new CD "A Tribute to Billy
Joe Shaver." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter and singer Billy Joe Shaver. The new CD, "A
Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver," features some of his musician friends and Shaver
himself performing his songs at his 65th birthday tribute.

You actually had a heart attack on stage in August of 2001.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah.

GROSS: And then you had quadruple bypass. I was thinking about what it must
be like to have a heart attack on stage and in front of an audience. How
bizarre and kind of creepy--Do you have memories of that?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Well, yeah, it was like an elephant on my chest, but I was at
the Gruene Hall, and, you know, I really wanted to die. I don't know. A lot
of people say, `No, you don't really,' but you do. When things like that
happen to you. And I was so thankful. I said, `God, thank you so much for
letting me die in the oldest honky tonk in Texas.' But I had these doggone
nitro because I couldn't hardly sing without it. I had a chunk of these
nitros but I'd washed them the night before in my pants and they were all
crumbly, you know? And I would hit them and my--you know, I'd hit them pretty
regular, as a matter of fact. I pretty near stuck the whole bottle. And I
was able to sing and I just kept singing.

And Jesse Taylor, when he was young, had a--he was in a car accident and he
lost hearing in one of his ears. And it happened to be the ear that was next
to me. And I kept telling him, `Just one more.' And he thought I meant, you
know--I said, `This is my last one.' And he thought I meant one more and he
just kept playing. And the audience was so around us--they were just like--it
was like hot there because they don't have any air-conditioning, hardwood
floors. They just open these flaps, you know, and it's still like it always
was. But just kept on playing, kept on playing. And meanwhile I'm just
dying. And I'm taking this nitro. Then afterwards I have to sign all these
things, and I'm still trying to die. You know? I'm wanting to die, actually.
Actually, I quit taking the nitro after I got through the singing because I
knew I didn't need it then. All I did was sign autographs. And I figured,
`Well, I'll die now.'

Doggone, I didn't die. I was real upset about that because that was the
oldest honky tonk in Texas and I thought it would be great to die there. And
then the next night I had to go to Pflugerville, of all places. You can't
hardly even pronounce it much less spell it. And--at Hanover's--and play
there, and I'd got me another motel room. I laid down and I--oh, still going
through this thing, you know. And come in waves, then. Kind of give me a
little relief every once in a while. And then I decided, `Well, I'll go play
this and I'll die here. I'd awful to die in Pflugerville, but, oh, well.' And
my--the lady that run my business--T-shirts and stuff, Diane Chang(ph), she
came by. She said, `Billy, you're going to the hospital.' And, you know, I
said, `No, I ain't.' She finally talked me into it and we drove all the way
back to Waco and they took me in there and straightened me out.

Sure enough, I had 10 percent blood flow and blowed all my arteries out. They
went and put stents in that one so I could get some blood but I was supposed
to go on this tour with Kinky over to Australia and it was a three-week tour
and I called him, I said, `Kinky, I got--I had a heart attack. And I'm--you
know, I gotta get this bypass, four-way bypass.' But while I was in there
getting this stents put in my deal, I--actually, my heart blew another artery.
It's called collateral circulation so I had extra artery but it was stopped
up. But it did grow and I saw it on DV--I still got the DVD just in case
somebody calls me out about it.

But I told Kinky, I said, `I got to have this bypass,' I said, `or a heart
attack.' And he said, `Hey, people have heart attacks every day.' He said,
`You're gonna ruin my career.' And I said, `Why?' He said, `Yeah, you got to
go with me,' and so he talked me into going to Australia. Three weeks of
T-total hell. I just wanted to kill him. And finally I got back and the
doctors were mad. Oh! And I got back two days--before I could even get off
jet lag, they had me in there working on me, and an hour and 42 minutes Chip
Oswald cleaned it--cleaned that other one out and did a four-way bypass on
me. I got five. I'm running on five really. So it's wonderful. Heart
hospital and Chip Oswald is the greatest people in the world.

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver will be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more with singer and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. Milo
Miles tells us about a new album from Judy Henske who has maintained a cult
following since the '60s. And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the use of
phrases like `stiff upper lip' to describe the British reaction to the
terrorist attacks.

(Soundbite of "Georgia on a Fast Train")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Well, on a rainy, windy morning, that's the
day that I was born in that old sharecroppers' one-room country shack. They
say my mammy left me, the same day that she had me, said she hit the road and
she never once looked back.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Well, now I just thought I'd mention my
grandma's old-age pension is the reason why I'm standin' here today. I got
all my country learnin' milkin' and a-churnin', pickin' cotton, raisin' hell
and bailin' hay.

