Billy Joe Shaver is trying to keep to the shade, but there isn’t much, just a patch of trees, some trucks, and a big red sun. He’s shoulder to ankle in worn blue denim, and his face is sun-scarlet under a well-bent white hat. Every once in a while he runs out of words to pass the time and reaches into the cab of his dusty van for another slug of Gatorade. And he’s tired, though he’s too proud to show it and too polite to say anything. He’s been working since 8 a.m., starting the day shooting a video and taking the stage again in mid-afternoon for a fast four-song set.
And, yes, we are in Luckenbach, Texas, with Willie and Waylon and the boys.
On this windless, 100-degree day, Willie Nelson is a gracious host to 11,000 fans (and several hundred more backstage) for his annual Fourth of July picnic. He sits in with his guests off and on all day long, as always, then closes the show in the not-quite-cool evening air with a largely impromptu set including his old friend, Waylon Jennings.
The party is also an annual reunion of sorts for veterans of the storied ’70s outlaw country movement, a lingering reminder that the life of that party came from Austin, which rests about an hour and a half east of here. And Luckenbach — with a population of 25, the smallest of several Central Texas towns that has hosted Willie’s Picnic over the years — isn’t the only place the outlaws have been reunited lately. Houston-based Justice Records recently released Shaver’s new album, Highway of Life, as well as Waylon’s latest, Right For the Time (not to mention a new Kris Kristofferson disc). And Willie himself only just left the Justice stable to release the beautifully pacific Spirit on Island.
That, at 55, Shaver is working to promote only his ninth long player says much for the unfairness of things. So does the fact that his first six LPs are out of print, recently anthologized in a one-disc set by Razor & Tie, and in a two-disc set by German label Bear Family.
Maybe Billy Joe wouldn’t be here without Waylon; maybe he’d be just another idiosyncratic songwriter who got a few cuts in Nashville and whatever happened to him? Just another idiosyncratic songwriter? No, that’s not quite right. He was and is that rarest of talents, an utterly distinctive, impeccably honest writer of songs. It was Bobby Bare who first gave Shaver a songwriting contract, and Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall both had hits with his songs (hell, even Elvis recorded one). But it was Waylon’s almost-all-Shaver-penned Honky Tonk Heroes that solidified his reputation.
Now that last is a bad sentence, because the grammar leaves open the question as to whose reputation was solidified. But we’ll leave it like that, because there are those who argue Honky Tonk Heroes was the first outlaw country record, and it’s hard to imagine Willie and Waylon and the boys wouldn’t need last names without it.
Not that Waylon was an unknown in the early ’70s. He’d come out of Lubbock as one of Buddy Holly’s Crickets (the second incarnation), and gave up his seat on that ill-fated plane to the Big Bopper. Though he strung together a series of Top-10 hits in Nashville in the ’60s, Waylon and the Nashville establishment ultimately didn’t get along, and the rest is a pile of gold records.
When Waylon’s tour bus materializes, it is blissfully air-conditioned. Shaver takes a welcome seat and, despite their years together, is bashful. By any useful artistic measure, the two men are equals, but you can’t eat those measuring cups, so his deference is, perhaps, understandable. Besides, despite all the stories, Shaver is a shy fellow. And so for 25 minutes, with Waylon’s grandson watching from the floor, two old friends got to play catch-up.
Waylon Jennings: What are you interested in, then? We don’t really like each other.
Billy Joe Shaver: That’s true.
No Depression: Well, you almost came to blows…
Billy Joe: We’ve done that a lot (laughs). I’ve heard things cocked behind my head.
ND: But you never pulled it.
Waylon: Nah. Tell you about that. You know what? I was strung out, and I was finishing one album, but I done told him, “Don’t let nobody else get them songs.” Well, hell, you know, when you first come to town and somebody tells you something like that, anybody that does, they should explain everything to you. After you’ve been there a while, you understand how those things work. Hell, here I am in the studio, singing songs but they ain’t his. So he decided to tell me, he says, “If you’re going t’ do an album,” he says, “You told me you was gonna do m’ goddamn songs, now are you goin’ do ‘em or am I gonna have to whip your ass.” (laughs) Then later…
Billy Joe: I didn’t know no better.
Waylon: Well, that’s the way you do it, you know. You got my attention. (laughs) And so it still was a while, but when you did get in the studio, I’m recording there and I’ve got laryngitis right in the middle of it. Well, I’ve got coke-itis. You know. So Billy Joe comes in there, and I have this deal that I figured out on this one song.
Billy Joe: This is the trick.
Waylon: What I had done was, he had a song that was the same tempo all the way through, and I had it where I did it halfway through, I put it into gear, and did it real fast. And that was “Honky Tonk Heroes.”
Billy Joe: That was true, yeah.
Waylon: Well, he didn’t write it that way.
Billy Joe: Uh-uh.
Waylon: And I didn’t have enough sense to ask him, before I did the track. So Billy come in, he said, “Whatcha doin’ to my goddamn song?” (laughs) Now, here’s a guy, you know, I was pretty hot then.