Billy Joe Shaver publicity shoot at Wise Fool's Pub, Chicago, Illinois, March 23, 1980.
Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images

Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle Talk Billy Joe Shaver's Influence and New 'Live Forever' Tribute Album

A larger than life king of outlaws, Billy Joe Shaver once said "when you write songs, and you write good songs, people will always remember you. Words will always outlive us. And if your name is attached to those words, you're gonna live forever."

Following his death in 2020 at 81 years old, a slew of all-star artists have joined forces to do just that with Live Forever: A Tribute To Billy Joe Shaver out Nov. 11 via. New West Records and Pedernales Records. Those featured on the album include Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert, George Strait, Allison Russell, Margo Price, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle, the last two of whom spoke with Wide Open Country about Shaver's influence on both them and country music as a whole.

In Crowell's case, he recalls first being introduced to the original honky tonk hero's music with his debut 1973 album Old Five And Dimers Like Me, quickly falling in love with songs like "Georgia On A Fast Train and "Five And Dimers" — which he covers on Live Forever — in a way only a few other projects were able to match.

"Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues,' Patty Griffin's 'Let It Fly' and Willie Nelson's 'Bloody Mary Morning' are the only other songs that came close," Crowell tells Wide Open Country. "I could listen to all of them on repeat over and over again. Once I discovered Billy's songwriting I was hooked for good."

Having been obsessed with "Five And Dimers" back when it first came out, Crowell quickly reached out to Live Forever co-producer Charlie Sexton to call "dibs" on the song for the tribute. In addition to being a longtime favorite song of his, Crowell said he also has regularly used the song to warm up and sound check prior to his own gigs for years. Much like its predecessor, Crowell's interpretation of the song follows through with a similar low-down ballad feel, a realm that the artist has always excelled in even with his own music.

Similar to Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, Crowell says that he'll forever remember Shaver as one of the best modern poets around due how equally primitive and elegant his sense of language was. To make his case he pointed to "Five And Dimers" with lines like 'I've spent a lifetime making up my mind to be / More than the measure of what I thought others could see' and 'Fenced yards ain't whole cards and like as not never will be' that illustrate Shaver's knack for raw and honest songwriting that have captivated listeners far and wide for over a half century.

According to Crowell, the opportunity to cover and record one of Shaver's tunes has been a long time coming.

"Billy Joe and I had a running joke where he'd say that since he recorded my song 'I'm Going Crazy In ¾ Time' that I had to record one of his songs," says Crowell. "After recording 'Fiver and Dimers' I closed my eyes, laughed and said 'Billy, I finally did it.'"

Another Texas music legend honoring Shaver on Live Forever is Steve Earle, who contributed a cover of "Ain't No God In Mexico" that he originally recorded as a bonus track for his album So You Wannabe An Outlaw in 2017. According to Earle, the song is one that he often sound checks his electric guitar with at shows and occasionally includes in encores, adding that the last time he performed it live was in the summer of 2021 in Waco, Texas, Shaver's hometown.

"[Billy] was part of the first wave of folks that people call outlaws, but it was really just a raising of the bar of the songwriting in Nashville," says Earle. "I first met him in 1974 and credit him just as much as Guy [Clark] and Townes [Van Zandt] for helping make me into the man and artist that I am. It's safe to say that I wouldn't be the same person had I not come across his music."

A fan from the very beginning, Earle remembers attending both the Dripping Springs Reunion in Austin that helped to jumpstart Shaver's career in 1972 and the Willie Nelson's first Fourth of July picnic the following summer. It was also at the picnic in 2019 where he saw and talked to Shaver for the last time in what was a true full circle moment for Earle.

"I knew Billy pretty intimately, but it was always a mystery where his literary sense came from before it dawned on me that it was the Bible," says Earle. "The people that wrote the Bible were poets, and that's what he patterned his songs after. If you go back and listen, even on his more clever lines he slips into a language that he didn't speak in, often combining colloquialism with it that was more like the way he talked. He was very smart and superstitious. His music was a perfect vessel for both."

Aside from "Ain't No God In Mexico" and other "obvious" choices, Earle described 1976's "Woman Is the Wonder of the World" as one of his favorite Shaver songs due to how much of a mystery women were to him. He also mentioned "Black Rose," "Manual Labor" and "Live Forever" as standouts, noting that some of his favorite Shaver lyrics come on the song that is the namesake for this tribute record when he sings:

"You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don't let the darkness take 'em
Don't make 'em feel forsaken
Just lead them safely to the light."

"Billy Joe Shaver songs are like Beatles or Bob Dylan songs to me," says Earle. "I've got a different song almost every time I'm asked about it. As a writer I admire every second of songs like 'I'm Just An Old Chunk Of Coal' because the lyrics are so straightforward and leave no loose ends. It's not him singing them to bend words, they're just perfectly written."

From the praise bestowed by Crowell and Earle to Johnny Cash once calling Shaver "my favorite songwriter," Willie Nelson claiming "Billy Joe is definitely the best writer in Texas" and the countless others who have covered his songs and sent well wishes, it's evident that the artist now gone from this world will have a legacy living on for generations to come. His songs and straight-shooting style helped to welcome in a new era of country music that to this day continues to be revered as the genre's golden age by many, further cementing his trailblazing reputation as a honky tonk hero.

"If you knew Billy, you knew his faith was real," says Freddy Fletcher, nephew to Willie Nelson and co-producer of the record. "He was the traveling preacher that would kick your ass as he wrote 'If you don't love Jesus go to hell.' I know he would be touched by all the incredible people who made this record possible. Just like the songs he left behind, he's gonna live forever now."

Live Forever: A Tribute To Billy Joe Shaver Track Listing: 

  1. Willie Nelson (w/ Lucinda Williams) - Live Forever
  2. Ryan Bingham (w/ Nikki Lane) - Ride Me Down Easy
  3. Rodney Crowell - Old Five And Dimers Like Me
  4. Miranda Lambert - I'm Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be A Diamond Someday)
  5. Edie Brickell - I Couldn't Be Me Without You
  6. Nathaniel Rateliff - You Asked Me To
  7. George Strait - Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me
  8. Amanda Shires - Honky Tonk Heroes
  9. Steve Earle - Ain't No God In Mexico
  10. Margo Price - Ragged Old Truck
  11. Willie Nelson - Georgia On A Fast Train
  12. Allison Russell - Tramp On Your Street

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