Country singers Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson go back. Way back. Shaver recalls first meeting the fellow Texan back in 1953.
"I was just a kid when I met him," says Shaver. "He's always written great songs. I've never heard a bad song out of him. It's always well written and got a front and back to it. It's always got some good stuff in the middle too."
That friendship has recently paid some pretty good dividends. Nelson recorded two Shaver songs on his new chart-topping album, Band of Brothers. Nelson sings "The Git Go" and "Hard to Be an Outlaw," songs that are also on Shaver's forthcoming album, Long in the Tooth, an album that affirms that Shaver, 74, is entering a particularly strong period of singing and songwriting.
"I'm singing a whole lot better than I ever have," he says. "And I'm writing just as good as I ever have. People are starting to pay attention to me now. I don't know why it wound up that way, but it did. You won't find me slacking. I'm going to drive that nail home. Anyone can drive a straight nail, but I bent that thing few times. I'll still get it there. I'm not letting up on nothing. Everything is as strong as it ever was. It looks like everyone has figured that out: I'm writing great songs and they need to hear them."
A Corsicana, Texas, native, Shaver has a great backstory. He was raised by his grandmother and worked on farms and sold newspapers on the street to make ends meet. He then hitchhiked to Nashville in 1965 and eventually got a $50-a-week writer's deal with Bobby Bare's publishing company. At the time, commercial-minded country singers dominated the city and didn't take kindly to his blue-collar look and traditional country sound.
"The truth is that when we were busting in there, we couldn't be denied because the songs were so good," he recalls. "We were more like outcasts than outlaws. They didn't want us in there. I say 'they' and they are us — the songwriters and their sequins and stuff. They spent a lot of money on their suits and stuff and we just wore blue jeans and pretty soon everybody was wearing blue jeans and trying to sell their suits. You could get in a place without having a tie. It changed the whole town really. I lived in Nashville longer than I have anywhere. It's more like home to me than anything even though I'm from Texas."
Shaver got a big break when Kris Kristofferson covered "Christian Solider" on his 1971 album Silver-tongued Devil and I album. Shaver's 1973 debut Old Five and Dimers Like Me featured songs of his that David Allan Coe and Waylon Jennings had made famous. Shaver's gritty voice and lyrical skills didn't make him a huge star, but they did give him a cult following and helped him earn the respect of fellow musicians.
While his career remained steady, Shaver hit a rough patch in the late '90s and early 2000s, as his wife died of cancer and his son died of a heroin overdose. He turned to Christianity to help him cope with the tragedies.
"I'm married to Jesus Christ," he says when asked about his religious beliefs. "I love Jesus Christ. I'm married to him right now. I'm not married to a woman or man. I'm trying to walk the line and do what I'm supposed to. I won't try to stick it down your throat. I just talk it the right way. Everyone knows the difference between right and wrong. I'm just trying to help a few people along the way. The more you help people up the hill, the higher up the hill you'll get."
That desire to "walk the line" hit a road bump in 2007 when he shot a man in the face outside a bar. Shaver was indicted on charges of aggravated assault, though he was eventually acquitted.
"He had a gun too," he says of the incident. "He was shooting at me. It wasn't like how you read it in the papers. My lawyer wanted to prove that he could get a guy off who was being attacked by a knife. That wasn't the way it happened. He shot at me three times and I had to return fire with a little Derringer. I hit him right between the 'mother' and the 'fucker,' in the mouth. It was one shot. It was lucky. Lucky for him, it didn't kill him. He was a real bully. He's said he's sorry but he could have said that long before that, inside the club. If he had said he was sorry, I would have let him go. But he worked up and down on me. I almost took a punch at him inside, but I respect the people that run the place and I would not do that."
Shaver got a good song out of the incident, though: He teamed up with Nelson on "Wacko from Waco," a track that recounts the shooting.
Due out on Aug. 5, the album is Shaver's first studio release in six years. He sounds particularly inspired on "Long in the Tooth."
Songs such as "The Git Go" and the title track have a feistiness to them that suggests the degree to which Shaver continues to embrace that outlaw mentality. Though he's well aware of the fact that he's not likely to sell the album by the truckload, Shaver has said he thinks of it as "a big step forward" and that he has no desire to dial back his relentless touring schedule.
"I ain't trying to make no money," he says. "I just want to prove a point. I wanna bop until I drop."
Billy Joe Shaver with Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers
8 p.m. Sunday, July 6, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $23 ADV, $25 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.