20 Years Ago, Billy Joe Shaver Survives Heart Attack on Stage

Photo: Sandy Carson

20 years ago today (August 25th, 2001), Billy Joe Shaver had a heart attack right there on the stage of the historic Gruene Hall in Texas while performing. He thought it was the end, and in some ways, wanted it to be. It came at a dark time in his life, where both his mother and wife Brenda had passed away in 1999, and then his son and guitar player Eddy Shaver died of a drug overdose on New Year’s Eve, 2000.

It was a steamy night at the legendary dance hall, and at first Shaver though his chest was just congested due to the dance hall’s poor ventilation. When he figured out what was happening, he embraced the moment.

“I said, ‘Thank you, Lord, for letting me die in the oldest honky-tonk in Texas.’ I wanted to die. All this had happened, and I was going home to see Eddy, Brenda, and my mother.”

But Billy Joe Shaver survived, and reportedly didn’t even seek medical treatment for four days afterwards. Talk about one tough knot of hickory. Finally when he made it to the hospital, they performed angioplasty to keep him alive, but doctors said he needed a quadruple bypass or his heart could give out at any moment. Meanwhile Shaver had a three-week tour of Australia booked with Kinky Friedman called “Two For Texas” coming up.

At first, Shaver called up Kinky and said he was out, citing the heart attack and the necessary surgery. Kinky reportedly said, “So what? You’re going to ruin my career.” Then apparently Willie Nelson intervened, telling Shaver that getting away from all his troubles and catching some fresh air would be best. Shaver ultimately agreed.

“The doctors wanted him to have the surgery, but he said no,” Kinky Friedman explains. “And they didn’t want him going to Australia with Kinky. That it was the wrong thing to do. But Billy Joe was in a dark place; the recent family tragedies, the health concerns. Staying home with the curtains drawn and all its temptations seemed as risky as going. Willie and I both agreed, the best therapy he could have was to get out and have a good time.”

And so bad ticker and all, off Billy Joe Shaver went on the tour. Each night, Billy Joe Shaver and Kinky Friedman would flip a coin to see who went on first, and every night, Billy Joe Shaver played the show like it was his last, because it very well could have been. But he ultimately survived. Two days after arriving back in the United States after the tour, Billy Joe had his quadruple bypass.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of Billy Joe Shaver nearly dying on stage, it’s been announced that Omnivore Recordings will be releasing a newly-remastered and repackaged edition of the recording Billy and Kinky made on the legendary Australian tour called Live Down Under on October 15th.

The package will include new liner notes compiled from the tour diary On the Road Too Long, by chauffeur, journalist and Nu Country FM guru David Dawson, and of course 22 live tracks taken as highlights of a three-night stint from the tour.

There have been many country performers over the years known for being nails tough, but none were as tough as Billy Joe Shaver. From getting four of his fingers lopped off at a lumber mill, from threatening to kick the ass of Waylon Jennings “In from of God and everybody,” to shooting a man in the face (in self-defense, mind you) at Papa Joe’s in Waco, Shaver lived one hell of a life before passing away on October 28th, 2020. Surviving a heart attack on stage only to run off to Australia with Kinky Friedman is just one story of many.

Billy Joe Shaver was a true honky tonk hero.

Live From Down Under is now available for pre-order from Omnivore Records.

Track list: 

1. Intro Coin Toss
2. Georgia On A Fast Train
3. Western Union Wire
4. Star In My Heart
5. Rapid City, South Dakota
6. Old Chunck Of Coal
7. Sold American
8. Ride Me Down Easy
9. Wild Man From Borneo
10. When The Fallen Angels Fly
11. Marilyn And Joe
12. You Asked Me To
13. Before All Hell Breaks Loose
14. Honky Tonk Heroes
15. Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed
16. Live Forever
17. You Wouldn’t Know Love (if You Fell In It)
18. Ride ’Em Jewboy
9. Old Five And Dimers Like Me
20. Keep On The Sunnyside
21. Try And Try Again
22. Outro Thanks And Goodbye!

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