Honky-Tonk Great Whitey Shafer Passes

Whitey Shafer

Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Whitey Shafer died on Saturday, Jan. 12, at age 84 following years of declining health.

Regarded as one of the finest hard-country tunesmiths of his generation, Shafer wrote or co-wrote such classics as “Does Ft. Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” (George Strait), “That’s the Way Love Goes” (Merle Haggard, Johnny Rodriguez), “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” (Keith Whitley), “Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong” (George Jones) and “All My Ex’s Live In Texas” (George Strait).

In addition to having more than 200 of his songs recorded by major artists, Whitey Shafer was also a much-admired vocal stylist. During his career, he recorded for RCA, Musicor, Hickory, Elektra and other labels.

Born Sanger D. Shafer in 1934, he was raised in rural Whitney, TX. His mother played piano and taught him. At age 12, Shafer also began playing guitar. He and his teenage friend Willie Nelson visited honky tonks in “wet” counties nearby so that they could drink beer and soak up country music.

Shafer was particularly enthralled with the singing of Lefty Frizzell. That influence showed in his own vocals throughout his life.

After high school, he served three years in the Army. Back in Texas, he worked as a turkey farmer, an ironworker and an electrical company repairman before heading to Nashville in 1967.

His aim was to become a country singing star. Songwriter Doodle Owens, whom he’s known in Texas, introduced Shafer to publisher/producer Ray Baker. As a result, two of Shafer’s first three songs were recorded by George Jones, “Between My House and Town” and “New Man in Town.” His destiny as a songwriter was set. Owens and Dallas Frazier tutored him as a writer, although Shafer also continued to write a lot on his own.

Still waiting for a big break, Whitey Shafer dug ditches and did carpentry work during his early years in Music City. That changed in 1970 when Jack Greene had a hit with “Lord, Is That Me” and Jones took “Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong” up the charts.

Shafer introduced himself to Frizzell, his boyhood idol, when he discovered that they lived near one another. They became songwriting collaborators. Between 1972 and 1975, Frizzell issued five Shafer songs as singles, “You Babe,” “I Can’t Get Over You to Save My Life,” “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” “Lucky Arms” and “Falling.”

The songwriter soon became a favorite of others. Connie Smith began recording Shafer songs in 1971 and subsequently had hits with “I’m Sorry If My Love Got In Your Way” (1971), “Dream Painter” (1973), “I Never Knew What That Song Meant Before” (1974), “I’ve Got My Baby On My Mind” (1974) and “I Got a Lot of Hurtin’ Done Today” (1975).

Moe Bandy launched his career with Whitey Shafer songs. His eight hit Shafer singles were “I Just Started Hatin’ Cheatin’ Songs” (1974), “Honky Tonk Amnesia” (1974), “It Was Always So Easy to Find an Unhappy Woman” (1975), “Bandy the Rodeo Clown” (1975), “The Biggest Airport in the World” (1976), “She Took More Than Her Share” (1976), “She Just Loved the Cheatin’ Out of Me” (1977) and “Soft Lights and Hard Country Music” (1978). Bandy has recorded a total of 33 Shafer songs.

Despite songwriting success, Whitey Shafer never lost sight of his own recording aspirations. Baker produced Shafer singles for Musicor Records in 1967 and RCA Records in 1968-70. The RCA sides were reissued by Germany’s Bear Family label in 1984.

Meanwhile, Shafer’s co-written “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor” began its journey as a gospel favorite when Johnny Russell made it a hit in 1974. It has since been recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Connie Smith, The Gaither Vocal Band and others.

“I Never Go Around Mirrors,” which Shafer had written with Frizzell, has also become an evergreen. In the four decades since Frizzell’s 1974 single, it has been recorded by Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Keith Whitley, Trace Adkins, Gene Watson, Daryle Singletary, Leona Williams and Mark Chesnutt, among many others.

Similarly, the Shafer/Frizzell song “That’s the Way Love Goes” became a No. 1 hit for Rodriguez in 1974 and for Haggard in 1984. It has also been recorded by Nelson, Smith, Iris DeMent, Jewel, Anne Murray, Buddy Miller and more.

Whitey Shafer resumed his recording career on Hickory Records in 1974-76, again produced by Baker. These songs were also reissued by Bear Family in 1984.

He finally hit the country charts when he signed with Elektra. His self-penned “You Are a Liar” and “If I Say I Love You Consider Me Drunk” became modest successes in 1980-81.

Shafer staged his national television debut on PBS in 1982, when he appeared alongside Nelson, Hank Cochran, Red Lane, Sonny Throckmorton and Floyd Tillman on Austin City Limits.

This led to another spate of recording, this time for his own Palatial Records label. Shafer issued a novelty single titled “Hi-Yo Leon” and marketed a TV album of him singing the hits he’d written for others.

As a songwriter, he hit new heights in the late-1980s. George Strait had big hits with his “Does Ft. Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” (1985), “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” (1987) and “Overnight Success” (1989).

Keith Whitley’s version of Shafer’s “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” hit No. 1 in 1989. Haggard revived “You Babe” in 1988. Scott McQuaig bought back “Honky Tonk Amnesia” in 1989.

Whitey Shafer was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1989. By then, his songs had been recorded by dozens more, including John Anderson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, John Conlee, Eddy Raven, David Frizzell & Shelly West, Carl Smith, Billy Walker, Sammi Smith, Ed Bruce and The Osborne Brothers.

This activity continued into the 1990s with Kenny Chesney, Lee Ann Womack, Shawn Colvin, Randy Travis, Aaron Tippin, Joe Diffie, Lorrie Morgan, Rhonda Vincent, Jeannie Seely and others recording his tunes.

John Michael Montgomery scored a hit with Shafer’s co-written “Beer and Bones” in 1993. Several bluegrass bands drew from his catalog, as well.

But Whitey Shafer’s public performances became fewer during this era. He did participate in the Recording Academy’s 2000 documentary Nashville Songwriter. He made a rare appearance in 2008 as an honoree in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Poets & Prophets” series.

In 2015, Moe Bandy organized an all-star tribute at The Nashville Palace to honor Whitey Shafer. By then, the songwriter was suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

He reportedly began receiving hospice care last year. He passed away at his home in Ridgetop, TN. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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