Country music singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, whom Willie Nelson once called “the greatest living songwriter,” died Wednesday in his native Texas at the age of 81.
Shaver is reported to suffered a massive stroke at Ascension Providence Hospital in Waco, Texas.
Shaver rose to acclaim in 1973 with his debut album, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” and was often referred to as part of the “outlaw country” movement of the 1970s along with figures like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, both of whom recorded his songs.
Jennings, in fact, recorded 10 songs of Shaver’s on one album alone, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” released the same year as Shaver’s debut. Shaver had previously had his break as a songwriter when Kris Kristofferson discovered him and recorded his song “Good Christian Soldier” on another landmark album, 1971’s “The Silver Tongued Devil and I.”
His songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, David Allan Coe, Patty Loveless, Tom T. Hall, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Paycheck and Doug Kershaw, among others. One of his biggest songwriting successes was “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” a No. 4 country hit for John Anderson in 1981.
His own recording career encompassed 17 studio albums, the last of which was 2014’s “Long in the Tooth.” “Shaver’s always been a tough guy making trouble on the edges of a Nashville that values slickness,” Q magazine wrote at the time.
Shaver made an appearance in Robert Duvall’s 1996 film “The Apostle.” Duvall sang one of his songs, “Live Forever,” in another film, “Crazy Heart.” In 2004, a documentary about Shaver, “A Portrait of Billy Joe,” was released.
His personal live was the stuff of lore and legend. He wed and divorced the same woman, Brenda Tindell, three times. (He later married another woman, Wanda Lynn Canady, twice, the second time following an annulment.) He had a heart attack on stage. In 2007, he shot a man in the face outside a bar in Lorena, Texas. He was acquitted of aggravated assault after claiming self-defense and later said of the incident, “Hit him right between the mother and the f—er. Fixed him right up.”
Bob Dylan referenced him in a latter-day lyric, singing “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce” in the 2009 song “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”
“I know the power of words,” Shaver said in a 2014 Esquire profile. “I figure they’d be here forever. I’m hoping a lot of them are gonna make it.” In the same interview, he promised: “I’ll bop till I drop.”
Jennings wrote of Shaver, “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.”
Shaver told his colorful story in a 2005 memoir, “Honky Tonk Hero.” Born in Corsicana, Texas, he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. Despite being a promising student, he dropped out of high school and took to hitchhiking and driving a truck.
He lost part of three fingers in a sawmill accident as a young man. “When I cut my fingers off, I made a deal with God,” Shaver said to 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.’”
Tragedy struck Shaver when his son, Eddy Shaver, died of a heroin overdose in 2000.
Shaver’s songs continued to be recorded over the decades. Loveless made “When the Fallen Angels Fly” the title track of her CMA Award-winning album in 1994. The Highwaymen, consisting of Jennings, Nelson, Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, recorded his “Live Forever” in 1995.
On a 2007 album, Shaver released a duet he had recorded with Cash before that singer’s death, a gospel tune titled “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”
Shaver was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. The following year he received his lone Grammy nomination, in the best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album category for “Everybody’s Brother.”
He was also a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Americana Music Association gave Shaver its inaugural lifetime achievement award for songwriting in 2004.
Shaver appeared at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for the 2018 opening of an exhibit that featured his prominently, “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s.” In 2019, the Academy of Country music gave him its Poets Award.