Country songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, whose songs were recorded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley, died at 81 on Wednesday morning (Oct. 28) following an undisclosed illness, according to a spokesperson.
Though he was never an A-list headliner on par with his most famous collaborators, Shaver had a sterling reputation for writing heartfelt, hard-luck songs about strivers looking for a break, or just a shoulder to cry on. The “good Christian” with an eighth-grade education who worked on his uncle’s farm instead of going to high school and lost part of his fingers while working at a sawmill got all his country learning while “picking cotton, raising hell and bailing hay,” as he wrote in the 1993 song “Georgia on a Fast Train.”
Shaver was born in Corsicana, Texas, on Aug. 16, 1939, and was raised mostly by his grandmother after his father left the family before he was born and his mother, Victory, took a job at a juke joint in Waco more than an hour away. He left home at 16 to serve in the Navy and took a series of gigs to make ends meet, including working at a rodeo and at the sawmill where the loss of his digits pushed him toward trying songwriting. Shaver hitchhiked to Nashville in 1965 and got his first break in 1968 when he wandered into singer/songwriter Bobby Bare’s Nashville office and insisted on playing a song, soon after landing a $50-a-week gig that would make him a go-to for some of the city’s brightest lights. One of his first successes was Bare’s recording of his song “Ride Me Down Easy.”
He became a reliable storyteller, logging songs with Kris Kristofferson (“Good Christian Soldier”), Tom T. Hall (“Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me”), the Allman Brothers (“Sweet Mama”) and Elvis (“You Asked Me To”). When Jennings invited Shaver to Nashville to work on what became his 1973 outlaw country landmark album Honky Tonk Heroes, Shaver burst into national prominence. He landed credits on 10 out of 11 tracks on the album that is often tagged as the first, and some say best, “outlaw” LP from a back-to-basics 1970s movement that included Willie Nelson, Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and a number of others.
In 1973, he also released his Kristofferson-produced solo debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, which included his beloved songs “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and “Georgia on a Fast Train.” Cash covered his song “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” which he wrote after giving up drugs and alcohol. In all, Shaver released nearly 2 dozen albums on a variety of labels (MGM, Capricorn, Columbia, new West, Sugar Hill), earning a Grammy nomination for Best Southern/Country/Bluegrass Album for his 2007 effort Everybody’s Brother. His most recent release, 2014’s Long in the Tooth, was his first to chart on Billboard’s Top Country Albums tally and it featured a duet with Nelson on “Hard to Be an Outlaw.”
Shaver received the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting from the Americana Music Association in 2002 and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. His highest praise, however, came from the men who towered in the genre and whom he called friends. Cash once referred to Shaver as “my favorite songwriter,” and good pal Nelson said he was “definitely the best writer in Texas… Everything he writes is just poetry.”
His rough-and-tumble songs often emerged from a life that had its share of tragedies and heartache, from his son Eddy’s 2000 death from a heroin overdose to the nearly fatal heart attack he suffered onstage in 2001 and a notorious incident in 2007 when a bar fight ended with Shaver shooting another man in the face; he was acquitted of the charges and turned the scuffle into the song “Wacko From Waco.”
Shaver also acted in a number of films, including Secondhand Lions, The Wendell Baker Story and Bait Shop, and his song “Live Forever” was performed by his friend Robert Duvall in the Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart; Duvall cast Shaver in his 1996 movie The Apostle and produced the 2004 documentary A Portrait of Billy Joe.
Check out some of Shaver’s songs below.