Chorus: (Singing) I been to Georgia on a fast train, honey. I wasn't born no
yesterday. Had a good Christian raisin' and an eighth-grade education, ain't
no need for you-all to be treatin' me this way!

Unidentified Man #2: All right, Diamondback!

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Well, my sweet Carolina, I don't guess I'll
ever find another woman put together like you are.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with songwriter and singer
Billy Joe Shaver. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon
Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Shaver has a new
memoir called "Honky Tonk Hero," and there's a new CD featuring some of his
musician friends performing his songs in the 65th birthday tribute that was
recorded last summer in Austin. When we left off, Shaver was talking about
having a heart attack on stage not long after the deaths of his wife, mother
and son. He thought he was going to die on stage, but he made it to the
hospital.

So you ended up having bypass and...

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes, I did, after I come back from an Australian trip.

GROSS: Are you glad that you survived? It sounded like you almost wanted to
die.

Mr. B. SHAVER: I did. I kept wanting to die. I kept wanting to die, yeah,
'cause it just didn't look like as much for me, but then I realized there's
lots and lots of people cared about me and cared about what I was doing and
they started listening to songs a little more now. You know, deaths seem like
they bring that around or something. It's so late in life for this, fame, to
happen to me. That's why I wrote that song.

GROSS: Now you mentioned your song "Fame." You brought your guitar with you,
and I'd like to ask you to play that song. Would you tell us when you wrote
it and why you wrote it?

Mr. B. SHAVER: I don't know why. It just came to me right before we were to
go in and do the overdubs of Betty's album. And me and him, Billy and the
kid, Tony Colton wasn't even there, just the engineer and I, and that song
just came up in my head. And it wasn't much of a song. It was just piece of
one, but actually it is, I guess. And I just went out there and put it down,
just right off the top of my head and did it.

GROSS: Is fame something that you'd always wanted?

Mr. B. SHAVER: You know, I'd seen my friends have it and what it did to them.
I know--not what it did to them, what it did to the people around them. They
never changed. Actually, the people changed. Everybody changed about the way
they approached them, you know. They'd get goofy and out of the tree and
sideways, scared to go up there. `Oh, you're a busy man,' all that stuff.
And you know, you could see that happening, but the performers never change.
They stay the same. That's why they're great. And I guess in some small way,
I touched on that somewhat.

GROSS: Would you sing "Fame" for us?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes.

(Soundbite of "Fame")

Mr. B. SHAVER: (Singing) Fame, you bright, elusive fame. Somehow you found
your way into my life today. Desire, that all-consuming fire, is racing
through my veins like lightnin' through a wire. I never change. I still
remain the same. My few and precious friends still love me anyway. I look up
in the stars and wonder where you are. I owe it all to you. Your prayers
have all come true. Oh, fame.

Still love you, Brenda. Love you too, Eddie. God bless you all. See you
soon.

(Singing) Oh, fame.

GROSS: That's Billy Joe Shaver performing his song "Fame."

It's really a very moving song. Do you feel like your songwriting has changed
in the past few years after all the losses you've experienced and the health
crisis of your own? Has that had an impact on your songwriting?

Mr. B. SHAVER: You know, I haven't noticed it if it has. I just still--oh, I
just hurt so hard to do quality work, and that's what I've stayed with, and I
believe that's why the cream finally comes to the top. Not to--it'd just be
beyond me to be humble. I'd have to be acting humble if I was to be humble.
I'm humble in a way, but I'm thankful more than anything that somebody finally
started listening.

GROSS: I guess it was in your memoir that you wrote that Johnny Cash, who was
a longtime friend of yours, said that when he was in rehab...

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes.

GROSS: ...he used to--every morning he'd sing to himself your song, "Old
Chunk of Coal," which is a song about somebody who feels like an old chunk of
coal but hopes to become a diamond one day. And I thought that there is no
higher compliment a songwriter can have...

Mr. B. SHAVER: No.

GROSS: ...than that a song meant so much that, like, Johnny Cash would have
sung it to himself...

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah. It was just...

GROSS: ...to give himself strength every morning.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Oh, yeah. You know, I had to hang up--I hung out when I
started crying. You know, I'll still cry from time to time, not in front of
anybody, but I started crying. It just was the greatest compliment, and I
just still love him so much. And that's the main reason I wanted him on that
album, and he just closed the show there. This new album I've got's called
"The Real Deal." It's on Compadre Records.

