Billy Joe Shaver, the outlaw country music icon who wrote some of the genre’s most well-known songs, died on Wednesday in Waco, Texas, after suffering a stroke. He was 81. Connie Nelson, a friend of Shaver’s, was able to confirm his death, as Rolling Stone reported.
In 2010, Willie Nelson called him “the greatest living songwriter.” Shaver’s decades-long career spawned classics like “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” and “Live Forever.” He also worked on Waylon Jennings’ 1973 outlaw country breakthrough album, Honky Tonk Heroes. Icons like Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recorded his songs.
His life was as full of misadventures as his songs. At 21, he lost two fingers in a sawmill accident, and had to learn how to play guitar with just his remaining eight fingers. In 2007, he was charged with shooting a man in the face at a bar near his home in Waco, but was ultimately found not guilty.
In 2004, the musician was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Shaver Wrote Cowboy Songs For The Greats
Born on August 16, 1939, in Corsicana, Texas, Shaver was raised by his mother, Victory, and was first exposed to country music at the nightclub where she worked. In the early ’60s, the songwriter moved to Nashville and scored first an apprenticeship for Harlan Howard, and then a job working for Bobby Bare.
“Billy Joe was already there before anybody was talking about an outlaw movement,” said Steve Earle, an early fan.
After struggling to break through as a solo artist, Shaver befriended Kris Kristofferson, who recorded his song, “Good Christian Soldier.” In 1971, Kristofferson invited him to a songwriting circle where he played “Willy the Wanderin’ Gypsy and Me” and impressed Waylon Jennings.
“He said, ‘Do you got any more of them cowboy songs? I said, ‘I got a sack full of them,'” Shaver recalled in an interview with Rolling Stone.
Jennings’ 1973 LP Honky Tonk Heroes became one of outlaw country’s defining albums. Shaver’s own 1973 debut, Old Five Dimers, failed to land after his label, Monument, went out of business. On top of that disappointment, the singer’s drug use escalated through the ’70s; on one occasion, he drove his car through the window of a car dealership.
“I was welcome anywhere I went because I wrote good music that entertained entertainers. It’s just that I didn’t have the management and stuff like that. They said I was unmanageable,” the musician said.
Shaver’s Personal Life Was Torn Apart By Tragedy
Although he had an impressive legacy as a songwriter, Shaver’s family life was full of turmoil. He lost his wife Brenda, who he had married three separate times, to cancer in 1999. Soon after that, his mother died. Then on the morning of December 31, 2000, his son and creative partner, guitarist Eddy Shaver, was found dead of a heroin overdose.
The grief-stricken father performed that same evening at a New Year’s Eve concert with Willie Nelson, who told him he had to “get back on the horse.”
The songwriter later admitted that he considered taking revenge for his son’s death, saying he knew the drug dealer and would have “shot him up” if Nelson hadn’t talked him out of it.
Shaver kept making music. In 2014, he released his final album, Long in the Tooth, and called himself “a songwriter first,” saying that writing a song is “the cheapest psychiatrist there is.”
Shaver toured up until his death, and in January of 2020, he joined Tanya Tucker onstage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.