Billy Joe Shaver slides out of his battered white Ford Econoline van with surprisingly agility for a man celebrating his 75th birthday tonight. There's already a small crowd gathered around the outside of The Satellite in Los Angeles, an unlikely venue for such an act and such an evening, but everyone here knows who Shaver is.
Clad in denim from head to toe, with stark white hair tucked tucked under his cowboy hat, Shaver's handshake is both nicotine-stained and solid as granite, the remaining fingers on the outlaw country pioneer's right hand as calloused and powerful as that of a rancher. Posing with fans as iPhone strobes pop in his face, he cracks jokes to the gathered bunch.
"I hate these fuckin' paparazzi," he laughs.
Later, inside the venue, he makes the same joke, but follows it with "Let them take all the pictures they want. The more, the better."
Shaver is one of those legends that has long operated behind the curtain, unknown to most, yet has garnered a rabidly loyal following over the decades of his career. He's best known for his work writing songs for Waylon Jennings, Elvis Presley and with Willie Nelson, but even as Shaver will admit, his most recent record, Long In The Tooth, has seen the most mainstream traction yet -- he just didn't think it would take him six decades to get here.
When we first get Shaver on the phone, he's stuck in Nicasio, California, waiting for his bandmates to return with his van that just had its air conditioning repaired. He's had to pick up a few guitarists to sit in during this tour, something he'll have to do again two days later in Los Angeles. His knee, having just been replaced a few months earlier, has been his biggest bane of this run, keeping him laid up in hotel rooms when he's not sound-checking or on stage. He's not long past a quadruple bypass, in which his last functioning coronary artery was operating at just 10 percent. It seems like the cards may be stacked against Shaver, but he views these as trivial hiccups in the broad scope of his career. The attention now, however, has caught him by surprise.
"People are catching on to what I'm doing, and this record just really nailed 'em," he explains. "There's been a bunch of people we didn't know, a lot of new fans. I can't believe it, but I can, too -- I knew this record was going to be great. It just keeps on coming, man."
While he admits to loving the shine he's receiving, this is not the pinnacle of Shaver's career. From a critical standpoint, yes, Long In The Tooth is his best work yet, a concise album that sits firmly in the vein he carved out, but Shaver's small-town, family-centric Texan ideology shines through when asked to recall his happiest moment playing music.
"When I found out my son played guitar, it was quite a high point," he explains. "Dickey Betts is the one who told me, he said, 'This guy plays good guitar.' I had [my son] tuning my guitars, he was 12 years old then, and I gave him my [Gibson ES-]335 that belonged to Duane Allman and I gave him a '55 Strat. Dickey thought he was a prodigy."
His son, Eddy, passed away at 38 as the result of a heroin overdose on New Year's Eve in 2000. When Shaver looks back on the story, his tone becomes a little more steely, his voice dropping a little bit. Things have never been all that easy for him, the rough-and-tumble aspects of his life only bolstering the fringe aspects of his "outlaw image," something that's actually been a bit misconstrued itself, even though he did shoot a man in the face in 2007 outside a Texas bar (Shaver claimed self-defense; he was found not guilty in 2010).
"We were actually more outcasts than we were outlaws," Shaver says. "We weren't going around doing crazy stuff and beating up people and robbing service stations, but we were just not welcome in [Nashville]. Most people in Texas came in that way and they stayed that way -- Waylon [Jennings], Willie [Nelson] and them -- and we all stayed the same."
Shaver, and the outlaw influence that added grit while removing Nashville's sequined panache, undoubtedly helped to alter the landscape of the city and the music that came out of it. Most modern artists aren't afraid to admit to this change, but few actually note Shaver as a forerunner of it, often falling back on his more famous friends that rolled into town with him. This doesn't seem to bother him, however. He's completely content with his life on the road, still gathering inspiration all the while.
"When you travel, your mind, it has to work," he says. "A lot of them old writers in Nashville will sit down and still write great songs, but they don't get the kind of ideas we get out here because they have to conjure up everything we do. Of course, they read books and things like that, but I'd rather read the book of life. It's just laid out here page after page after page."
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