Skip to main content

Country Outlaw Waylon Jennings on the Story of His Life

Born in 1937 in Littlefield, Texas, Jennings was a disc jockey at 14, and had already formed his own band at the age of 12, making guest appearances on local station KDAV's "Sunday Party," where he met Buddy Holly in 1955. Jennings became Holly's bass player. It was Jennings who gave his seat up to the Big Bopper on the plane which crashed later killing Buddy Holly. In 1975, Waylon was named the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year, and in 1976, he helped found the "Outlaw Movement" "Waylon," the authorized autobiography, written with writer-musician Lenny Kaye (of Patty Smith), was released on Warner Books in September 1996. This interview originally aired 10/14/96.

21:32

Other segments from the episode on September 2, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 2, 1998: Interview with Waylon Jennings; Interview with Billy Joe Shaver; Interview with Willie Nelson.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 02, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 090201np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview with Singer/Songwriter Billy Joe Shaver
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Billy Joe Shaver wrote many of the songs that defined country music's "outlaw" movement in the '70s. His songs broke out of the slick Nashville style. He wrote all but one of the songs on Waylon Jennings' 1973 album "Honky Tonk Heroes." John Anderson had a number one hit with Shaver's song "Old Chunk of Coal."

Shaver was featured on Robert DuVall's recent film "The Apostle." Before we listen to a 1994 interview with Shaver, let's hear him sing his song "I've Been To Georgia on a Fast Train" -- a song which has been performed many times by Willie Nelson, who we'll hear from later.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER-SONGWRITER BILLY JOE SHAVER PERFORMING "I'VE BEEN TO GEORGIA ON A FAST TRAIN")

BILLY JOE SHAVER, SINGER: (SINGING)

On a rainy Wednesday morning
That's the day that I was born
In that old sharecropping one-room country shack
And they say my mammy left me
The day before she had me
Said she hit the road
And never wants to look back

Well I just thought I'd mention
My grandma's old age pension
Is the reason why I'm standing here today
I got all my country learning
Milking and a-churning
Picking cotton, raising hell and baling hay

I've been to Georgia on a fast train, honey
I wasn't born no yesterday
I got a good Christian raising
And an eight grade education
I don't need y'all treating me this way

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver spent years doing manual labor before he started performing.

BILLY JOE SHAVER, COUNTY MUSIC SINGER AND SONGWRITER: I actually had an accident at a sawmill, and I had to pull off my two fingers on this right hand, and then another one got the end of it knocked off, and the little finger got kind of banged up. But I've still got a good thumb on that hand, so -- but that's what happened to me. And then I decided I would start writing songs and playing the guitar after that.

GROSS: So you sawed off your fingers at an accident in a sawmill?

SHAVER: Mmm-hm. Yeah.

GROSS: How did you end up playing guitar after that?

SHAVER: I was about 28 years old then, and it hit me that I should be doing what I was supposed to do, because I'd been writing all that time since I was a little kid. I'd been singing and stuff. And I just never had got serious with the guitar yet, and so I -- when this happened, right at the very moment it happened, it just hit me right in the heart that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do.

I guess if I hadn't a had these things cut off, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. But anyway, something has to kind of hit me over the head before I figure it out. And -- but the reason I started playing guitar, I guess, it was the hardest thing for me to do. Too -- and my arm was in bad shape. They had to put electrodes on it to make it start moving again. It had swole up -- I almost lost it.

And playing the guitar helped it, you know.

GROSS: Now, you say it's your right hand that you still have fingers on.

SHAVER: Mmm-hm. Yeah.

GROSS: So what do you do? Like ...

SHAVER: I fret with my left hand, and just whack away at it with my right.

GROSS: Do you use a pick?

SHAVER: No, I don't. I just use my fingers and my thumb and my little finger.

GROSS: So ...

SHAVER: I'm not a great guitar player, but I play good enough that I can write songs and play in front of people. So it's no big deal.

