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Playback: Long in the Tooth

Songwriting 101 from Billy Joe Shaver

By Kevin Curtin, Fri., Aug. 1, 2014

Billy Joe Shaver baptized in Barton Springs, 2012
Billy Joe Shaver baptized in Barton Springs, 2012
Photo by Sandy Carson

When it comes to writing a real-deal country song, few roll up the ol' denim sleeves and crank out gold like Billy Joe Shaver, the poet laureate of the outlaw ilk whose work has been recorded by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. Long in the Tooth, his first studio effort in six years, finds Shaver as funny, defiant, and wise as ever.

Austin Chronicle: What makes a great song. Is there a magic ingredient?

Billy Joe Shaver: It's truth and saying it in as few words as you possibly can to the point where an idiot like me can understand it. You've gotta start at the bottom. When I have trouble with a song, I'll lay it out on the table and visualize it as a letter to someone I care about. Then I'll realize what I want to say.

AC: What's the best song there's ever been?

BJS: That'd be "Amazing Grace," I don't think there's any doubt about it, but coming up in second would be "Crazy" by Willie Nelson.

AC: Did it bother you that two songs you wrote for your new album came out on Willie's new album first?

BJS: Man, shit, that don't bother me none! I can always write another song. I've never had that ... what do you call it? "Writer's block" or whatever. I texted Willie that line, "It's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore," and he said, "Write that." I wrote that thing so dang fast it'd make your head spin because I was scared he'd write it first.

AC: Did you write better on speed or on God?

BJS: The speed just helped me stay up so I could have more fun, but I figure it knocked a whole bunch of years off my writing and my friendships. I don't think God helps anybody write songs, except maybe "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal." I wrote that right when I was born again and it just came down through me.

AC: In "Long in the Tooth," you sing, "I live up to all those stories been told." Do you feel like you have a reputation to uphold?

BJS: Half the stories are a blown-up bunch of bullshit. One time these two guys tried to roll me in the alley behind the old Ryman in Nashville and I whooped 'em and left 'em lying there. By the time I'd walked to the other end of town, people were already saying I'd beat up five guys, fucked 'em up so bad, kicked a hole in their damn car – all kinda crazy shit! The more I tried to deny it, the worse it got.

And there's a guy in Nashville that goes around tellin' people he's me! That don't help me none either. Making out with girls and writing hot checks. Lot of people call me up and say, "Hey man, you're really cookin' tonight!" I always tell 'em, "Look at his hand and see if he's got anything missing." If he went and chopped his fingers off to be like me, he's a pretty dedicated motherfucker!

Billy Joe Shaver performs at Waterloo Records Tuesday at 5pm, free.

Last Call at the Triple Crown

Scott H. Biram at the Triple Crown in the Nineties
Scott H. Biram at the Triple Crown in the Nineties

Ask Scott H. Biram what venue he considers his home and he'll direct you to a small, smoky San Marcos dive bar with music every night. He played the Triple Crown three times the week it opened in November 1996. First to an empty room as he tested out the stage, then with his punk band the Thangs, and finally making his solo debut as "Lonesome Scott Biram."

"The Triple Crown is where I lost my nervousness about performing because I did it so often," says Austin's country/metal/blues one-man band. "Later it became my guinea pig place, where I could try new things and play extra-long sets."

Biram's Saturday night performance will be his last stand at the original Triple Crown location.

"It's likely we'll sell our property at the end of the year and relocate to a bigger, better spot in 2015," acknowledged Triple Crown partner and booker Eric Shaw. "We don't have a new location in mind, but we're looking for something that's walking or biking distance from Downtown."

The relocation process will likely end Triple Crown's epic streak of hosting live music every night since 1997. During that time they've provided a reliable nearby market for Austin acts like Dale Watson, Grupo Fantasma, Honky, and, more recently, bands like Mr. Lewis & the Funeral 5 and Otis the Destroyer.

For Troy Wayne Delco of Triple Crown favorites the Beaumonts, it's all about the clientele.

"It's always full of intoxicated women, some of them don't have kids, and it's the first place I ever saw a one-legged man get in a fight with a woman in a wheelchair," he confirmed.

Weekender

"Playback" highlights from last weekend:

THURSDAY: "Am I completely surrounded by balloons right now or is Austin being kind of lazy?" So inquired slide guitar jester Bob Log III one minute after tossing a bag of un-inflated balloons into the audience inside Mohawk. The one-man band's inability to see through his helmet's visor added an element of danger to his antics, which included surfing the crowd in a rubber raft.

FRIDAY: A leaner version of OBN III's debuted at Beerland with caustic frontman Orville Neely handling guitar duties. Performing a set of unreleased material before blasting into "No Time for the Blues," "Rockin Spins," and "Worries" off recent LP Third Time to Harm, the band sounded bigger, better, tighter, though the element of mayhem was all but muted.

SATURDAY: Before a loincloth-clad free jazz trio took the stage at the Lost Well, the bar was nearly leveled by the Sunn amp assault of Bridge Farmers, whose heavy-lidded sludge heaviosity veers psychedelic with Tyler Hautala's ethereal guitar leads and echo chamber screaming.

SUNDAY: A solo career was imminent for Sons of Fathers expat Paul Cauthen, but whether it would live up to the standard of his collaboration with David Beck was less certain. Cauthen impressed at the Saxon Pub on Sunday with radio-quality pop hooks such as earworm "Marfa Lights" and the eyebrow-raising "Womanizer," but it was his young, indie-rock-leaning backing band, led by inventive guitarist Wes Maxwell, that prompted midsong applause.

Half Notes

Future Folk, the bizarre musical comedy duo of Nils d'Aulaire (General Trius) and Jay Klaitz (The Mighty Kevin) that performs intergalactic roots music while dressed in alien military uniforms, hits the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz next Thursday for a performance and screening of The History of Future Folk. The flick follows Hondonian hero General Trius, who's sent to Earth to eradicate civilization, but instead discovers music and starts a bluegrass group. Aug. 7, 7pm. Free with RSVP at www.do512.com.

White Denim pops its Austin City Limits cherry on Monday with a taping at the Moody Theater. The increasingly proggy guitar rock quartet arrives as the first local act to tape a solo performance for the national PBS show's 40th season. "I love their recent record [Corsicana Lemonade], and all signs just point to now being the right time," said ACL Executive Producer Terry Lickona. Today, Thursday, at noon is the deadline to enter the ticket giveaway at www.acltv.com.

Midnight Masses, featuring ... Trail of Dead's Autry Fulbright and Jason Reece, has released its debut full-length, Departures. "The general theme is loss, whether it be life, relationships, or a former sense of one's self," outlined Fulbright, who founded the gothic pop/rock project in 2008 in the wake of his father's sudden passing. The group's original producer, TV on the Radio's Gerard Smith, also passed in 2011. Midnight Masses survives for a national headlining tour kicking off next Thursday at Holy Mountain.

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