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Remembering Billy Joe Shaver, Songwriter Of Country's Outlaw Movement

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Country music songwriter and performer Billy Joe Shaver died Wednesday in Waco, Texas, after suffering a stroke. He was 81. Shaver's music was recorded by Johnny Cash, who described him as his favorite songwriter, as well as by Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. In the '70s, Shaver's songs were an essential part of country music's outlaw movement, which broke out of the slick Nashville style.

Shaver wrote all but one song on Waylon Jennings 1973 - Shaver wrote all but one song on Waylon Jennings 1973 breakthrough album "Honky Tonk Heroes." He recorded several albums of his own and for years performed with his son, guitarist Eddy Shaver. Eddy Shaver died in 2000, but Billy Joe soldiered on and performed as recently as this January. He lived a life as colorful as the songs he wrote. He grew up poor in Texas, abandoned by an abusive father, lost two fingers in a sawmill accident at age 21, was tried for shooting a man outside a bar and acquitted after character testimony from Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall. And he married the same woman three times.

He also struggled with alcohol and drugs before he found Jesus. In 2004, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Today, we're going to listen to parts of two interviews he recorded with Terry. The first was in 1994, when he'd released a new album called "Tramp On Your Street." They began by listening to a song from the record. This is "Georgia On A Fast Train."


BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) On a rainy, windy morning, that's the day that I was born in that old sharecropper's, one-room country shack. They say my mammy left me same day that she had me, said she hit the road and never once looked back. And I just thought I'd mention, my grandma's old-age pension is the reason why I'm standing here today. I got all my country learning - milking and churning, picking cotton, raising hell and bailing hay. I've been to Georgia on a fast train, honey. I wasn't born no yesterday. Got a good, Christian raising and an eighth-grade education - ain't no need in y'all treating me this way.


TERRY GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, it's good to be here. Thank you.

GROSS: You're better known as a songwriter than a singer. Do you enjoy performing? And do you enjoy doing your own songs?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes, I do. I can't imagine how it would be to do other peoples' songs because I - it's such a wonderful thing to be able to do your own tunes. You get to catch that little capsule of time that you invented there. And you get to step into it for that moment.

GROSS: Now, from what I understand from your songs, you didn't start performing until after years of working jobs, of doing manual labor.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes. I actually had an accident in a sawmill. And it - I had to pull off my two fingers on this right hand. And then the other one got the end of it knocked off. And the little finger got kind of banged up. But I still got a good thumb on that hand. (Laughter) So I - but that's what happened to me. And then I decided I would start writing songs and playing the guitar after that.

GROSS: So you sawed off your fingers at an accident in a sawmill?


GROSS: How did you end up...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I was about...

GROSS: ...Playing guitar after that?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Laughter) I was about 28 years old then. And it hit me that I should be doing what I'm supposed to do, because I'd been writing all that time. Since I was a little kid, I'd been singing and stuff. And I just never had got serious with the guitar yet. And so when this happened, right at the very moment it happened, it just hit me right in the heart that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to do. I guess if I hadn't had these things cut off, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. But anyway, something has to kind of hit me over the head before I (laughter) figure it out. And - but the reason I started playing guitar, I guess it was the hardest thing for me to do. Two - and my arm was in bad shape. They had to put electrodes on it to make it start moving again. It had swelled up. I almost lost it. And playing the guitar helps it, you know?

GROSS: So it's your right hand that you sawed off your fingers on?


GROSS: So what do you do? Like...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I fret with my left hand and just whack away at it (laughter) with my right.

GROSS: Do you use a pick?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: No, I don't. I just use my fingers - my thumb and my little finger.

GROSS: So...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I'm not a great guitar player. But I play good enough that I can write songs and play in front of people, so it's no big deal.

GROSS: So once you decided that you weren't doing what you were supposed to be doing - what you should be doing is playing music and writing songs - what did you do to start off on that new life?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I just started doing it. I just started writing songs. And I got me some good songs together. And I went up to Nashville. And then about in '71 or so, Bobby put out a song that I wrote, "Ride Me Down Easy." And it went No. 1 country. And then Waylon Jennings did a whole album of songs called "Honky Tonk Heroes." And Johnny Rodriguez had a hit on one called "I Couldn't Be Me Without You." And then "Old Chunk Of Coal" John Anderson had a hit with. And Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson - just people just started recording my tunes.

GROSS: Which song did Elvis do?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Elvis did one called "Just Because You Asked Me To." It was a song that Waylon and I wrote together.