GROSS: So once you decided that you weren't doing what you were supposed to be doing, and what you should be doing is playing music and writing songs, what did you do to start off on that new life?

SHAVER: I just started doing it. I just started writing songs and I got me some good songs together and I went up to Nashville. And then about in '71 or so, Bobby put out a song that I wrote, "Ride Me Down Easy" and it went to number one country. And then Waylon Jennings did a whole album of songs called "Honky Tonk Heroes." And Johnny Rodriguez (ph) had a hit on one called "I Couldn't Be Me Without You." And then "Old Chunk of Coal" -- John Anderson had a hit with. And Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson -- just -- people just started recording my tunes.

GROSS: I want to play this song "If I Give My Soul." And this is a song wondering if you gave your soul to Jesus, would your life change and would your family love you more. Let me play this song and then I'll ask you about writing it.

SHAVER: OK.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- BILLY JOE SHAVER PERFORMING "IF I GIVE MY SOUL")

BILLY JOE SHAVER, SINGER: (SINGING)

I had a woman once
She was kind and she was gentle
Had a child by me
Who grew up to be a man

I had a steady job
'Til I started into drinking
Then I started making music
Battling with the devil's man

Oh, the years flew by
I've had mighty (unintelligible)
My dreams and plans were
All scattered in the wind

It's a lonesome life
When you lose the ones you live for
If I make my peace with Jesus
Will they take me back again

GROSS: The son that you're singing about, who left, in that song, is that your son Eddie who plays the guitar with you now?

SHAVER: Yes, that's my only child. Yeah, I -- he lost a lot of respect for me because of the things that I was doing in this business. And I won't say "this business" -- I mean, it's just the things that I got caught up in, like a lot of other people.

GROSS: What kinds of things?

SHAVER: Well, you know, alcohol, drugs, running around -- just -- I was -- the -- I was, I guess, the king of sinners as far as I was concerned. But I got myself straightened out and it was with the Lord Jesus Christ is how I got myself straightened out. And I don't know how other people do it -- to each his own -- but that's how I done it.

GROSS: So you did give your soul?

SHAVER: Yes, I did.

GROSS: What was the turning point for you of deciding to change?

SHAVER: Oh, what really happened was that -- it happened when I wrote the song "Old Chunk of Coal." I actually had a vision of Jesus sitting on the end of my bed, shaking his head. And I went out to a place out at the narrows of the Harper (ph) River, that's a cliff up on top. And there's a like altars there -- the wind, rain or something hewn them out up there. There's one big one, and it's right on the edge of the cliff.

And for some reason or another, it just -- I drove out there in the middle of the night and went up that path, which is pretty treacherous anyway. And I got up there and decided that I was either going to end it -- whatever was going to happen with me. And I found myself on my knees right there at the edge of that cliff with -- and my head down in my hands, and asking the Lord to forgive me, and God to forgive me, and for the Lord to help me.

And I hadn't written a song in a long time, and I remember I was having a hard time just putting a sentence together, I was so messed up. But we were making money then, so I was able to keep going, you know, keep supplying myself with the things that were killing me. But I went ahead and asked God to help me, and a lot of things went on up there. It would be too long to go into. But I came down the trail singing this song, "Old Chunk of Coal," and I -- the whole first part of the song -- whole first half of the song by the time I got down to the end of the trail was written. And then it took me about six more months and I wrote the other part.

GROSS: You sing "Old Chunk of Coal" on your new CD, so why don't we hear a little bit of that. This is Billy Joe Shaver.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER-SONGWRITER BILLY JOE SHAVER PERFORMING "OLD CHUNK OF COAL")

BILLY JOE SHAVER, SINGER: (SINGING)

I'm just an old chunk of coal
But I'm gonna be a diamond some day
And I'm gonna grow and glow 'til I'm so plu-perfect (ph)
I'm gonna put a smile on everybody's face

I'm gonna kneel and pray every day
Lest I should become vain along the way
I'm just an old chunk of coal (unintelligible)
But I'm going to be diamond some day

GROSS: So you wrote "Old Chunk of Coal" after...

