Poets and Prophets: Whitey Shafer

June 21, 2008
Everything changed for Whitey Shafer in 1950 when he heard Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money I’ve Got the Time” on a café jukebox.  

“I learned it right away,” said Shafer. “It cost me quite a few nickels, but I learned it.”  

Over twenty years later, Shafer became Frizzell’s best friend and chief co-writer. Together, they penned the classics “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” among others. 

Shafer went on to write some of the most significant country songs of the last forty years, including “I Just Started Hatin’ Cheatin’ Songs Today” (Moe Bandy), “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” (George Strait), “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” (George Strait) and “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” (Keith Whitley), among many others.

Appearing June 21, 2008, as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s ongoing Poets and Prophets series highlighting legendary country songwriters, Shafer interjected his honest, down-home humor into the ninety-minute interview and performance, claiming, “You can’t wash the red off of a neck.” Although armed with clever one-liners, Shafer switched gears often, transfixing the capacity Ford Theater audience with soulful singing and picking.   

After opening the program with an acoustic performance of  “That’s the Way Love Goes,” Shafer told Museum Editor Michael Gray that the song, made popular by Johnny Rodriguez and Merle Haggard, came together quickly after a spark of inspiration from co-writer Frizzell.

“I had the melody and first three lines for quite some time. I sang them to Lefty and he said, ‘Well, that’s the way love goes,’ explained Shafer. “It was all finished right there.  It ain’t got but eight lines.” Added Shafer with a big smile, “Boy, we got done early that day.” 

Sanger D. Shafer was born into a musical family just outside Whitney, Texas, in 1934.  His mother and father sang in the Stamps Blue Jackets, a satellite quartet from the Stamps School of Music in Dallas. 

Shafer said his mother played piano beautifully and liked to showcase both his and his sister’s singing talents as young children. Shafer received his first guitar, from an uncle, while in junior high school, a gift that he said “had a couple of extra holes in it.”

It wasn’t until high school, when Shafer was working for local ironworkers, that he gained the nickname “Whitey.”  According to Shafer, rather than taking the time to learn names, the ironworkers often would name on-site helpers like himself at first glance.  While fetching water and carrying out other tasks around the site, the name “Whitey” stuck.

Said Shafer of his nickname, “I kind of liked ‘Whitey,’ you know? He was somebody.  Somebody besides Sanger.”

During the program, Shafer explained that there were two kinds of Texans, the “haves” and the “have nots.” By 1967, he was among the “have nots” and decided to move to Nashville. Thirty years old, Shafer had been running a turkey farm in Waco and playing seven gigs a week at the Circle R Club for seven and a half dollars a gig.   

Equipped with several songs he’d written while sitting on the toilet every morning before work, Shafer began his songwriting career under the tutelage of Blue Crest Music’s Ray Baker. Baker gave him a publishing deal and helped him get an artist deal with RCA Records. George Jones eventually cut Shafer’s bathroom compositions, which included  “Between My House and Town” and “I’m a New Man in Town.” 

In Music City, Shafer saddled up to close friends and fellow songwriters A.L. “Doodle” Owens and Dallas Frazier. Although Shafer released a handful of honky-tonk 45s on a number of labels, his focus began to shift exclusively to songwriting.

“Fame wasn’t all that important to me,” said Shafer. “I liked being a songwriter. Staying home is pretty good, you know? I also knew I had to have a six-pack before I could get up and sing.”

During the program, Gray invited Troy Tomlinson to the stage to share stories about Shafer. Tomlinson is President and CEO of Sony/ATV Music-Nashville, Shafer’s publisher, and a Museum board member. He praised Shafer’s unique poetic abilities, calling him both an “American treasure” and a “hillbilly genius.” 

“He has a way of saying things that normal folks can’t say,” said Tomlinson. “I work with a lot of young songwriters and I can’t tell you how many say, ‘Man, if I could just write a song like Whitey Shafer,’ or, ‘If I could just say this like Whitey Shafer.’”

Shafer’s boyhood idol, Lefty Frizzell, recognized Shafer’s talents immediately.

In 1972, Shafer had just finished a demo session and thought a particular song would be perfect for Frizzell.  Shafer decided to knock on the door to Frizzell’s house and personally pitch him the song. “I caught him just right,” said Shafer, “He had a beer in his hand and Alice was gone”

Frizzell invited him inside and he listened to Shafer’s entire demo tape. Shafer chuckled, “He picked out one that—and I had great aspirations back then—I had in mind for Dean Martin.”

In fact, Frizzell cut the song “You, Babe” the very next day and invited Shafer to the session at Columbia’s Studio B. It became Frizzell’s first chart hit in years. As program host Gray pointed out, meeting Shafer brought Frizzell out of a creative dry spell and helped re-energize his songwriting.

“After we met, I started trying to figure out how to entrap him [Lefty] into writing with me,” Shafer said. “I started another song called ‘Lucky Arms.’ I had a verse and most of the bridge, so I invited him to stop by my house. I sang him what I had of it and he chimed right in and wrote the second verse just like that. He had a dreamy way of writing:

‘Hey Mister Rainy Sky,

Dry your eyes, so you can see my special girl. 

My arms are full of country, country sunshine,

And we’re hurrying to the top of the world’

 “I mean that was good, and I knew it,” said Shafer. “And I knew we could write more.”

The two did exactly that until Frizzell’s unexpected death in 1975. 

Gray screened a clip, from the Museum’s Frist Library and Archive, of Shafer performing his ode to Frizzell, “Lefty’s Gone,” on the TV show Bobby Bare & Friends.  In the 1983 clip, Shafer told Bare that he struggled for a while to write something about his close friend that actually “did him some justice.” The song was later cut by George Strait.

Strait came along at just the right time in Shafer’s career. Low on funds, Shafer had enrolled in truck-driving school.  Shafer said Strait had gone to Acuff-Rose publishing on his own accord looking for Whitey Shafer songs. In total, Strait cut eleven of Shafer’s songs, including four on the 1983 smash album Does Forth Worth Ever Cross Your Mind. “I hung up my truck-driving britches and got out of the hole one more time,” said Shafer.

Shafer then performed “Does Forth Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” which were both nominated for CMA Song of the Year honors. He even added an updated verse to “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” a song he claimed was true except for the names, which were “changed to protect the guilty.” 

“I even got nervous and changed the name of the towns,” joked Shafer.

“This year I’m spending Christmas in Texas with my exes,” he sang.  “Because I have a brand new ex mad at me in Tennessee.”

Shafer concluded the program with a performance of Lefty Frizzell’s hit “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” a song that perfectly showcases Shafer’s twisting vocals and smooth delivery. It was evident throughout the program that a Whitey Shafer performance is one-of-a-kind, a roadmap that all artists who covered his classics followed.   

--Jeremy Rush