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Billy Joe Shaver

Singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver's life has been a rough road. Shaver became famous in the 1970s as the songwriter for the so-called "country music outlaws," including Waylon Jennings. This interview originally aired July 13, 2005.


Other segments from the episode on September 1, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 1, 2006: Interview with Billy Joe Shaver; Interview with Jimmie Dale Gilmore.


DATE September 1, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Songwriter and singer Billy Joel Shaver discusses
his life and career


That song "Hearts a-Bustin'" was written by our next guest, Billy Joe Shaver.
Shaver records and performs his own songs, but they're best known when
interpreted by others. His songs have been recorded by such artists as Johnny
Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Presley. In the
1970s, Shaver's songs were an important part of country music's "outlaw
movement," which broke out of the slick Nashville style. He wrote all but one
of the songs on the landmark Waylon Jenning's album "Honky Tonk Hero." In the
1990s, Shaver broke into acting with a small part in Robert Duvall's film "The
Apostle." And Duvall and his wife recently made a documentary about Gilmore
called "The Portrait of Billy Joe." Shaver's latest album is called "The Real
Deal." His recent songs have dealt with the many tragedies that have struck
his life. He lost his wife and his mother less than a month apart in 1999.
The following year, his son, the guitarist Eddy Shaver, died of a drug
overdose on New Year's Eve. Billy Joe Shaver spoke with Terry Gross in 2005.
She asked him about coping with all those personal tragedies.


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

Mr. BILLY JOE 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'd have done, because they kept me going, because I had to
feed them and get up and go. And Willie Nelson, I got to 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 a--you 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 up there and played all night 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--been knowing him since '55, so I've 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
being 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.

GROSS: So did...

Mr. SHAVER: I later got some money from Sony and I tried to pay him back and
he wouldn't take it.

GROSS: So...

Mr. SHAVER: I just don't know.

GROSS: But you say this was New Year's Eve. Was it actually the night that
your son died or a year after that.

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

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

Mr. SHAVER: Yeah. He said, `Get back on the horse.' And I'm a cowboy, so I
did. And I then I just went on and worked from then on. I just kept on
working. We had lots and lots of work, so we--I just kept on working.

BIANCULLI: Billy Joe Shaver, speaking with Terry Gross last year. We'll hear
more of the conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's return to Terry's interview with songwriter and singer Billy
Joe Shaver. His memoir about his life in music is called "Honky Tonk Hero."

GROSS: You actually had a heart attack on stage in August...

Mr. SHAVER: Mm-hm.

GROSS: ...of 2001.

Mr. 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 in front of an audience. How bizarre
and kind of creepy. Do you have memories of that?

Mr. 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 took these nitros and I was able to
sing. I just kept singing. And Jesse Taylor, when he was young, he had--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 the 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. And then afterwards I have to sign all these things and I was still
trying to die, you know. Wanting to die actually. 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, at Hanover's and play there, and
I got me another motel room. I laid down and I, oh, still going through this
thing, you know. And it come in waves then, kind of gave me a little relief
every once in a while. And then I decided, `Well, I'll go play this and I'll
die here. It was awful to die in Pflugerville but I will.'

And my--the lady that runs my business, t-shirts and stuff, Diane Chain, she
came by. She said, `Billy, you're going to the hospital.' And I said, `No, I
ain't.' And she finally talked me into it and we drove all the way back to
Waco. And they took me in there and checked me out. Sure enough, I had 10
percent blood flow and blowed all my arteries out. But I was supposed to go
on this tour with Kinky over to Australia, and it was a three-week tour, and I
told him, I said, `Kink, I got to have this bypass,' I said. `I'll have a
heart attack.' And he says, `Hey, people have heart attacks every day.' He
said, `You're going to ruin my career.' And I said, `What?' And he said,
`Yeah, you've got to go with me.' And so he talked me into going to Australia,
three weeks of total hell. I just wanted to kill him. And finally I got back
and the doctors were mad. Oh!

GROSS: So you ended up having bypass and...

Mr. SHAVER: Yes, I did. After I come back from that Australian trip.

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

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

GROSS: 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. SHAVER: I don't know why. It just came to me, right before we were to
go in and do the overdubs of Eddy's album, 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 I just--it wasn't much of a song, just a 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. SHAVER: You know, I'd seen my friends have it and what it did to them.
It was--I know that it's 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. You know, you can see that happening, but the performers
never change, they stay the same. That's why they're great. And I guess I,
in some small way, I touched on that somewhat.

GROSS: Would you sing "Fame" for us?

Mr. SHAVER: Yes.

(Singing) Fame, you brought elusive things
Somehow you found your way
into my life today
Desire, that all consuming fire
is racing through my veins
like lightening through a wire
I never changed
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

(Speaking) Still love you, Brenda
Love you too, Eddy,
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.

Mr. SHAVER: Thank you.

GROSS: 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. SHAVER: You know I've haven't noticed it if it has. I just still--I
just, oh, I just hurt so hard to do quality work, and that's what I've stayed
with and I belive that's why cream finally comes to the top. Not to--I'd just
be beyond me to be humble. I'd have to be to be acting humble if I was to be
humble. I'm just--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 has
been--who was a longtime friend of yours...

Mr. SHAVER: Mm-hm.

GROSS: ...said that when he was in rehab, he used to...

Mr. SHAVER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...every morning, he'd sing to himself your song "Old Chunk of Coal,"
which is a song about somebody who feels like a old chunk of coal...

Mr. SHAVER: Mm-hm.

GROSS: ...but hopes to become a diamond one day.

Mr. SHAVER: Mm-hm.

GROSS: And I thought, there is no higher compliment a songwriter can have...


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

Mr. SHAVER: Yeah, it just...

GROSS: give himself strength every morning.

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

BIANCULLI: Billy Joe Shaver speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. Let's hear
Johnny Cash's recording of Shaver's "Chunk of Coal," which was included in
Cash's posthumously released box set "Unearthed."

(Soundbite of "Chunk of Coal")

Mr. JOHNNY CASH: (Singing)
I'm just an old chunk of coal
But I'm going to be a diamond someday
I'm going to grow and glow til I'm so blue pure perfect
I'm going to put a smile on everybody's face

But I'm going to 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 going to be a diamond someday

I'm going to learn a right way to talk
I'm going to search and find a better way to walk
I'm going to spit and polish my old rough edges self
Until I get rid of every single flaw

I'm going to be the world's best friend
I'm going to go round shaking everybody's hand
I'm going to be the cotton-picking rage of the age
Yes, I'm going to be a diamond someday

I said, I'm just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I'm going to be a diamond someday

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: That was Johnny Cash singing "Chunk of Coal," one of many songs
written by our guest Billy Joe Shaver. We'll hear more of his interview with
Terry Gross after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: Let's return to Terry's interview with songwriter and singer Billy
Joe Shaver.

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

Mr. SHAVER: Yeah I do. 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. SHAVER: Oh yeah. Sure.


Mr. SHAVER: Jesus Christ is the--he's the one who 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.

GROSS: That's very charitable.

Mr. SHAVER: Yeah, I'm a giving man.

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

Mr. SHAVER: Yes, I would. Like to do "Try and Try Again." Saved my life.

(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 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
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
try and try again

Well, I know some day the world will learn
to sing a better song
The lame will walk, the meek will talk
We all will sing along
The fighting will be ended
and all hunger will be gone
It's everybody's business
til 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

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

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver, thank you so much.

Mr. SHAVER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Billy Joe Shaver speaking and singing with Terry Gross in 2005.
Shaver's latest album is called "The Real Deal."


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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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