Not too many people would begin playing guitar after losing part of their fingers in a sawmill accident. But that’s exactly what Billy Joe Shaver did, and soon he was sharing his songs with artists like Bobby Bare and Waylon Jennings. Then Jennings decided to record almost a full album of Shaver’s originals. The rest, as they say, is history.
Jennings’ album, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and the “outlaw country” genre shook up the commercial “Nashville” sound, and established Shaver as a songwriter and launched his recording career.
Shaver’s songs, “You Asked Me To,” “I Been To Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” among others), have become country standards. His gospel album, “Everybody’s Brother,” was nominated for a Grammy, and he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame in 2004.
The Waco, Texas-based music legend turns 75 in August, and continues to write, perform, and record. He’ll soon release a new album, “Long in the Tooth” (Lightning Rod Records), and performs July 4 at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn for the club’s annual American Music Festival.
Q: You’ve stated that you think this new one is the best album you’ve done in your life, and that you expect it to turn things around in the business. Are you challenging Nashville again?
A: I don’t have anything against Nashville, it’s just maybe some of the people in it. No, it’s time for them to — you know, they roll over about every 20 years. It’s time. They’ve ventured out a long way. I’d like for everyone to get back down to it.
Q: You’re playing at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn on the Fourth of July. Tell us what to expect.
A: I tour and sing with really good musicians, my band. They don’t play too loud, but leave me a pocket for my singing. We’ll play some of the new music, and all of the hits. We almost have to do them, coz if we don’t, people will start yelling them out. But I don’t get tired of it. It’s different people every night, and different chemistry. I enjoy it, like a time capsule. Takes me back — not all the way back, but to when I wrote it — and it goes through my mind, my soul, my body.
Q: Your songs are about your own life, autobiographical or semi-biographical, right?
A: Yes, I figured out a long time ago that if you write about things that happened to you, you’re going to be honest. I’ve just stuck with what I do and I’m doing fairly well.
Q: You have led an incredible life: a cowboy in the rodeo, service in the Navy, appearing in several motion pictures, and your great music career. But the drive and strength of spirit you have, as with learning to play guitar after the accident that took part of your fingers off — where does this spirit come from?
A: I knew what I was supposed to do when I was born. I started singing before I started talking. I’d write poetry, I’d write songs. My grandmother raised me. There were some Black cotton pickers across the railroad, and I’d cross the tracks every day and listen to them. There was one house that had a stand up piano, and we’d gather there, somebody with a bottle neck would be playing old blues songs. I didn’t know whose songs they were, but I learned a lot of them, and they liked my singing. I sold newspapers on the corner when I was about 8 or 9 years old, and I would sing and sell the papers. It was the beginning of what I should have been doing all along.
All American Music Festival schedule
Bill Fitzgerald, of Fitzgerald’s Night Club, commented that this year’s American Music Festival offers over 40 bands on 3 stages, and that the fest menu will feature Louisiana specialties and classic American barbecue.
“Pokey LaFarge is making his first appearance at FitzGerald’s, I’m excited about that, and some other first-timers include Jarekus Singleton (Alligator Records), also Cory Branan on Bloodshot Records, and part of the Bloodshot’s 20th anniversary we’re celebrating at the fest this year,” he said.
Fest regulars returning include
FitzGerald also noted that “Marcia Ball was a conduit for all of this going back to our first year. She grew up in Louisiana, went to school in Austin, so knew zydeco music, but also R & B. I went to New Orleans the first year we were open, and I learned so much, about the music and the people, and this is where it started for me. I have an interest in all kinds of music anyway, but love the New Orleans musicians, and Austin, with the Texas blues, people like Robert Earl Keane. And now (all these years later) Marcia Ball says about our fest that it’s her ‘favorite big fest in a small space.’ “