Billy Joe Shaver celebrates two major milestones this month, and it’s hard to say which deserves the longer parade. On August 5 the Corsicana-born singer-songwriter will release his seventeenth studio album (and his first in seven years), Long in the Tooth. But the record’s title indicates what may be the greater accomplishment: eleven days later, the one outlaw-generation songwriter who everybody agreed was out of his mind and not long for this world will turn 75. The wild rebel streak that made Shaver’s lyrics sound fearless when he first hit Nashville made him seem plain reckless in every other regard. Even now, after twenty years of sobriety, he maintains an appreciable distance from convention.
“My wife just hated Townes [Van Zandt],” he explained over the phone recently from his home near Waco, where he was packing for a two-month tour. “I met him when she and I lived in Houston, and me and him got into LSD. All these kids were into it, and they had places where you could hit it and watch movies, with mattresses on the floor where you laid down because after you took that shit, you couldn’t walk. My wife’d have to come and almost scrape us off the pavement.
“Years later, after she’d had cancer a couple years and was getting close to death, a doctor told me she wasn’t going to make it through the night. So I told her I’d had a dream that she had passed and that Townes was up there to greet her. She hated that guy so bad she said, ‘I ain’t going.’ She lived another year almost.”
Shaver has never attracted the broad constituencies of Van Zandt or Guy Clark, nor strung together as many big-hit songwriting credits as they did. But Waylon Jennings’s 1973 album of Shaver covers, Honky Tonk Heroes, is firmly in place in the country canon, and Shaver says his song “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Going to Be a Diamond Someday),” which John Anderson took to number four in 1981, still pays pretty well in royalties. He’s always had his own priorities anyway. His goal for Long in the Tooth is to remind listeners what real country sounds like, and to his mind the record already received the highest possible praise when Willie Nelson covered two of its songs on his latest album, Band of Brothers. “When a great songwriter does your songs, that’s a big deal,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade that for any award.
“Waylon told me once that if he ever caught me writing a song in order to win a trophy, he’d shoot me right between the eyes. I believed him. But he didn’t have to threaten me, because I never did do that. Still don’t. And sure enough, I ain’t got no awards either.”