GROSS: Can you sing a couple of bars from it?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) Long ago and far away, in my old common labor shoes, I turned the world all which-a-ways just because you asked me to. Anyway - but the chorus is, (singing) let the world call me a fool, but things are right with me and you. That's all that matters. And I'll do anything you ask me to.

GROSS: I want to play something else from your new album "Tramp On Your Street." I want to play the song "If I Give My Soul," which I think might be my favorite on the record. And this is a song wondering if you gave your soul to Jesus, would your life change and would your family love you more. Let me play the song. And then I'll ask you about writing it.



BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) I had a woman once - she was kind, and she was gentle, had a child by me, who grew up to be a man. I had a steady job until I started into drinking, and I started making music that went with the devil's band. Oh, the years flew by like a mighty rush of eagles. My dreams and plans were all scattered in the wind. It's a lonesome life when you lose the ones you live for. If I make my peace with Jesus, will they take me back again? If I give my soul - if I give my soul - will He clean these clothes I'm wearing? If I give my soul - if I give my soul - will He put new boots on my feet? If I bow my head and beg God for His forgiveness, will He breathe new breath inside me and give back my dignity? If I give my soul...

GROSS: It's Billy Joe Shaver from his new album "Tramp On Your Street." And he wrote that song, it's called "If I Give My Soul." The son that you're singing about who you left, in that song - is that your son, Eddy, who plays guitar with you now?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes, that's my only child. Yeah. And he lost a lot of respect for me because of the things that I was doing in this business, and - I won't say this business, I mean, it's just the things that I got caught up in like a lot of other people, but...

GROSS: What kinds of things?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Well, you know, alcohol, drugs, running around just - I was the - I was, I guess, the king of sinners, far as I was concerned, but I got myself straightened out. And it was with the Lord Jesus Christ is how I got myself straightened out, and I don't know how other people do it. To each his own, but that's how I done it.

GROSS: So you did give your soul.


GROSS: What was the turning point for you of deciding to change?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, what really happened was - it happened when I wrote the song "Old Chunk Of Coal." I actually had a vision of Jesus sitting on the end of my bed shaking his head. And I went out to a place out at the narrows of the Harpeth River that's a cliff up on top. And there's, like, altars that are - the wind, rain or something hewn them out up there. There's one big one, and it's right on the edge of the cliff.

And for some reason or another, it just - I drove out there in the middle of the night and went up that path, which is pretty treacherous anyway, and I got up there and decided that I was either going to end it or whatever was going to happen with me. And I found myself on my knees right there at the edge of that cliff with - and my head down in my hands and asking the Lord to forgive me and God to forgive me and for the Lord to help me.

And I hadn't written a song in a long time, and I remember I was having a hard time just putting a sentence together, I was so messed up. But we were making money then, so I was able to keep going, you know, and keep supplying myself with the things that were killing me. But I went ahead and asked God to help me, and a lot of things went on up there. It would be too long to go into, but I came down the trail singing this song "Old Chunk Of Coal," and I - the whole first part of the song, whole first half of the song, by the time I got down to the end of the trail, was written. And then it took me about six more months, and I wrote the other part.

GROSS: Well, you sing "Old Chunk Of Coal" on your new CD, so why don't we hear a little bit of that? And this is Billy Joe Shaver.


BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm going to be a diamond someday. And I'm gonna grow and glow till I'm so blue perfect, going to put a smile on everybody's face. I'm going to kneel and pray every day lest I should become vain along the way. I'm just an old chunk of coal now, Lord, but I'm going to be a diamond someday.

GROSS: So you wrote "Old Chunk Of Coal" after...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: That was back - many years back.

GROSS: Yeah.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: But it took a long time to get back the respect of the people that I love.

GROSS: Did you get back to your family after...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Well, no, really. We were divorced the last time in 1986, and I'm not back with her now. But, you know, everything happens for the best, I think. But my son's with me and playing with me, and he'll stay with me until I get my feet on the ground with this thing. And then I imagine he'll fly away.

GROSS: And then what? Then he'll fly away?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah. He'll fly away and do his own thing.

GROSS: So you think that he's playing with you to help you out through this period?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes. I am. I'm sure of that.

GROSS: Did he know your songs when - even in that period when he was angry with you, and you weren't close, do you think your music still had an impact on him?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I'm probably the one that has more trouble with forgiving myself than other people do, but I finally did.

