Songwriter Billy Joe Shaver Dead at 81

Shaver was instrumental as part of outlaw country movement.

Written by Vernell Hackett
Songwriter Billy Joe Shaver Dead at 81
STAFFORD, TX -- NOV 18: Billy Joe Shaver before performing at the Redneck Country Club in Stafford, Texas Nov. 18, 2016. (Photo by Michael Stravato/For the Washington Post)

Billy Joe Shaver died on Wednesday, October 28, in Waco, Texas after suffering a stroke. He was 81.

Shaver, who was born in Corsicana, Texas, was a songwriter and troubadour, having written hits including “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” recorded by Waylon Jennings; “Ride Me Down Easy,” by Bobby Bare; and “I’ve Been To Georgia On A Fast Train,” which was his first single release.

Bare was one of the first to recognize Shaver’s talent. He signed him to a $50 a week job as a songwriter. After Bare recorded “Ride Me Down Easy,” other singers began to listen to what Shaver was writing.

Jennings heard Shaver sing “Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me” in 1972 and invited him to write songs for his next album. Shaver wrote the songs, came to Nashville and tried to see Jennings for six months. Finally, with the help of local deejay Captain Midnight, Shaver ended up at one of the singer’s recording sessions and tried to talk to him, but Jennings merely offered him $100 and tried to walk away.

Shaver recalled that he was not happy with the situation, and in the 2003 documentary Beyond Nashville, he recalled the incident. When Jennings tried to walk away, Shaver called out, “Hey Waylon … I got those songs that you claimed you was gonna listen to, and if you don’t listen to ‘em I’m gonna whip your ass right here in front of everybody.”  Jennings replied, “Hoss, you don’t know how close you come to gettin’ killed.”

Nobody got killed and Jennings ended up liking the songs. When Jennings released Honk Tonk Heroes in 1973, 10 of the 11 songs were written or co-written by Shaver, including “Willy The Wandering Gypsy and Me,” “Omaha,” “You Asked Me To,” “Black Rose” and of course, “Ride Me Down Easy.” The album is considered to be the first Outlaw Country album.

Shaver received his first guitar from his grandmother when he was 11. He left home when he was 16 to join the Navy. After he was discharged, he returned to Texas to work a variety of jobs, including one in a sawmill where he lost several fingers due to an accident. That was the turning point for Shaver, who decided he was going to do what he really wanted to do, and he started writing songs.

He hitchhiked to Nashville in 1965, where he convinced Bare to listen to his songs. After Bare recorded “Let Me Down Easy,” others began to listen to Shaver’s songs. Kris Kristofferson recorded “Good Christina Soldier” and also produced Shaver’s first album, Old Five And Dimers Like Me. John Anderson had a hit with “I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Some Day)” and Tom T. Hall did “Willy The Wandering Gypsy and Me.” Elvis Presley recorded “You Asked Me To,” a song recorded first by Jennings, Johnny Rodriguez had a hit with “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You” and Joe Ely recorded “I’m Gonna Live Forever.” He also had songs recorded by Willie Nelson, George Jones and Patty Loveless.

Shaver recorded more than 20 albums, several of them with his son Eddy on guitar. Those were among his most acclaimed albums. The songwriter had many tragedies to draw up on to write his songs. In 1999 his mother died of cancer. In 2001, the singer himself suffered a massive heart attack during a performance. His wife Brenda, who he divorced twice and married three times, also died of cancer. In 2000, Eddy died of an overdose. Then in 2007, Shaver got in a bar fight with a guy who he said had insulted Brenda. He went out to his truck, grabbed his gun and shot the guy. He claimed self-defense and was acquitted of all charges.

Robert Duvall became a good friend of Shaver’s after recording his song, “Live Forever” in the movie Crazy Heart. He came to his defense in the Waco incident and prior to that cast him in several movies, including The Apostle. Shaver also was in films including Secondhand Lions, The Wendell Baker Story and Bait Shop. Duvall produced A Portrait of Billy Joe documentary.

Bob Dylan name-checked him in his song, “I Feel A Change Comin’ On.” Willie Nelson declared him “The best songwriter in Texas.” and Johnny Cash called him “My favorite songwriter.”

Travis Tritt commented on Twitter, “I’m saddened to learn that Billy Joe Shaver has passed away. Billy Joe opened for one on one of my early tours and was always amazing. His stories were captivating. He will be sorely missed. My condolences go out to his family, friends and fans.”

Stevie Van Zandt wrote, “RIP Billy Joe Shaver. Big Loss. Legend in Outlaw Country. Start with ‘Shaver’ which he did with his killer guitar player song Eddy and then Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes album which Billy Joe wrote. Travel well my friend.”

Jason Isbell commented, “Billy Joe Shaver might’ve been the only true outlaw who ever made his living writing about the inner workings of his heart. The realest of them all.”

Fellow Texan Dan Rather honored Shaver, saying, “Another great Texas music icon is gone. Billy Joe Shaver was a bona fide, certified, Lone Star original – a throwback to a far different time. This was echoed in the music he wrote and performed over a long and very adventurous life.”

Another fellow Texan, Tanya Tucker said, “October 28th, I lost one of my greatest songwriting friends, Billy Joe Shaver. I go from looking back on our wonderful memories together to tears, then back to the memories. He’s written so many songs, and I’m so glad I got to write a few of them with him. The whole songwriting community has suffered a huge loss today and most importantly the fans of country music. Billy was one of a kind, he wasn’t like anyone else.”

Shaver was honored with the first Americana Music Award for Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting in 2002. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

While talking about songwriting, Shaver noted, “When you write songs, and you write good songs, people will always remember you. Words will always outlive us. And if your name is attached to those words, you’re gonna live forever.”