As the number of towering figures in country music still performing gets closer to fingers-on-one hand-counting time, Texas singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver’s profile looms ever larger. One of the key figures of the “outlaw” country artist movement of the ’70s, Shaver has been writing, touring and recording for the 40-plus years since he was first name-checked in Variety for his 1973 solo album debut, produced by other living legend Kris Kristofferson. That same year Shaver saw his star rise when Waylon Jennings recorded “Honky Tonk Heroes,” the landmark outlaw country music album based almost entirely on Shaver’s songs. Currently busy contributing to Mike Judge’s upcoming Cinemax animated series, “Tales From the Tour Bus,” Shaver is also still on the road, and writing and serving as a creative beacon to everyone who believes in country music’s potential as a source for great American literature.
Both your solo album debut and the classic Waylon Jennings record, “Honky Tonk Heroes” hit in 1973 Another overnight success story?
Waylon saw me perform down at Dripping Springs in Texas in 1972 and told me to come up to Nashville. I didn’t tell him I’d already been living in Nashville since 1966.
Then both records hit the next year?
I’d already recorded my album, but Fred Foster [the label chief] didn’t want to put it out. I think Kris had an album coming out and Fred didn’t want to compete with it. But it started my string of record labels that went out of business after I recorded for them. I kept closin’ them boogers: Monument, MGM, Capricorn all went under.
When did you record “Honky Tonk Heroes?”
It was 1972, after I chased Waylon around Nashville for about six months. I’m sure you’ve heard the story. I finally confronted him at recording session. He was standing between these two big biker fellows he kept around. He tried to give me $100 bucks to go away and I told him, “You’re going to listen to my songs or I’m gonna kick your ass here in front of God and everybody.” I knew I could do it with just one punch.
He must have known it, too.He took me into a room and said “All right, you play me a song and if I like it, you can play me another.” If I don’t , we’re done and I don’t want to see around here.” After I played him a bunch of my songs, he called in his band and we got to work.
That record had such an amazing impact. Why no follow-up record?
Rolling Stone magazine came out with a big story about the album and it said, “The real hero of this record isn’t Waylon Jennings, it’s Billy Joe Shaver,” and that was that. I don’t think he ever cut another one of my songs.
Sounds like Waylon was a little big competitive.
Ol’ Waylon had an ego. I let him put his name on a song on that record, “You Ask Me To” and he got the publishing on it. It wound up getting cut by Elvis Presley and whole lot of others and I still don’t think I’ve ever seen a dime on it.
But you stayed tight with that other giant of the outlaw music scene, Willie Nelson.
You know, Waylon seemed to turn down more work than anybody I knew, but Willie showed Waylon how the cow ate the cabbage. He took all the gigs Waylon passed on.