Billy Joe Shaver has died at age 81. The country singer-songwriter died from a stroke on Wednesday (Oct. 28) in Waco, Texas. He was born in Corsicana, Texas, on Aug. 16, 1939.
According to a release, Shaver was raised mainly by his grandmother; his father left before he was born and his mother had a job in Waco, some 60 miles away. As a youth, he spent more time working on family farms than in school. As he wrote in his song “Fast Train,” “I have an eighth grade education … I got all my country learning picking cotton, raising hell and bailing hay.”
His grandmother gave him a Gene Autry guitar when he was 11; however, his grandfather gave it away several years later. Shaver left home at 16 to serve in the Navy and afterwards took a series of jobs, including one in the professional rodeo. After losing several fingers in a sawmill accident, he decided to do what he really loved to do: write songs.
In 1965, Shaver hitchhiked to Nashville in the back of a cantaloupe truck. Camping himself at the office of country singer Bobby Bare, he convinced the Nashville star to listen to his songs. Impressed, Bare signed him to a $50 a week job as a songwriter. Bare recorded “Ride Me Down Easy” and other musicians took notice of his tunes too. Kris Kristofferson did “Good Christian Soldier” and Tom T. Hall “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me.”
One of these songs, “You Asked Me To,” was a Top 10 hit for Jennings and later covered by Elvis Presley.
Jennings would record 1973’s Honky Tonk Heroes, a project including nearly all Shaver-penned songs. Shaver went on to pen songs including Johnny Rodriguez’s “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You.” Other notable cuts include Bobby Bare’s “Ride Me Down Easy,” Patty Loveless’ “When the Fallen Angels Fly,” and Elvis Presley’s “You Asked Me To.”
Shaver’s debut album, the Kristofferson-produced Old Five and Dimers Like Me, came out in 1973 on the Monument Records. Shaver went on to release more than 20 albums for such labels as MGM, Capricorn, Columbia, Zoo/Praxis, New West, and Sugar Hill Records. His 2007 album, Everybody’s Brother (Compadre Records), earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Southern/Country/Bluegrass Album and his most recent release, 2014’s Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod Records), was his first to chart in Billboard’s Top Country Albums.
While he experienced many successes in his life, Shaver also had more than his share of tragedies. In 1999, he lost his mother to cancer as well as his wife, Brenda, a woman he married three times (and divorced twice). On December 31, 2000, his son Eddy died of a heroin overdose. Shaver had teamed up with his guitarist son for several highly praised albums in the 1990s. Then, on July 4, 2001, Shaver suffered a massive, and nearly fatal heart attack while performing on stage. He later received some unwanted notoriety when, in 2007, a bar argument wound up with Shaver shooting the other man. Shaver was acquitted of charges, and wrote about the incident in the song “Wacko From Waco.”
One of Shaver’s signature songs, “Live Forever,” was performed by Robert Duvall in the film Crazy Heart. A long-time admirer and friend, Duvall cast Shaver in his 1996 movie The Apostle, and Shaver later acted in such films as Secondhand Lions, The Wendell Baker Story, and Bait Shop. Duvall also produced the documentary A Portrait of Billy Joe.
Shaver’s music attracted many illustrious admirers over the years. Johnny Cash, who covered Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” called him “my favorite songwriter,” while Willie Nelson, a frequently Shaver collaborator, declared that “Billy Joe is definitely the best writer in Texas.” Bob Dylan not only has performed Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” in concert, but even name-checked him in his tune “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”
He earned the first Americana Music Award for Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting in 2002, was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, followed by the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, and honored with the ACM Poet’s Award in 2019.
No funeral arrangements have been announced at this time.
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