If you’re a fan of Outlaw country music and Waylon Jennings, then you probably know the story of his landmark 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes forwards and backwards. Featuring all Billy Joe Shaver songs except for one, it is one of the defining albums of the Outlaw era, it put Billy Joe Shaver on the map, it’s wildly influential even still today, and is arguably one of the most important country albums of all time.
But not taking for granted that some don’t know the story, here’s a quick refresher: Billy Joe Shaver was at Willie Nelson’s Dripping Springs Reunion just outside of Austin in 1972—aka the Hillbilly Woodstock as it came to be known. While backstage hanging out, Shaver plays “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and Waylon Jennings gets a whiff of it. Waylon was so impressed, he invites Billy Joe to Nashville to write songs together. Whether Waylon was serious, or whether it was one of those “Hey, stop by if you’re ever in town” sort of things that you never expect folks to take you up on, Billy Joe Shaver took Waylon seriously, and took off to Nashville.
Waylon Jennings spent the next six months dodging ol’ Billy Joe Shaver, until Billy Joe got so hell bent on showing Waylon his songs, he accosted him in the hallway of the studio, telling Waylon that if he didn’t listen to his songs, he’d kick his ass right there in front of God and everybody. Waylon tried to give him $100 to go away, but Shaver persisted. Finally after Shaver broke him down, Waylon listened, and decided to cut an entire album of Billy Joe Shaver songs.
But this wasn’t the end of the drama. Waylon Jennings had just won creative control from RCA Records after years of being under the oppressive thumb of producer Chet Atkins. Now that Waylon could do whatever he wanted—which at this point was cut an album of Billy Joe Shaver songs—he though he was free from people telling him what to do. But Billy Joe Shaver had other ideas.
50 years ago today, February 21st, 1973, Waylon Jennings was in the studio recording the title track to Honky Tonk Heroes. Billy Joe Shaver was in the studio too, and he was not happy with what Waylon was doing with his song at all. If you know the song “Honky Tonk Heroes,” it takes a very unconventional approach to the rhythm for a country song. This was all part of what Waylon’s drummer and right-hand man Richie Albright trying to separate Waylon from the herd.
Richie notoriously told Waylon at one point, “There’s another way of doing things, and that’s rock ‘n roll.” The song “Honky Tonk Heroes” starts off rather traditionally for a country song. But then about 90 seconds in, it launches into a more aggressive and electric rock-style sound. Then at the end, the song drops down into a half time beat. That half time beat at the end of “Honky Tonk Heroes” was perhaps one of the most landmark and influential portions of the whole album.
But Billy Joe Shaver was having none of it. He didn’t want Waylon getting fancy with his songs. “We were doing the album and Billy Joe was around, and we began ‘Honky Tonk Heroes,’ so we cut the first part of the song and we stopped, and Waylon said, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it,’” Richie Albright recalls. “And Billy Joe had been sitting in the back and he come walking up, saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re fucking up my song. That ain’t the way it goes.’ Pretty soon Waylon and Billy Joe are just hollering at one another.”
Here was Billy Joe Shaver having a major country artist record an entire album of his songs, and he’s running the risk of blowing it by getting on the bad side of Waylon. “Billy Joe didn’t understand the way we were putting it together…” explains Richie Albright.
“His songs were of a piece, and the only way you could ever understand Billy Joe was to hear his whole body of work,” Waylon Jennings said in his autobiography. “That was how the concept of ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ came about. Billy Joe talked the way a modern cowboy would speak, if he stepped out of the West and lived today. He had a command of the Texas lingo, his world as down to earth and real as the day was long, and he wore his lone Star birthright like a badge.”
Later as the session went on, Billy Joe Shaver eventually saw the grander vision they had in mind. “When we put it together, [Shaver] said, ‘Yeah. That’s good. That’s the way it goes,” Richie Albright recalls.
The story of both the song “Honky Tonk Heroes” and the album illustrates how sometimes through conflict can come great creativity. If Billy Joe Shaver had never accosted Waylon Jennings in that hallway, who knows what may have happened with the Outlaw movement. And if “Honky Tonk Heroes” was never recorded the way it was with the unusual time changes, perhaps the album wouldn’t have gone on to be as well-received and influential as it eventually was, and continues to be.