SHAVER: That was back -- many years back.

GROSS: Yeah.

SHAVER: But it took a long time to get back the respect of the people that I love.

GROSS: Mmm-hm. Did you get back to your family after... ?

SHAVER: Well, no really -- we were divorced the last time in 1986.

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

SHAVER: But you know, everything happens for the best, I think. But my son's with me and playing with me. He'll stay with me until I get my feet on the ground with this thing and then I imagine he'll fly away.

GROSS: And then what? Then he'll fly away?

SHAVER: Yeah, he'll fly away and do his own thing.

GROSS: So you think that he's playing with you to help you out through this period?

SHAVER: Yes I am. I'm sure of that.

GROSS: Did he know your songs when -- even in that period when he was angry with you and you weren't close?

SHAVER: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: Do you think your music still had an impact on him?

SHAVER: Oh, yeah. Mmm-hm. Yeah. Yeah, I -- I'm probably the one that has more trouble with forgiving myself than other people do. But I finally did.

GROSS: We're featuring a 1994 interview with Billy Joe Shaver. Shaver is, by the way, still playing with his son Eddie. And Billy Joe Shaver has reunited with his ex-wife Brenda. Unfortunately, both Brenda and Shaver's mother Victory have been diagnosed with colon cancer.

We'll hear more of our interview after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

Let's get back to our 1994 interview with country music songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. He grew up in Texas.

SHAVER: I was born in Corsicana, Texas. And it's about 53 miles northeast of Waco, Texas. And I lived there until I was 12 years old. My grandmother raised me. And she passed on when I was 12 and I went to Waco, Texas and lived with my mother. And she -- she had married a Bohemian fellow up there, and I stayed there with them until I went into the Navy. And I went into the Navy when I was 16. So...

GROSS: The song says your mother left when you were born.

LAUGHTER

SHAVER: Yeah -- I know I'm the one on "Georgia On The Fast Train" that says -- they say "my mammy left me the same day that she had me."

GROSS: Yeah. Is it true?

SHAVER: Well, not really. Her and my father -- I didn't meet my father until I was nearly grown -- but my father beat her up pretty bad and kicked her around and everything, even when I was inside of her. And so she went to get work, actually is what happened. She had to go to Waco and went to work in a honky-tonk so that she could send money back to my grandmother and raise us.

GROSS: What did she do at the honky-tonk?

SHAVER: She was a honky-tonk girl. She was just a waitress-type person -- her and this old gal named Blanche, they run that place I refer to as the "Green Gables" in "Honky Tonk Heroes."

GROSS: Mmm-hm.

SHAVER: Unfortunately, I don't have cut of that, but -- that's -- that's where that song came from.

GROSS: Did you ever get close to your mother in later life?

SHAVER: Yes, I did and as a matter of fact, my mother's name is Victory -- that's her real name. And I -- she and I are just as close as you can get. I love her very much and she's -- she did a lot of sacrifices for me and my sister. I have this one sister.

And I love my father also. He's passed away, but I loved him too.

GROSS: Tell me something about your early musical life.

SHAVER: Oh, when I was just a kid, from the time that I remember I started talking, I was singing. And we didn't have a radio -- my grandmother. I lived with her. But I would every once in a while hear one, you know, and I'd hear somebody singing this and that. And then I would just go ahead and sing that part of it, and just make the rest of it up myself. And pat my foot -- no guitar or anything -- just pat my foot and sing. And I was just a little kid and people liked to hear me.

I remember my grandmother, she -- she had credit down at the general store down the road, and sometime her old age pension check wouldn't come in. And we'd go down there and get an extension on credit. And she would ask the lady if she could get an extension on credit, and the lady knew that I sang. And she said: "Well, yeah, if you stand that boy up on that cracker barrel there and let him sing a tune or two, I'll let you have it."