DAVIES: Billy Joe Shaver speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1994 interview with Billy Joe Shaver. He died Wednesday at the age of 81. She asked him where he grew up.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I was born in Corsicana, Texas, and it's about 53 miles northeast of Waco, Texas. And I lived there until I was 12 years old. My grandmother raised me, and she passed on when I was 12. And I went to Waco, Texas, and lived with my mother. And she had married a Bohemian fellow up there. And I stayed there with them until I went into the Navy. And I went into the Navy when I was 16, so...

GROSS: The song says your mother left when you were born.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah, I know on the one, on "Georgia On A Fast Train" or - no, "Georgia On A Fast Train," it says, my mammy left me the same day that she had me.

GROSS: Yeah. Is it true?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Well, not really. Her and my father - I didn't meet my father until I was nearly grown, but my father beat her up pretty bad and kicked her around and everything, even when I was inside of her, and so she went to get work, actually, is what happened. She had to go to Waco and went to work at a honky-tonk so that she could send money back to my grandmother and raise us.

GROSS: What did she do at the honky-tonk?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: She was a honky-tonk girl. She - just a waitress-type person. Her and this old gal named Blanche (ph), they run that place I refer to as the Green Gables in "Honky Tonk Heroes." Of course, I don't have a cut of that. But that's where that song came from.

GROSS: Did you ever get close to your mother in later life?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes, I did. And as a matter of fact, my mother's name is Victory. That's her real name. And I'm - and I - she and I are just as close as you can get. I love her very much. And she's - she did a lot of sacrificing for me and my sister. I have one sister. And I love my father, also. He's passed away, but I love him, too.

GROSS: So tell me something about your early musical life.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, when I was just a kid, from the time I remember I started talking, I was singing. And we didn't have a radio. My grandmother - I lived with her and - but every once in a while, I'd hear one, you know. And I'd hear somebody singing this and that. And I would just go ahead and sing that part of it and just make the rest of it up myself and pat my foot. No guitar or anything - I just pat my foot and sang. I was just a little kid, and people liked to hear me. And I remember my grandmother - she had credit down at the general store down the road. And, sometimes, her old-age pension check wouldn't come in, and we'd go down there and get an extension on credit. And she would ask the lady if she could get an extension on credit. And the lady knew that I sang. And she said, well, if you stand that boy up on that cracker barrel there and let him sing a tune or two, I'll let you have it, you know? And I thought I was really singing for my supper, so I sang my heart out.

GROSS: What kind of songs would you sing?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I'd sing like some Roy Acuff-type things and "Pins And Needles (In My Heart)" and stuff like that.

GROSS: Now, how much sense do these songs make to a 6-year-old? (Laughter).

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Not very much, but I started writing my own songs.

GROSS: When you were that young?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes, I did. I would write about what was going down with me.

GROSS: Like what?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, I can't remember exactly everything. Most of them was kind of funny.

GROSS: You know what? I wanted to ask you. This gets back to your accident when you sawed off your fingers. Well, do you remember what your very first thought was when you realized you'd sawed your fingers off?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah. I said, oh, my God. How am I going to do what I'm really supposed to do now? And I just kicked myself in the ass, you know, for being so clumsy and cutting my - you know, and causing my fingers to - I just really, really got after myself about it because I knew that - I knew ahead of time what I was supposed to be doing. But I just kept pushing it away.

GROSS: Did you take your fingers with you to the hospital?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes, I did. I scooped them up out of the sawdust there, and I went and got in my pickup. And I drove over to the doctor's office. We had a company doctor. And he was an old Navy doctor. His name was Tab (ph). And that was in Waco. William Cameron was the place where I was working. And I brought them fingers up to him, and he said, hey, boy. He said, you got some trouble there, don't you? And I said, yeah, I sure do. I said, I'd like for you to sew these fingers back on. He said, well, I've never heard of such. He said, you can't sew fingers back on. I said, well, I told him - I said, you know, I'd read this article about these Japanese people sewing fingers and stuff back on. And then, of course, he reminded me we were in Waco, Texas, and...


BILLY JOE SHAVER: ...That wasn't going to work.

GROSS: Did people tell you that it wouldn't be possible for you to play guitar and that it was foolish to even try?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: No. Nobody messed with me on that. I was lucky that I didn't - they were talking about even cutting my arm off. I was lucky that I got to keep my arm.

GROSS: Did you have to try to talk the doctors out of cutting your arm off?


GROSS: How did you...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I told them that that wasn't going to happen.