GROSS: My guest is Billy Joe Shaver. The album he mentioned, "The Real
Deal," is coming out in September and will feature Johnny Cash performing live
with Shaver's band. Let's hear Johnny Cash's recording of "Chunk of Coal,"
which was included in his posthumously released box set "Unearthed."

(Soundbite of "Old Chunk of Coal")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm gonna be a
diamond someday. I'm gonna grow and glow till I'm so blue-pure perfect. I'm
gonna put a smile on everybody's face. But I'm gonna kneel and pray every
day, lest I should become vain along the way. I'm just an old chunk of coal
now, Lord, but I'm gonna be a diamond someday. I'm gonna learn the right way
to talk. I'm gonna search and find the better way to walk. I'm gonna spit
and polish my old rough-edged self until I get rid of every single flaw. I'm
gonna be the world's best friend. I'm gonna go 'round shaking everybody's
hand. I'm gonna be the cotton-pickin' rage of the age. Yes, I'm gonna be a
diamond someday. I said, I'm just an old chunk of coal now, Lord, but I'm
gonna be a diamond someday.

GROSS: That was Johnny Cash singing "Chunk of Coal," one of the many songs
written by my guest, Billy Joe Shaver.

You say in your memoir that you read the Bible every day.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah, I do. I try to. Down here lately I haven't actually.
I missed it a day or two.

GROSS: So do you think your songs have been influenced by reading the Bible?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Oh, yeah. Sure. Yeah.

GROSS: How?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Jesus Christ is--he's the one that made us all number two.
And I always say if you don't love Jesus, go to hell. But may the god of your
choice bless you also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Very charitable.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yeah, I'm a givin' man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver, would you like to play a song for us to close?

Mr. B. SHAVER: Yes, I would. I'd like to do "Try and Try Again." Saved my
life.

(Soundbite of "Try and Try Again")

Mr. B. SHAVER: (Singing) I went up on the mountain and I looked down on my
life. I had squandered all my money, lost my son and wife. And my heart was
a-filled with sorrow, and I almost took my life. But I found the strength
inside me to give life one more try. And if at first you don't succeed, just
try and try again. If at first you don't succeed, well, try and try again.
And if all you a-do is lose, you'd better find a way to win. If at first you
don't succeed, try and try again. I know someday the world will learn to sing
a better song. The lame will walk, the mute will talk, we all will sing
along. The fighting will be ending and all hunger will be gone. It's
everybody's business till we get the good work done. And if at first you
don't succeed, just try and try again. And if at first you don't succeed,
well, try and try again. And if all you do is lose, you'd better find a way
to win. If at first you don't succeed, well, try and try again. And if at
first you don't succeed, just try and try and try again. If at first you
don't succeed, try and try again. And if all you do is lose, you'd better
find a way to win. If at first you don't succeed, well, try and try again.

I know someday--I said I know someday the deaf man's gonna hear the blind
man's song. And someday the whole world gonna go grow new eyes to see and new
ears to hear. We're all gonna sing along. And our point of view is gonna
grow into a pure and perfect one, and the voice of truth inside us all gonna
help us sing that song. If at first you don't succeed, brother, sister, try
and try and try again. Amen and amen. You gotta keep tryin', folks. Just
keep tryin'. Sometimes if you just keep tryin', you can get it done, but you
got to keep tryin'. Try and try again. Amen and amen.

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver, thank you so much.

Mr. B. SHAVER: Thank you.

GROSS: Songwriter and singer Billy Joe Shaver. He's featured along with some
of his musician friends on the new CD tribute, "A Tribute to Billy Joe
Shaver." His new memoir is called "Honky Tonk Hero."

Coming up, Milo Miles considers the music of Judy Henske. She's recorded her
first album in 28 years. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Judy Henske's new CD "She Sang California"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Singer Judy Henske has had a cult following since the early 1960s, when she
recorded a landmark version of "High Flying Bird." But Henske's career never
took off. At one point, she took a 28-year break from recording. Henske has
a new record called "She Sang California," and critic Milo Miles says that
this time, she should not be overlooked.

(Soundbite of "High Flying Bird")

Ms. JUDY HENSKE: (Singing) There's a high-flying bird way up in the sky. And
I wonder, does he look down as he flies on by? Well, he's riding on the air
so easy in the sky. But, Lord, look at me here. Whoa, I'm rooted like a tree
here. I got the sit-down, can't-cry, oh-Lord-I'm-gonna-die blues. Now the
sun comes along...

