Outlaw Country Icon Billy Joe Shaver Dead at 81

He had his songs recorded by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson
Outlaw Country Icon Billy Joe Shaver Dead at 81
Photo: Giovanni Gallucci
Billy Joe Shaver — an American singer and songwriter whose work helped popularize the subgenre of outlaw country — has died. Shaver passed away today in Waco, TX, after suffering a stroke. He was 81.

Shaver is recognized as one of country music's original outlaws, penning songs that would go on to be recorded by Waylon JenningsKris Kristofferson, Elvis Presley and more. The late artist wrote or co-wrote every song on Jennings' formative 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes, was counted as a favourite writer of Johnny Cash, and was called "the greatest living songwriter" by Willie Nelson in 2010.

Born in Coriscana, TX, on August 16, 1939, Shaver was raised by his mother, Victory Watson Shaver, and first discovered country music through accompanying her to her job at a local nightclub.

At 17, he joined the U.S. Navy and would return to Texas upon being discharged. A job at a lumber mill saw Shaver lose most of two fingers on his right hand, and he learned to play guitar in spite of the missing digits upon his recovery.

After Shaver's return from the navy, he met and married Brenda Joyce Tindell, whom he would divorce and remarry several times. In 1962, the couple had one son, John Edwin "Eddy" Shaver, who would go on to play guitar alongside his father.

Shaver would soon hitchhike to Nashville in 1966 and was invited to pitch his work at RCA by singer-songwriter Bobby Bare. 

"I didn't want your normal Nashville songwriter, and Billy Joe came in one morning and he sang me some songs and I thought, 'That fucker's crazy,' " Bare recalled to the Washington Post in 2018. "Then I got to thinking about it and I said, 'Hell, that's what I'm looking for' and [ran] him down. And he signed up to write for me. I think I only paid him $50 a week."

Kris Kristofferson recorded Shaver's "Good Christian Soldier" for his 1971 sophomore album The Silver Tongued Devil and I. The following year, he invited Shaver to the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion in Texas, where the songwriter caught the attention of Waylon Jennings through playing the Willie Nelson-inspired "Willy the Wanderin' Gypsy and Me."

Jennings took an interest in Shaver's songwriting, but failed to return his calls after meeting at Dripping Springs. Shaver travelled to Nashville to give Jennings an ultimatum at a recording studio. As he told the Post in 2018, "[Jennings] said, 'What do you want, hoss?' I said: 'Man, tell you what. I've got these songs like you said and you said you'd do an album of them, and if you don't at least listen to them, I'm going to whip your ass here in front of God and everybody.' "

Shaver performed a selection for Jennings including "Ain't No God in Mexico," "Old Five and Dimers" and "Honky Tonk Heroes." The last song would become the title track of Jennings' 1973 full-length, now regarded as a landmark outlaw country recording. Shaver would release his Kristofferson-produced debut full-length, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, that same year through Monument.

Not long after the release of Old Five and Dimers Like Me, Monument soon folded, leading Shaver to sign with Capricorn for 1976's When I Get My Wings and 1977's Gypsy Boy. Nevertheless, he would continue recording into 1980's, playing alongside the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Ben Keith, Karl Himmel, Nicolette Larson and son John Edwin on his solo efforts.

Shaver lost both his mother and wife Brenda in 1999, ahead of John Edwin dying of a heroin overdose in 2000 at age 38. Shaver himself nearly died in 2001 after suffering a heart attack onstage in Texas. Upon recovering, he returned to music with 2002's Freedom's Child and continued recording and touring until his death. His final album is 2014's Long In the Tooth.

Outside of music, Shaver appeared in Robert Duvall's 1996 film The Apostle and joined him again for speaking roles in 2003's Secondhand Lions and 2005's The Wendell Baker Story. Shaver's life and work were examined in 2004 documentary A Portrait of Billy Joe.

In 2007, Shaver was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and possessing a firearm in a prohibited place after shooting a man in the face outside a bar. He was acquitted in 2010 after testifying that he acted in self-defence.

Shaver was also name checked by Bob Dylan on "I Feel a Change Comin' On" from 2009's Together Through Life. Dylan sings, "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver / And I'm reading James Joyce / Some people they tell me / I've got the blood of the land in my voice."

Last year, Shaver received the Poet's Award from the Academy of Country Music for his songwriting work. Find tributes to the late songwriter from contemporaries and listeners below.