GROSS: Well, there's a song I want to end with, and it's called "Live Forever." Would you tell us something about the song?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes. My son Eddy gave me this melody, and I carried it around with me for about six months, I guess. And I would listen to it and try to figure out what was going to come in to fill that melody. That was such a wonderful melody. And finally, this came across. The words came into the melody, and then Eddy helped me a little bit with the words again, too. So he and I wrote this together. And it pretty much says how I feel about the whole thing.

GROSS: It's a great song.


GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: Billy Joe Shaver, recorded in 1994. He died Wednesday at the age of 81. After a break, we'll hear Terry's 2005 interview with him. Here's Billy Joe Shaver with his son Eddy in their song "Live Forever." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.



BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) I'm going to live forever. I'm going to cross that river. I'm going to catch tomorrow now. You're going to want to hold me. Just like I always told you, you're going to miss me when I'm gone. Nobody here will ever find me. But I will always be around. Just like the songs I leave behind me, I'm going to live forever now. You fathers and you mothers, be good to one another. Please try to raise your children right.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening back to Terry's interviews with country music's Billy Joe Shaver, who died Wednesday at the age of 81. Shaver's songs were recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. He recorded several albums of his own and for years performed with his son, guitarist Eddy Shaver, who died in 2000 of a drug overdose. Just about a year earlier, Billy Joe Shaver lost his mother and his wife to cancer.

Terry spoke to Shaver in 2005 when he'd published his memoir. They began by listening to his song "Hearts A' Bustin'."


BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) Heart's a' bustin' (ph), grew down by the river that flows by the old paper mill. In the springtime, we stood there together at the top of the Old Stone Fort hill. Many's a' time I been lonesome. Since you left, I don’t know what to do. Like a flower that grows on a hillside, my heart's a' bustin' for you.

GROSS: I'd like you to tell us the story behind the song. I assume you wrote this for your wife who died in 1999 of cancer. Was she alive when you wrote it?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: You know, that's a real old song.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't know that.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: And the strange thing about it is that I wrote it, and I hid it from her because she'd had to be dead, you know? And somehow or another, I knew she was going to die before I did. And I wrote this song about this little lily. I guess it's in the lily family. I don't know much about flowers either. I'm a redneck. And this one, though, is - it looks like a little - it has the petals coming out. And it's a little bugger. And it's just as white as it can be, white as snow. And - but on the inside of it is a petal that looks like a heart. But it's broken. It's broken kind of almost half in two. And it just looks - a blood red. It just looks like it's bleeding, you know? And I don't know the correct name for that flower. But the hillbillies and stuff around there call it a hearts-a-bustin'. And that's where I got the idea for the song.

GROSS: Your wife, to whom - for whom that song was written, died in 1999. I know you'd separated several times over the years.


GROSS: You were married three times.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Married three times, yeah.

GROSS: The last time you were married, she had cancer. She had colon cancer. Did you know that this time it was forever, that that was - that you'd stay together until the end?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah. I knew - I was doing a movie. Oh, I was doing "The Apostle." I met Robert Duvall. And then about 10 years later, he calls - they called up. He didn't call me, but they called me up for a screen test to come down here in Austin - I live in Waco - and come down to Austin, do a little screen test and see if you got what it takes to do this part. So I did. And it wasn't that hard. And I went down to Louisiana - Lafayette, La. Anyway, I called my wife because he put me in a presidential suite, which - actually, I asked the bellhop. I said, man, is this the right place? 'Cause I didn't even set my bags down. It was a huge place. It had big old tables and TVs.

Oh, well, anyway - I called - I didn't have nobody to share it with, so I called Brenda. She was living with some convict then. She thought she was in love, I guess. Maybe she was. And I finally convinced her to drive to Lafayette. And she got in her truck and drove. She had one of them little minivans. And she drove all the way. And when she got there, she was like I'd never seen her before. She was a real blowed up, you know, and real tired. She went directly to bed. And Johnny Cash and them came while we were filming and stuff, and she still didn't get out of bed. She just stayed in that bed for three days.

And I knew something was wrong with her. And when I got done, I just got with her, and I took her right - straight to the doctor. And she had advanced rectal cancer. And then we took her over, and she had surgery and all kinds of things - chemo. She went through all that stuff. I stayed with her. It was almost 3 1/2 years. You know, I got to do a lot of things for her that she didn't, you know - that she had done for me. We bonded so hard on that last trip there that - I don't know. I just fell back in love with her again. It just never had died. And when she passed, it was terrible. I mean, it wasn't terrible. I was happy for her 'cause she was in such pain. But it wasn't long after that, my son passed. But my mother had passed about three months before that. And my step - not my stepmother, but my mother-in-law had passed about three months before that. So there was a lot of dying going on, and it comes in threes like that. And - I don't know. I was real happy for her in a way. And then Eddy, he never got over it.

