On October 23, the country music community said goodbye to legendary Texan and “Mr. Bojangles” writer, Jerry Jeff Walker. Then, less than one week later on October 28, the community said goodbye to legendary Nashvillian and outlaw icon, Billy Joe Shaver. Last week, Americana songwriter Todd Snider hopped on the phone with American Songwriter to pay tribute to the legacies that Walker and Shaver left behind. A protege of both men — and a torch-bearer of the scenes they forged — Snider offered a unique insight into the lasting magic of their songcraft. Read what he had to say below:
BY TODD SNIDER
The first thing Jerry Jeff Walker did for me was romanticize the life I was already living. When he started out, his first act was being a folk singer. In the mid-’80s he started doing solo shows again — that’s when I came in, I saw those solo shows.
I really identified with the “gypsy” part of it all — more so than the “cowboy” part. He helped me see that I wasn’t broke, I was free. I was three chords away from having the world at my fingertips. Before, I was a hitchhiker and someone who was always looking for a sofa to sleep on — three chords could make the difference. To this day, if I feel like going on a boat, all I have to do is go down to the marinna and play some Jimmy Buffett songs — that’ll get me on any boat I want.
I learned from Jerry Jeff that music is a way to travel. If you look to it for more than that, you’re just gonna get disappointed. He ignited this thing in me that made me want to see the world. I started to study him. I learned a lot about his character. Outside of being just a songwriter, he had a magic to him. When he went to Austin in 1972, he was already, like, five records into his career. He invented the “Jerry Jeff Walker” identity and decided that he was from Texas. He inspired Willie Nelson to go there and grow his hair out. He also inspired Jimmy Buffett to go down to Key West, he told him where to go. He had this ability to be alive — it transcended music. It turned him into a leader.
The whole “outlaw” movement really followed him. His ‘72 record — which isn’t even in print — pre-dates Willie’s Shotgun Willie and Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes. What makes that significant is that Willie and Waylon used their own bands… on Jerry Jeff’s ‘72 record, he used his own band. Willie took notice of that, like, “How did you do that? How did you get your label to allow that?” He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that first record — the one with “L.A. Freeway” on it — but that was the beginning of the Texas movement that would later become Willie’s.
Around that same time, the ‘60s were finally making their way into Nashville when Billy Joe Shaver came down here from Waco. I’ve seen folks like Willie and Waylon describe the outlaw movement as “when a bunch of people got promoted as the person Billy Joe Shaver actually was.” Because he really was that, you couldn’t promote it. He was too real to be promoted.
In 1993 when I was making my first record, I called Billy’s publishing company and asked for all of his songs that hadn’t been recorded. They sent them over to me and later that day I got a call from Billy’s son, Eddy, who wanted to know who I was and what I was doing. I went over to their house — that would’ve been in 1992 or 1993 — and Eddy and I got really close really fast.
When we started tracking that record, Eddy played on it and Billy was there with me everyday. He came to every session. He’d sit there with me — he had already made records and he could tell that I was nervous about it all. I had just lost my dad and he became a father-figure for me during that time. So, I sorta fell in with the Shavers there for a minute. Billy had another kid named Keith Christopher who he sorta of adopted — even more so than me. Keith, Eddy and I were close.
The three of us caused a lot of trouble for Billy, but we didn’t mean to. We were always out, taking drugs and all of that. He’d done it too, but he didn’t want us to do it… it does seem that each generation goes too far. We lost Eddy, which was… well, it didn’t feel real at all until Eddy fell. Ever since then, it’s something that I don’t think is so funny. We were just looking for laughs. Life on the road gets really long, your bones start to hurt when you’re young. You get pain meds, people give you drugs. Billy would get angry at us and we should’ve listened to him.
But, you know, that was just a small part of it. Billy was incredibly encouraging about my songs and gave me lots of songwriting lessons. We wrote two songs together — really, I just wrote down the words that he said and later he said that I wrote it with him. That generation of songwriters… it was kinda like the mafia. Those guys really stuck together and they stuck by us too. I’m going to miss them.
When I found out that Jerry Jeff passed, I was in shock. I knew that he was sick… but, a lot of times when someone’s sick they tell you that they’re fine. So, I had been talking to him a lot. Then, I woke up and saw that he had passed. I didn’t have any heads-up, really. I just went into shock.
Then, a few days later I woke up and saw the headline “Billy Joe Shaver Died” and my first thought was “It’s Jerry Jeff Walker you fucking jerks.” I was so mad that they had gotten Jerry Jeff’s name mixed up with Billy Joe. Then, I went “Oh…” At first, I didn’t want to read closer. Then I read closer.
For me, it started with Jeff Austin. Then Neal Casal. Then my dog. Then John Prine. Then Jerry Jeff. Then Billy Joe. There’s been like six deaths… it’s an emotionally crippling year. I’m lucky that I’m not on the road. I think our whole community is shaken. It’s not like sports where there’s better and worse — Billy and Jerry Jeff were both singers’ singers. Billy was one of the most-loved singers in Nashville, Jerry Jeff was one of the most-loved singers in Austin. A lot of that was because those guys did what they wanted to. They didn’t do it for any prize or anything, they were just in it for it.
They had that approach to songwriting that Woody Guthrie laid out — it’s a 24/7, 365 thing. It doesn’t stop. Those two guys approached it that way. Both of them always said “It’s not a craft, it’s an art. It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Poetry isn’t really what we’re looking for.” That’s a hard one for people to digest, but almost all of my favorite writers have set out, in one form or another, just to tell the truth. I never had very much commercial pressure on my work — I felt protected from it by those guys.
Both Jerry Jeff and Billy Joe had the same reckless courage. They both broke bones in their faces knocking down the doors for the folks who came behind them. The thing that they brought with them was a freedom of spirit. If you ask Kristofferson and all of those guys — hell, if you ask anyone — they’ll all tell you: Jerry Jeff and Billy Joe were one of a kind. Each one.
According to Snider, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver only collaborated once when Walker covered Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers (Like Me).” Listen to it below: