"Hell, I warned you/I said, boy, leave me alone and now I'm asking/Where do you want it?"
— "Where Do You Want It" by Dale Watson
"I'm a wacko from Waco, ain't no doubt about it/Shot a man there in the head but can't talk too much about it."
— "Wacko from Waco" by Billy Joe Shaver
Writing songs has always come naturally for outlaw-country poet and singer Billy Joe Shaver. The hell-raising author of honky-tonk standards such as "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal" and "Georgia on a Fast Train" says that he's never once experienced the phenomenon known as writer's block.
"I just write about myself and the things I've done," Shaver says. "So there's no end to the stuff I can write about."
That's no overstatement. Shaver's biography is a story that covers everything from losing fingers to cotton picking to gunfights, addiction, suicide attempts, and, ultimately, divine intervention. It reads like a tall tale or the kind of screenplay the Coen brothers might write should they ever turn their attention to the rich musical culture of the Lone Star state. Shaver is a writer's writer whose songs have been recorded by such notable songsmiths as Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, to name but a few of Shaver's famous admirers. He's also been written about a time or two, showing up as a character in songs by Bob Dylan and by Shaver's fellow Texan, Dale Watson.
Watson, who is currently busy trying to rebrand traditional honky-tonk music as "Ameripolitan" in order to distinguish it from Nashville country, says he's especially moved by Shaver's phrasing and the attention his old friend devotes to the little details that make a song come alive.
"I believe Billy really is the hillbilly Shakespeare — or the cowboy Shakespeare — and I believe he probably writes songs in his sleep," says Watson, whose own songs often have a Shaver-esque quality. "And I'll tell you what else," he adds, demonstrating a natural proclivity for legend making. "If a woman ever wanted to make some real money, she'd sleep with Billy Joe Shaver and write down everything he says in his sleep."
Shaver and Watson are both coming to Memphis this month, playing back-to-back shows at the Hi-Tone and Blues City Café on September 18th and 19th, respectively. This convergence seemed as good an excuse as any to get two old friends talking about a pair of songs that they wrote about the same 2007 shooting that occurred at a joint called Papa Joe's.
Watson's song "Where Do You Want It" is a lighthearted interpretation of the event as described by the Texas media. Shaver's "Wacko from Waco" is a slightly unhinged, boots-on-the-ground accounting from the triggerman himself. Both songs are written in the hard-corn dance-floor style popularized by Waylon Jennings in the '70s, back when Jennings was recording whole albums of Shaver material.
The story as we know it: On April 2, 2007, the police in Lorena, Texas, issued an arrest warrant for Shaver, who had gotten into an altercation with bar patron Billy Bryant Coker. Shaver subsequently shot Coker in the face with a handgun.
"This was big news in Texas," Watson says. "It was in the newspapers and on TV for two or three days."
Watson got the idea for "Where Do You Want It" while he was playing a regular happy-hour gig at a place called Ginny's Longhorn Saloon, where, in addition to all the picking and grinning, he serves as the master of ceremonies for Chicken Shit Bingo, a game that involves a live chicken, some feed, and an enormous poop-stained bingo card.
"This DJ friend of mine said, 'You know, you should write a song about Billy,'" Watson explains. The title came immediately, inspired by a quote ascribed to Shaver by witnesses who claimed to have heard Shaver giving Coker an option to choose where he wanted to take the bullet.
"I started writing it onstage right there, and I thought, hey, this sounds pretty good," Watson says. But before proceeding any further with the song, he decided to call and ask for his friend's permission to continue.
"I told him I didn't say that," Shaver insists, laughing over Watson's timing. "You call me up before I've even turned myself in, and you've already written a song?"
"The prosecution used that line against me all the way," says Shaver, who claimed self-defense and was eventually acquitted. "I wrote 'Wacko from Waco' to set the record straight."
Even though Shaver knew the line attributed to him was going to make his case more difficult, he also knows that a writer has to sing his song. He gave Watson permission to perform the song but with one condition. "Tell them I never said that," Shaver requested. And to this day, in spite of the acquittal, Watson honors his friend's wish in the form of a comic monologue that never seems to come out exactly the same way twice.
In addition to nonstop touring, Watson is hard at work planning the first Ameripolitan awards showcase, which is scheduled for February 2014, with performances by acts like the Derailers and Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys. Shaver is finishing an album and on the verge of releasing a new single titled "It's Hard To Be an Outlaw That Isn't Wanted Anymore."
Billy Joe Shaver
Wednesday, September 18th
Blues City Café
Thursday, September 19th