MILO MILES reporting:

A recurrent theme in Judy Henske's career is that nobody knows quite what to
do with her, what to call her style, how to market her talents. For a long
time, this seemed very sad. You couldn't help but think her slow-moving
career had something to do with why she stopped recording from 1971 until
1999. Oddly enough, though, being beyond category is now good for Henske,
because she does not seem like a nostalgia act pegged to a particular era.

Music fans who barely register Henske will associate her with the folk
movement. And she did her share of coffeehouses in the '60s. But she doesn't
sing like a folkie. Whether she draws inspiration from black or white music,
the Deep South or the Old World, she delivers songs with a vivid combination
of blues-mama belt and hipster wisecracking. Henske can do a piritone(ph)
mope or lilt, but she doesn't stay there long. It's tempting to say Henske is
a rock 'n' roll spirit who performs blues, folk and jazz tunes. But that
overlooks her urbane, literate side. After all, she used to warm up audiences
for people like Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. Henske herself is good with
audience patter. Her 1963 debut album, "Judy Henske," was a concert recording
with a good deal of talking and a slightly incongruous big band backing.

(Soundbite of "Judy Henske" album)

Ms. HENSKE: The name of this is "Hooka Tooka" soda cracka. `Does your mama
chaw tobacca,' they would sing. `If your mama chaw tobacca, hooka tooka soda
cracka.' A code, obviously, but nevertheless a really bitchin' little song,
and I hope that you like it a lot, OK? That's just a slang expression,
meaning it's a hell of a good song.

(Soundbite of "Hooka Tooka")

Ms. HENSKE: (Singing) Hooka tooka my soda cracka. Well, does your mama chaw
tobacca? If your mama chaw tobacca, say hooka tooka my soda cracka.

Ms. HENSKE and Audience: (Singing in unison) Hooka tooka my soda cracka.

MILES: The album "High Flying Bird" offers a stronger introduction to Henske.
But as she's doing blues, folk, country or show tunes, Henske brings out an
antique, everyday surrealism that makes the tracks sound like lost gems from
the 1920s.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. HENSKE: (Singing) Baltimore oriole messed around with that big ball till
he singed her wings. Forgivin' is easy. It's a woman like now and then could
have a thing. Call her back home. Home ain't home without her warbling.
Make a lonely girl happy, Baltimore oriole. You come down from your bough.
Slide back to your daddy now.

MILES: Henske also made very sly, smart folk rock sides, especially with
Rosebud, the name of both the group and its one album from 1971, which she
made with then husband Jerry Yester, formerly of the Lovin' Spoonful. The
album works as an extension of the wistful, whimsical but brainy romanticism
of the Spoonful.

(Soundbite of "Lorelei")

Ms. HENSKE: (Singing) Lorelei, come rest awhile. I'll give you wings and set
you free, comb your hair and paint your smile. Stay awhile with me. Lorelei.

MILES: The end of the Yester-Henske marriage was also the end for Rosebud,
but at the band's recording sessions, she began working with keyboardist Craig
Doerge, who also produced and wrote music on her two comeback albums, 1999's
"Loose in the World" and this year's release, "She Sang California."

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. HENSKE: Do you know what you want? Do you know what your kitty cat
wants? Do you know what your dog wants? Do I know what I want? Yeah. I
know what I want.

(Singing) I want a big, fat man with meat shaking on his bones. Want a big,
fat man with meat shaking on his bones. All I want is a big, fat man, slaps
in the bedroom, blam-de-blam. I want a big, fat man with meat shaking on his
bones. I want a big, fat mama with...

MILES: "Loose in the World" has slightly stronger songs and players and more
focus. But both follow a jocular, enjoyable pattern, a couple traditional
blues or folk tunes, a couple remakes of her older songs, and new material
that continues to celebrate things like mad-dog killers, cocktail lounges,
outlaws, pets and Seymour Cray. Yes, Seymour Cray of supercomputer fame.
You'll just have to listen to it. Henske remains hard to summarize, but one
fact is certain: She has gone her own way and we are all the better for it.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Cambridge. Judy Henske's new record is called
"She Sang California." Her early recordings, "High Flying Bird" and
"Rosebud," have been reissued on the Collector's Choice label.

