Music: Five and dimer

Billy Joe Shaver sings in the key of life

By Charlie Swanson

Even if you don’t know the name Billy Joe Shaver, you’ve heard his songs sung by legends like Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. At age 76, Shaver brings his outlaw country band to Mill Valley on April 27 for a show at Sweetwater Music Hall.

“God gave me a gift, and I’ve been doing the best I can with it,” says Shaver from his home in Waco, Texas.

Born in 1939 and raised by his grandmother in Corsicana, Texas, Shaver began playing guitar and writing songs when he was a kid. Even though he lost two fingers in a sawmill accident in 1960, Shaver went to Nashville in ’66 with a handful of songs and a heart full of determination.

“My best songs I already had written before I got there,” he says.

Kris Kristofferson was one of the first artists to notice him and cover his work, scoring a hit with Shaver’s “Good Christian Soldier” in 1971. His country-western tunes have seen success with artists like Waylon Jennings, whose 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes is comprised almost entirely of Shaver’s works. Even Bob Dylan sings Shaver’s songs in concert and mentions him in his own 2009 song, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”

“I have never met [Dylan],” says Shaver. “I’d like to before I close the door on everything.”

Shaver has also been a close friend of Willie Nelson since the 1950s. Nelson appears on Shaver’s 2014 album, Long in the Tooth, singing on the opening track, “Hard to Be an Outlaw.”

After more than 20 albums, Long in the Tooth is Shaver’s first record to chart in Billboard’s Top Country Albums. Yet for Shaver, it’s the songwriting that matters most. “That’s what keeps me going,” he says.

“What I do is I take [the lyrics] and treat [them] like a letter that I’d write to someone that I love,” Shaver says. “Got to make sure every word counts, almost like a soldier writing to his sweetheart back home while he’s in battle.”

Though Shaver only received an eighth-grade education, he writes poetic lyrics with a focus on simplicity and a personal perspective.

“The best way for me is to just write about myself,” says Shaver. “I’m pretty sure my life is almost like everybody else’s.”

Currently working on a new record, Shaver says songwriting is also a form of therapy. “It’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is, and probably the best,” he says. “You can’t lie to yourself, you just can’t do it.”

Billy Joe Shaver performs on Wednesday, April 27, at Sweetwater Music Hall, 19 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; 8pm; $30–$35; 415/388-3850.

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