GROSS: Your son.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah, he just never got over it.

GROSS: Yeah. You've said that your son and your wife were so close in age. She was 17...


GROSS: ...When your son was born.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: She'd just turned 17. Yeah, she was...

GROSS: And you said they were more like friends than parent and son.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: They were. They were so cool, man. They went everywhere. They just had so much fun. And his - all his wives were jealous of her, you know, I mean, 'cause they just had so much fun together. They'd just run, did everything. And he was a - he was a great guy. And she was a great girl.

GROSS: Your wife died in 1999 and your son at the end of the following year. What was the next year like for you, having lost both of them and your mother as well?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Well, it was very lonesome, but I had my dogs that she left me. She left me two pitbulls (laughter). And one of them was older. And the one that's with me now, she finally passed away. But if I hadn't had them dogs, I don't know what I'd have done 'cause they kept me going 'cause I had to feed them and get out and go. And Willie Nelson - I got to give him credit. He's the one that talked me back out into the world. He said, come on, Billy. He said, you're supposed to play tonight. It's New Year's night. Willie said, I'll throw something together. And Willie sat up there and played all night long. And I'd go up and sing every once in a while. I owe Willie a lot. He's been such a good friend.

GROSS: When you say this was New Year's Eve, was it actually the night that your son died or a year after that?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah, he died - he died that night, New Year's Eve. He died on New Year's Eve.

GROSS: And so that night you performed with Willie Nelson, he convinced you to perform.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah. He said get back on the horse. And I'm a cowboy, so I did.

GROSS: And...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: And then I just went on and worked from then on. I just kept on doing work. And we had lots and lots of work, so we just - I just kept on working.

DAVIES: Billy Joe Shaver speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 2005 interview with Billy Joe Shaver. He died Wednesday at the age of 81.


GROSS: You actually had a heart attack onstage in August of 2001.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: And then you had a quadruple bypass. I was thinking about what it must be like to have a heart attack onstage in front of an audience, how bizarre and kind of creepy. Do you have memories of that?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Well, yeah. It was like an elephant on my chest. But I was at the Gruene Hall. And, you know, I really wanted to die. I don't know. A lot of people say, no, you don't really. But you do, when things like that happen to you. And I was so thankful. I said, God, thank you so much for letting me die in the oldest honky-tonk in Texas. But I had these doggone nitro because I couldn't hardly sing without it. I had chunked these nitros. But I'd washed them the night before in my pants, and they were real crumbly, you know? And I would hit them as my - you know, I'd hit them pretty regularly. As a matter of fact, I put in a - stuck a whole bottle. And I was able to sing. I just kept singing.

And Jesse Taylor, when he was young, had a - he was in a car accident, and he lost hearing in one of his ears. And it happened to be the ear that was next to me (laughter). And I kept telling him just one more. And he thought I meant - you know, I said, this is my last one. And he thought I meant one more. And he just kept playing. And the audience was so around us, they were just like - it was like hot there because they don't have any air conditioning, hardwood floors. They'd just open these flaps, you know? And it's still like it always was - but just kept on playing, kept on playing. And meanwhile, I'm just dying, and I'm taking this nitro. And then afterwards, I had to sign all these things. And I'm still trying to die, you know? Doggone, I didn't die. I was real upset about that because that was the oldest honky-tonk in Texas, and I thought it would be great to die there.

And then the next night, I had to go to Pflugerville, of all places. You can't even pronounce it much less spell it at Hanovers and play there. And I got me another motel room. I laid down, and I - oh, still going through this thing, you know? And it'd come in waves then. It'd kind of give me a little relief every once in a while. And then I decide, well, I'll go play this, and I'll die here. It's awful to die in Pflugerville, but, oh well.

And my - the lady that runs my business - T-shirts and stuff - Diane Chang (ph), she came by. She said, Billy, you're going to the hospital. And I said, no, I ain't. And she finally talked me into it, and we drove all the way back to Waco. And they took me in there and checked me out. Sure enough, I had 10% blood flow. I'd blowed all my arteries out. They went and put stents in that one so I could get some some blood.