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the expression `stiff upper lip,'
which has been used to describe the British reaction to last week's terrorist
attacks. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Journalistic references to the British stiff upper lip
and similar expressions
TERRY GROSS, host:

After the terrorist bombings in London last week the media was full of praise
for the way the British were keeping a stiff upper lip. Our linguist Geoff
Nunberg has some thoughts about that expression and some of the others we use
to refer to our trans-Atlantic cousins.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

Brits Maintain a Stiff Upper Lip--that headline in The Indianapolis Star last
week turns up among more than 300 stories on Google News that mention stiff
upper lips to describe the way the British people were reacting to the London
bombings. And hundreds of other stories used items like `plucky,' `carrying
on' and `getting on with it.'

Of course, the press always finds some characteristic local virtue to extol
when attacks like these occur. After 9/11 everybody talked about the way New
Yorkers always come together in a crisis. The response to the Madrid bombings
last year had the media praising the Spaniards' proud defiance and lust for
life, or at least until the Spanish voted in the new government that announced
they'd be pulling out of Iraq. At that point, some commentators on the right
started to allude to emotional and volatile Latins.

And you can bet that the press would have found other apt local stereotypes to
describe the reaction if the bombings had occurred in Rome or Warsaw or
Moline, Illinois. The fact is that decent people everywhere react to these
outrages in pretty much the same way. They feel a swell of anger and fear and
sadness and solidarity and then they turn back to their affairs. They show up
for work. They get back on the buses and subways. They sit in cafes. When
you come down to it, what other choice does anybody have?

Even so, those images of British pluck and fortitude are particularly hard to
resist. They have deep roots in the language itself. The phrase `stiff
upper lip' was actually an American invention, but it's been associated with a
particularly English sort of phlegm since World War I and it became a cliche
during the London Blitz. Ira Gershwin wrote a song in 1937 called "Stiff
Upper Lip" for the musical "Damsel in Distress." `What makes every Englishman
a fighter through and through? It's just a little thing. They sing to one
another: stiff upper lip, stout fellow, carry on, old fluff.'

But the language of those news stories last week also suggest some changes in
the picture of the British since Gershwin's day. Back then, for example,
nobody would have referred to them as the Brits. That term didn't become
popular in America until the 1970s, and it was some years later that the
British themselves took it up. A friend of mine from London tells of first
hearing the word when he arrived in St. Louis to take up a new job in 1976.
`Are you a Brit?' a store clerk asked him when he heard his accent. My friend
was completely mystified. `No,' he said, `actually I'm English.'

Of course, there are other words to describe the inhabitants of Great Britain
as a group, but `Britons' has a musty sound. You think of "Rule Britannia,"
not David Bowie or The Buggles. And to Americans Britishers brings to mind
droopy mustaches and rolled-up umbrellas. Brits is more familiar and affable
than those. In fact, Brit and Aussie are about the only friendly slang words
we have for other nationalities. It conjures up a picture of the British as a
no-nonsense, unpretentious, middle-class race who'd sound pretty much the same
way we do if you woke them up in the middle of the night. Britishers are
Neville Chamberlain, Margaret Rutherford or Virginia Woolf. Brits are Tony
Blair, Helen Mirren and Tina Brown.

It's no accident that the word `Brit' caught on during the Thatcher years,
particularly among journalists and politicians who wanted to portray the UK as
our doughty tough-minded ally, the real spine of the Atlantic Alliance.
`Brits' depicts the British as the Europeans we can count on, a living lesson
to the rest of them. It may be that the British populace actually opposes the
Iraq War as much as the other Europeans do, but that point tended to get lost
in a lot of the tributes last week to British defiance. `Unlike the
Spaniards,' Bill Bennett said on FOX News, `the Brits will step up the same
way they stepped up in World War II. This is a people that knows how to
fight.'

That picture of the British has worked its way into the language in other
ways recently. `This is no time to go wobbly, George,' Margaret Thatcher
famously told George Bush Sr. during the Gulf War. The phrase promptly
entered the American lexicon as a reproach for somebody who was losing his
nerve. Bush Goes Wobbly on Immigration, read a headline over a Daily News
editorial a few weeks ago, with the implication that any New Yorker would
understand the allusion.

In the end, that changing picture of Britain has less to do with them than
with us. The two nations have always adjusted their stereotypes of each
other to reflect the vices they most scorn in themselves and the virtues they
most admire. The Londoners who were quietly going about their business last
week may not have been any more plucky or resilient than anybody else would
have been in the same circumstances, but they stand in for what we'd like to
think is our own better nature.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a Stanford linguist and the author of "Going
Nucular," which has been published in paperback.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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