Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote many of the songs that came to define the outlaw country movement, had died at age 81. The singer-songwriter passed away at his Waco, TX home after suffering stroke, a friend confirmed to Rolling Stone.
While he boasted his own catalog of nearly 20 records, Shaver’s big break came with the release of Waylon Jennings‘ 1973 debut record, Honky Tonk Heroes. Shaver wrote 10 out of the 11 songs on the album, and would go on to have his songs recorded by the likes of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Presley, and many more. In 2010, Nelson called him “the greatest living songwriter.”
Born to a single mother in Corsicana, TX on August 16th, 1939, Shaver first got exposed to country music when he would accompany his mother to her job as a waitress at a Waco nightclub. He later grew up and moved to Houston where he would frequent a bar called the Old Quarter, which just so happened to be the preferred watering hole of Townes Van Zandt. The two quickly hit it off and became regular drinking buddies who would hone their craft together. Before long the budding friendship would take Shaver to Nashville to pursue a career in music.
In Nashville, Shaver started out as an apprentice for songwriter Harlan Howard before eventually being hired on by Bobby Bare and making a cool $50 a week writing songs. It was here that Shaver came to the attention of Jennings, who was still a few years away from his debut record but was an invaluable friend nonetheless. Shaver had trouble breaking through in Nashville in the early 70s, but found support in Kristofferson who recorded “Good Christian Soldier” on his debut album.
The wheels started turning in 1971 when Shaver performed at the Dripping Springs reunion in Austin. Though his performance is remembered as being inconsistent at best by those who attended, it was around the songwriting circle later that evening that Shaver made an impression with the budding class of outlaw country musicians. After the session, Jennings asked Shaver if he had any more of the cowboy songs like he played at the circle to which Shaver coyly responded, “I got a sack full of them.”
With that, the partnership was born and Jennings filled his first album with Shaver’s songs and consequently took the both of them up the charts. Though his music was adopted with great success by other artists, Shaver himself was unable to break through into the mainstream on his own. Even though he never became the household name like many of the people who wrote his songs, his reputation as the embodiment of outlaw country was known throughout the musical frontier.
This legend came to a head in 2007 when Shaver was arrested for attempted murder after he shot a man in the face following a barroom altercation in Lorena, TX. The trial drew friends and colleagues alike including Nelson as well as actor Robert Duvall, and Shaver would ultimately be found not guilty upon pleading self-defense.
His life was also marred by his own tragedies, as at age 21 he lost two fingers on his right hand to a sawmill incident. He married one of his wives, Brenda, three times before ultimately losing her to cancer in 1999. His son, Eddy, was building up a promising music career as a blues guitarist reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan when he died of a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve, 2000. That night, Shaver played a concert alongside Nelson who cautioned him, “‘Billy, you gotta get back on the horse,'” Shaver told Rolling Stone. “And I’m an old cowboy, I know what he’s talking about. So I got up there,” he said.
In 2014, he released what would be his final album, Long in the Tooth, which was also his first in seven years. Shaver continued to tour and perform up until his death, joining Tanya Tucker at the Ryman Auditorium this past January to sing his own “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal”. In 2004, Shaver was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame. His name is mentioned throughout the exhibit devoted to outlaw country at the Country Music Hall of Fame, though the singer-songwriter has never been formally inducted.
[H/T Rolling Stone]