You know, and I thought I was really singing for my supper, so I sang my heart out.

GROSS: What kind of songs would you sing?

SHAVER: I'd sing like some Roy Acuff-type (ph) things and "Pins and Needles In My Heart" and stuff like that.

GROSS: Now how much sense do these songs make to a six-year-old?

SHAVER: Not very much. But I started writing my own songs.

GROSS: When you were that young?

SHAVER: Yes, I did. I would write about what was going down with me.

GROSS: Like what?

SHAVER: Oh, I can't remember exactly everything. Most of it was kind of funny.

GROSS: You know what I wanted to ask you -- this gets back to your accident, when you sawed off your finger.

SHAVER: Mmm-hm.

GROSS: Did people tell you that it wouldn't be possible for you to play guitar and that it was foolish to even try?

SHAVER: No, nobody messed with me on that. I was lucky that -- that I didn't -- they were talking about even cutting my arm off. I was lucky that I got to keep my arm.

GROSS: Did you have to try to talk the doctors out of cutting your arm off?

SHAVER: Yes, I did.

GROSS: Mmm-hm. How did you...

SHAVER: I told them that it wasn't going to happen.

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver, recorded in 1994. His new CD "Victory" features his son Eddie on guitar. They're performing a few concerts, but they also spend a lot of time with the Shaver family in Texas.

From the new CD, let's hear Billy Joe Shaver's new version of his song "Old Five and Dimers."

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER-SONGWRITER BILLY JOE SHAVER PERFORMING "OLD FIVE AND DIMERS")

BILLY JOE SHAVER, SINGER: (SINGING)

I've spent a lifetime
Making up my mind
To be
More than the measure
Of what I thought others could see

Good luck and fast bucks
Were too few and too far between
There's Cadillac buyers
And old five and dimers
Like me

But she stood beside me
Lettin' me know she would be
Something to lean on
If everything ran out on me
Fenced yard (unintelligible)
The like as not never would be
Reasons for rhymers
And old five and dimers
Like me

It's taken me so long
Now that I know why I believe
All that I do or say
Is all I ever will be
Well too much ain't enough
For all five and dimers
Like me
I'm too far and too high
and too deep
and too much to see

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver from his new CD "Victory."

Coming up, Willie Nelson.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Billy Joe Shaver
High: Texas-born musician and Nashville songwriter BILLY JOE SHAVER. He grew up in Corsicana, Texas. Billy Joe Shaver wrote 10 or the 11 songs on Waylon Jennings' breakthrough album "Honky Tonk Heroes." Shaver is one of the most prolific songwriters. His songs have been recorded by a veritable who's who of artists of every genre: Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, the Allman Brothers, David Allan Coe, Tom T. Hall, Trisha Yearwood and many more. Four artists have gone to No. 1 on the country charts with Billy Joe's songs.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Art
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Interview with Singer/Songwriter Billy Joe Shaver
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:00

'White House, Inc.' Author: Trump's Businesses Offer 'A Million Potential Conflicts'

Forbes magazine investigative journalist Dan Alexander has pored over business records, mortgage documents and government reports — and even staked out some Trump properties — to assemble a detailed picture of the president's business interests. He says the president has broken a number of pledges he made about how he would conduct business while in office.

09:30

Country Singer Mickey Guyton Opens Up About Race And Gender In 'Black Like Me'

Guyton's hit song, off her EP Bridges, is about feeling like a stranger in one's own land. The issues Guyton raises pose new challenges — not just to country music, but to our country itself.

22:30

Jeffrey Toobin On 'Tough As Nails' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Toobin spoke to Fresh Air in 2013 about his New Yorker profile of Ginsburg, written as she marked her 20th anniversary on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg died Sept. 18 at the age of 87.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue