by Craig Shelburne
Billy Joe Shaver, one of the most colorful country songwriters of the 1970s and beyond, died Wednesday (October 28) in Texas. He was 81. Shaver was essential songwriter of the Outlaw movement, a cornerstone of the Texas music scene, and a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In the opening pages of his 2005 memoir, Honky Tonk Hero, Shaver writes about being in his mother’s womb while she was beaten by her husband. About a month after his birth on August 16, 1939, his mother gave her newborn to her mother to raise; the infant’s father had already split.
Shaver spent his youth in Corsicana, Texas, and like many Southern children of that generation, he absorbed the sounds of the Grand Ole Opry. In the late 1940s he even sneaked out of his grandmother’s house and into the local Wonder Bread factory to hear Hank Williams sing. Occasionally he would spend time in the care of his mother, who worked at a club called Green Gables, but after his grandmother died when he was 12, he went to live with her and his older sister Patricia in Waco.
Although he found encouragement as a writer from a high school literature teacher, Shaver nonetheless dropped out of school and turned to a life of hitchhiking and wandering. At various points he drove a truck (though he didn’t know how), spent time in a Mexican jail, and enrolled in the Navy. At 20, at a football game, he encountered Brenda Tindell, the woman he would marry three times. Their son Eddy was born on June 20, 1962.
Around this time, Shaver lost parts of three fingers in a sawmill accident. During his recuperation from surgery he reflected on his true talent — writing — and decided to pursue it professionally. “When I cut my fingers off, I made a deal with God,” Shaver told CMT.com in 2012. “I said ’If you get me out of this, I will go on and do what I am supposed to do.’”
Billy Joe Shaver literally arrived in Music City after hitching a ride in the back of a cantaloupe truck. In his early attempts in Nashville, he found champions in songwriters like Hal Bynum, Harlan Howard, and Bobby Bare, but just as he was about to give up, he met Kris Kristofferson, by then the hottest songwriter in Nashville.
Shaver played him “Christian Soldier” and Kristofferson said he wanted to record it; true to his word, it landed on Kristofferson’s 1971 album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I. (In his memoir, Shaver claims that Bare adjusted the title to “Good Christian Soldier” and took half the publishing.) Kristofferson then helped Shaver land a recording contract with Monument Records, which released Old Five and Dimers Like Me in 1973, more than a year after it was recorded.
That debut album coincided with the release of Waylon Jennings’ seminal 1973 project, Honky Tonk Heroes. Jennings, whose catalog hadn’t yet yielded a No. 1 country hit, had overheard Shaver swapping songs with some friends at a 1972 festival in Dripping Springs, Texas. Jennings offhandedly remarked that he wanted to record a whole album of Shaver’s cowboy songs, then likely forgot he made the comment at all.
Realizing it was “about the only thing I had going for me,” as he wrote in his memoir, Shaver decided to take Jennings at his word and for months fruitlessly sought to contact him in Nashville, though Jennings never took the call. Finally, Shaver tracked him down at Studio A, at one of Jennings’ very first sessions without a producer.
In his autobiography, Jennings recalled Shaver confronting him, stating, “I got these songs, and if you don’t listen to them, I’m going to kick your ass right here in front of everybody.” Jennings ushered Shaver into another room, warned him not to talk like that anymore, and offered to listen to one song. Shaver played “Old Five and Dimers,” and with Jennings’ approval, many others.
As Jennings wrote, “His songs were of a piece, and the only way you could ever understand Billy Joe was to hear his whole body of work. That was how the concept for 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 Texas lingo, his world as down to earth and real as the day is long, and he wore his Lone Star birthright like a badge. We all did.”
Honky Tonk Heroes showcased Shaver’s songs (although RCA executive Chet Atkins added “We Had It All” in order to have a single) and he savored a moment of notoriety. Of course, his penchant for drugs and drinking in the ‘70s is no secret, not to mention some business offers he didn’t accept.
According to Shaver, Jennings initially asked him to be part of the groundbreaking Wanted! The Outlaws album, but Brenda was determined that Billy Joe needed to shed the rowdy image, now that they had some royalties coming in, and he was poised for success. But he did share in some of the glory, as “Honky Tonk Heroes” made the cut on country music’s first-ever platinum album.
“I was having businessmen, senators and astronauts — all kinds of people — they would come up and stick $100 bills in my pocket,” Shaver told CMT.com in 2005. “I mean, I’d make out like a champ! I’d make four or five thousand dollars a night. It was really nice. It’s hard to believe that I’m not making that now.”
Shaver landed a deal with Capricorn Records and released a pair of albums in the late ‘70s. He made three more for Columbia in the 1980s, but success as a recording artist eluded him. By then, mainstream artists such as David Allan Coe, Tom T. Hall, Doug Kershaw, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Paycheck, and even Elvis Presley had recorded his songs. John Anderson carried Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” to No. 4 in 1981.
After a career lull, Shaver shocked his longtime fans with 1993’s Tramp on Your Street, an album that added a dose of rock ‘n’ roll, thanks to the magnificent guitar licks from his son, Eddy. The collaboration was simply billed as Shaver.
The acclaimed project prompted renewed interest in Shaver’s life and career, while introducing stunning new songs like “Live Forever.” A standout version of that poignant song recorded by Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson appears on a 1995 album by the Highwaymen, The Road Goes on Forever. Another song from Tramp on Your Street, “When the Fallen Angels Fly,” served as the title track for Patty Loveless’ beautiful, CMA Award-winning album, released in 1994.
Yet the band Shaver’s momentum was cut short when Eddy died from a heroin overdose on December 31, 2000. Brenda had died the year before, leaving Billy Joe Shaver temporarily adrift. However, he accepted touring gigs with Kinky Friedman to support himself, both across Texas and through Australia.
Shaver issued the album Freedom’s Child in 2002, underwent triple-bypass surgery that same year, and received the Americana Music Association’s first Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting. In 2004, he celebrated his 65th birthday with a notable lineup of Texas performers and admirers in Austin, and was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He then published his memoir and released the album The Real Deal in 2005. However, his personal life naturally still had some chapters to reveal.
Shaver married Wanda Lynn Canady (for the second time, after an annulment) in 2006, then broke a vertebrae while wrestling after the ceremony. A duet with Johnny Cash (with a teenage Eddy Shaver on guitar) surfaced on Billy Joe Shaver’s Grammy-nominated 2007 album, Everybody’s Brother. A reflection of his outspoken love of the Lord, it’s titled “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”
Still his most notorious occurrence of 2007 was when he shot a man in the face during a fight outside a bar in Lorena, Texas. The scuffle was immortalized in his composition, “Wacko From Waco,” and Shaver was eventually acquitted of aggravated assault, though he had to pay a fine and relinquish a pistol.
None other than Bob Dylan sang the lyric “I’m listenin’ to Billy Joe Shaver…” in the 2009 track, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.” Meanwhile, “Live Forever” received another boost when Shaver re-recorded it with Big & Rich in 2010. It also made it into the 2010 film, Crazy Heart, sung by Robert Duvall. That legendary actor cast Shaver in the 1997 film, The Apostle.
By the 2010s, Shaver had slowed his recording schedule but kept active on the road. The 2011 album, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, surveys his songwriting career, including “Wacko From Waco.” He followed that project with 2014’s Long in the Tooth.
Though he hasn’t released a new album since then, his legacy is secure. He has performed multiple times at the invitation of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; he also made an appearance at the 2018 opening of the museum’s exhibit, Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s. The following year he accepted the Poets Award from the Academy of Country Music, just days after his 80th birthday.