But I was supposed to go on this tour with Kinky over to Australia - Kinky Friedman, my friend. And it was a three-week tour. And I called him. I said, Kink, I got a - I had a heart attack. And I'm - you know, I got to get this bypass. And he said, hey, people have heart attacks every day. He said, you're going to ruin my career (laughter). And I said, what? He said, yeah, you got to go with me. And so he talked me into going to Australia for three weeks of teetotal hell. I just wanted to kill him. And finally I got back, and the doctors were mad, oh. And they did a four-way bypass on me. I got five. I'm running on five, really. So...

GROSS: So you ended up having bypass and...

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes, I did, after I come back from an Australian trip.

GROSS: Are you glad that you survived? It sounded like you almost wanted to die.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: I did. I kept wanting to die. I kept wanting to die, you know, 'cause it just didn't look like there's much for me. But then I realized there's lots and lots of people cared about me. And cared about what I was doing - and they started listening to the songs a little more now, you know? Deaths seem like they bring that around or something.

GROSS: Do you feel like your songwriting has changed in the past few years after all the losses you've experienced and the health crisis of your own? Is - has that had an impact on your songwriting?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: You know, I haven't noticed it if it has. I just still - I just, oh, I just hurt so hard to do quality work. And that's what I've stayed with. And I believe that's why the cream finally comes to the top. Not to - I'd just be beyond me to be humble. I'd have to be acting humble if I were to be humble. I'm just - I'm humble in a way, but I'm thankful more than anything that somebody finally started listening.

GROSS: I guess that's in your memoir that you wrote that Johnny Cash, who has been - who was a longtime friend of yours, said that when he was in rehab, he used to...


GROSS: Every morning he'd sing to himself your song, "Old Chunk Of Coal," which is a song about somebody who feels like an old chunk of coal but hopes to become a diamond one day. And I thought, there is no higher compliment a songwriter...


GROSS: ...Can have than that a song meant so much that, like, Johnny Cash would have sung it to himself...


GROSS: ...To give himself strength every morning.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, I - yeah. You know, I had to hang up. I hung up when I started crying. You know, I'll still cry from time to time. Don't - not in front of anybody, but I started crying. It just was the greatest compliment. And I just still love him so much.

GROSS: You say in your memoir that you read the Bible every day.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah, I do. I try to. Down here lately, I haven't. Actually, I missed it a day or two.

GROSS: So do you think your songs have been influenced by reading the Bible?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Oh, yeah. Sure. Yeah.


BILLY JOE SHAVER: Jesus Christ is a - he's the one who made us all No. 2. And I always say, if you don't love Jesus, go to hell. But may the God of your choice bless you also.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's very charitable.

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yeah, I'm a giving man.


GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver, would you like to play a song for us to close?

BILLY JOE SHAVER: Yes, I would. I'd like to do "Try And Try Again" - saved my life.

(Singing) I went up on the mountain, and I looked down on my life. I had squandered all my money, lost my son and wife. And my heart was filled with sorrow, and I almost took my life. But I found the strength inside me to give life one more try. And if at first you don't succeed, just try and try again. And if at first you don't succeed, well, try and try again. And if all you do is lose, you'd better find a way to win. If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.

(Singing) Well, I know someday the world will learn to sing a better song. The lame will walk. The mute will talk. We all will sing along. The fighting will be ended, and all hunger will be gone. It's everybody's business till we get the good work done. And if at first you don't succeed, just try and try again. And if at first you don't succeed, well, try and try again. And if all you do is lose, you better find a way to win. If at first you don't succeed, well, try and try again. And if at first you don't succeed, just try and try and try again. If at first you don't succeed, try and try again. And if all you do is lose, you'd better find a way to win. If at first you don't succeed, well, try and try again.

I know someday - I say, I know someday the deaf man's going to hear the blind man's song. And someday, the whole world going to grow new eyes to see and new ear's to here. We're all going to sing along. And our point of view is going to grow into a pure and perfect one. And the voice of truth inside us all is going to help us sing that song. If at first you don't succeed, brother or sister, try and try and try again. Amen and amen. You got to keep trying, folks. Just keep trying. Sometimes, if you just keep trying, you can get it done. But you got to keep trying. Try and try again. Amen and amen.

GROSS: Billy Joe Shaver, thank you so much.


DAVIES: Billy Joe Shaver speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2005. He died Wednesday at the age of 81.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the latest documentary by Frederick Wiseman. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.