A Conversation With Billy Joe Shaver
The outlaw-country legend on his recent acquittal, his songs, and his friendship with Willie Nelson.
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It has been a year since Billy Joe Shaver, the outlaw-country singer-songwriter, was acquitted of aggravated assault for shooting a man named Billy Coker in the face behind Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon, in Lorena. But he’s still worried about retribution. There’s a padlock on the outside of the chewed front door of his modest home in Waco, where Shaver has lived for upward of 25 years. Shaver jokes that it’s to keep out his second wife, Wanda, who he’s in the process of divorcing for the third time, but more likely it’s another form of self-defense against what happened on March 31, 2007.
Shaver’s house is decorated with Native American ornaments (he claims to be a member of the Crazy Horse family); photographs of his son, Eddy, who died of a heroin overdose in 2000, including one of him playing the ’55 Strat that Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers gave him when he was a teenager; and a folk-art wall-hanging of Jesus Christ holding a Texas flag. Shaver, a 71-year-old born-again Christian, is sitting at his kitchen table. On top of it is a mess of detritus and a boom box cued up to his new single, “Wacko From Waco,” a duet with Willie Nelson that he released in February. The song recounts the shooting, but not quite in the raw detail Shaver will offer as part of his first major interview since the April 9, 2010 verdict.
TEXAS MONTHLY spoke with Shaver ten days prior to his return to the stage in the form of a fifteen-city tour that starts in Fort Worth on the first anniversary of the verdict. They are his only shows since the ordeal, save for a couple of one-offs, including the birthday party for his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, who worked pro bono. It was there that he was inspired to get back out on the road.
So April 9 marks your official return to the stage.
Yeah, I’ve got prostate surgery Friday. That’s not gonna be much fun. But they took my blood test, and it seemed to be all right. So I guess I’m not gonna have no cancer. The doctor told me, “You’ll be down for a week.” He said, “You ain’t gonna like me worth a darn. But you can’t do nothin’ about it ’cause you probably won’t be able to get up.” I gotta play the9th, so I ain’t got too long to be layin’ around.
I’ve been knockin’ off for a long time after I had rotator cuff surgery, and now I’ve got this arm outta socket. I’ve also had a four-way heart bypass, but that didn’t hurt nearly as much. I almost cried. They say that I need to get a new shoulder, but I ain’t got time for no new shoulder. I can play guitar all right.
Why’s a 71-year-old man in your condition going back out on the road?
I need what little money I can make. If I was to quit, I’d probably die. But there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that ’cause I’m in a good spot with that, too. I’m still drivin’ a fifteen–passenger van and pullin’ a trailer. But Jesus rode up on a jackass, so it ain’t no big deal. Just go in there, kick ass, and leave.
I got a lot of ego, I guess, ’cause I just can’t write a bad song. I got a lot of songs that I wrote that other people performed. Waylon Jennings did a whole album of my songs called Honky Tonk Heroes. And there’s Willie and Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan. Oh, just about anybody who’s anybody has done my songs, even Elvis Presley. I’ve got a gift of bein’ able to write. It’s quite a wonderful thing, really.
I make a good bit of money off that, but it ain’t even a fraction of what I should be makin’. When I first started, I was a naive country boy, and I signed some papers that I shouldn’t have signed.
Tell me about your new song with Willie, “Wacko From Waco.”
Well, you wanna hear it? I’ll play it for you. The song pretty much tells the whole damn thing [about what happened in Lorena].
[Shaver reaches for the boom box, but you can hear it at eddyshaver.com.]
The first time I played it for Willie, he started playin’ this Django Reinhardt stuff in the middle of it. And I could tell that he thought I should write it better. So I went back to the drawin’ board.
I’ve known Willie Nelson since ’53. It seems like when I get real, real down and just about to put the gun to my head, here comes a ring on the phone, and it’ll be him. Every time. I don’t know how he knows, but he’ll keep me goin’.
He wrote a song about me the other day called “Hero”. It goes on: “Is a hero still out there? Is he still playin’? Is he still writin’? Is he still fightin’? Is he playin’ the bars? Is he sleepin’ in his car?”
Did you write Willie’s part on “Wacko”?
No, he wrote that, so he’s half-writer on the thing.
It must be good to have friends like that.
Robert Duvall’s also a good friend. I met him when he was doin’ Lonesome Dove. We were playin’ Antone’s, in Austin. And Clifford Antone got in a fuss with the guy that booked me and said, “I ain’t lettin’ that hillbilly in here.” I wore a hat, and I guess he thought I was all cowboy.
Robert Duvall was in town. Robert called Clifford up—because my name’s on the thing—and he said, “I’ll tell you what, you got this boy comin’ on awful early.” He said, “We want him on at eleven o’clock.” He said, “I want all these seats.” He was bringin’ the whole troop with him. And Clifford did it.
What were you doing with a gun the night of the shooting?
I’m a deputy sheriff in Waco. I had the right to carry a pistol.
Wanda and I had been goin’ around takin’ pictures in graveyards of these angels and things. I had a spiritual album comin’ out called Everybody’s Brother, and we were lookin’ for pictures.
And we were comin’ down the road, and there’s Papa Java’s—or whatever it is. I said, “I never been in there.” And she said, “Well, I hadn’t either, but I need a beer.”
I got in there, and she went over to this other table. She had never played Texas Hold ’Em, and they were playin’ that over there.
I had a beer poured into a paper cup. And [Billy Coker] comes in, and he claims he knows me and all this stuff. And he picks me up—I never had nobody touch me like that—and grabs me by the shoulders, and says, “You sit over here.” And I thought, “Oh man.”
Yeah, built like a fire hydrant. About fifty. Then he comes out with this flip blade—long, serrated blade—and he starts stirrin’ everybody’s drink. And he’s tryin’ to set me over by this gal that came in with him. And then Wanda came over and sat by him.
Was he hopped up on something?
Well, he had a big bottle of whiskey, and he tried to pour some in my beer. I said, “No, man, I’m not even drinkin’ this beer.”
He and Wanda were talkin’. Wanda’s last husband [Don Phillips, Coker’s cousin] had shot and killed himself, and I could see they were gettin’ in an argument about it.
I put my hand on Wanda’s shoulder, and I said, “Wanda, we need to leave.” And that guy turns around, with his knife in his hand, and he says, “Why don’t you just shut the f— up?”
It’s almost like he knew you were there.
Yeah, I think it was all kind of set up. It felt like it was.
And so I come back up to him and said, “Man, all this could be settled if you’ll just apologize. We can all have some more fun.” And he said, “No.” He was goin’ to kill me.
He starts out the back door—we both assumed that we’re gonna take it outside. I figured if he got out there first, he’d probably come up beside my head with a two-by-four, or shoot me, or knife me, or somethin’. So I went out there as quick as I could. I looked out and saw him inside walkin’ toward one of the fellas that claimed he was out back during the trial—which wasn’t true. I saw him hand him a pistol, and I thought, “I gotta get some protection.”
Wanda’s car happened to be parked right there, so I got my pistol, a little bitty thing, a little .22. I had time to put the shells in it and put it in my left pocket (I’m right-handed) and go over there. He still hadn’t come out that damn door. And I thought, “Hallelujah, he’s changed his mind.”
But he comes out the door. And he does like that at me [Shaver makes a jabbing motion with his hand]. I assumed it was a gun. He stomped at me. And I came out of my pocket with my gun, and I didn’t hesitate. I just went pow. It was a lucky shot—hit him right in the jaw.
What did you do after that?
I said, “You better come on, Wanda, if you’re goin’ with me.” I said, “Don’t go back in there. They’ll hurt you.” The whole place was on his side. They all knew him. We happened into a neighborhood bar, where everybody knew everybody. I knew what was goin’ on. I was raised in honky-tonks. The woman behind the bar had already told me that she had a hog-leg [a sawed-off shotgun] and wasn’t afraid to use it. So Wanda got in the car with me, and we left.
Where did you go?
We came back here to the house. And I got my truck. Wanda said, “I wanna go with you.” And I said, “No, you ain’t goin’ with me nowhere.” I wasn’t sure about her, then. Paranoia was settin’ in real big time. So I got in my truck and drove all the way to Mexia, where I have a lot of friends. I checked into a cheap motel and spent the night.
If it’s self-defense, why not go turn yourself in?
I wasn’t gonna do that that night.
Why not? Because that bunch out there was lookin’ for me. And they knew the law and everything.
What do you think about the song Dale Watson wrote about the shooting?
That sorry devil. He’s a friend of mine. He called me up and said, “Billy, you care if I write a song about that?” I said, “I really rather you wouldn’t. But if you just must, go ahead.” And he said, “Well, I’ve already wrote it.” And he said, “You wanna hear the title?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” And he said, “I’m gonna have to tell ya anyway.” He said, “It’s ‘Where Do You Want It?’” I told him, “I never said that.” And he said, “Yeah, but it sounds so good in the song.” It hurt me real bad. Dale knocked me down and stomped on me.
Have you ever shot anyone before?
I had never shot anyone before. But that ol’ boy was too much for me.
Would you do it the same again?
I’d shoot him again if I had to. I mean, that’s John Wayne.
Are you afraid of death?
Livin’ is hard. It’d be easy to die. I can’t do it to myself, ’cause that’s against everything I stand for. And all these songs—all that hard work I did—would be just goin’ down the drain. So I’m probably gonna live forever, whether I want to or not.