Billy Joe Shaver Wasn’t Just a Legend. He Was a Hero.

photo: Kyle Coroneos

Billy Joe Shaver wasn’t just a musical legend and icon, or an “Outlaw” as we like to call the artists who work outside of the Nashville system. He was a hero, in both music, and in life. What is a hero? A hero is someone who illustrates a level of bravery well beyond what most would be willing to. It’s someone who stands up and charges forward when the rest of us would sit down or fall back.

The stories of Billy Joe’s heroism are numerous. One of Billy Joe Shaver’s most famous acts of bravery is when he accosted Waylon Jennings in the hall of Hillbilly Central in Nashville—the recording studio and hangout of country music’s “Outlaws” back in the 70’s operated by Tompall Glaser. It’s where Waylon Jennings and others recorded.

After Waylon Jennings spent days dodging Billy Joe and his pleas to record some of his songs, Billy Joe finally stared down Waylon in a long hallway, like two gunfighters in the middle of town. Shaver threatened, “If you don’t listen to these songs, at least listen to them, I’m going to whip your ass right here in front of God and everybody.”

Note, this was Waylon Jennings he was talking to—the most ornery and notorious of the Outlaws at the time. But Billy Joe Shaver’s pluck is what ultimately won Waylon’s ear, and eventually made stars out of both of them when Waylon recorded an entire album of Billy Joe Shaver’s songs. It was only fitting that the title track of that 1973 record was called “Honky Tonk Heroes.” Because that’s exactly what Billy Joe Shaver was.

When Waylon was recording the album, Billy Joe Shaver wouldn’t quit butting into the sessions, complaining about what Waylon was doing with his songs. He was especially perturbed with the way he put a half time breakdown at the end of “Honky Tonk Heroes.” Waylon gave Hillbilly Central henchman Captain Midnight a $100 bill and said, “Give this to Billy Joe, and tell him to get the fuck out of here and stay away.” Billy Joe promptly threw the $100 bill back at Captain Midnight, and said, “You tell Waylon to stick this up his ass.”

Billy Joe Shaver’s life story unfolds more like folklore than a real life biography—losing multiple fingers in a sawmill accident, growing up in a honky-tonk his mother operated, with spittoons in the corner, and sawdust on the floor. Eventually Billy Joe ended up in Nashville when he meant to relocate to L.A., but got tired of waiting for a trip west from Texas, and took a cantaloupe truck east instead.

But Billy Joe Shaver almost didn’t make it into country music history at all. Broke and desperate after moving to Nashville in 1966, on a whim Shaver decided to spend the last bit of money he and his wife Brenda had on a ragged old truck he saw for sale. Shaver worked on the old truck all day, but couldn’t get it to start, let alone run. So his wife left him with the old truck.

Out of luck, love, and money, Billy Joe Shaver decided to end it all. “Don’t ever play Russian roulette with an automatic,” Billy Joe warns. But he tried in this instance by pointing the gun at his head and pulling the trigger, lifting the gun up over his head just before the first shot rang out, and then unloading the rest of the bullets into the wall. He recounted the incident in his song “Ragged Old Truck.”

This wasn’t the only incident of gun play and Billy Joe Shaver. In 2007 he was sitting in a saloon called Papa Joe’s just outside of Waco, TX when a man named Billy Bryant Coker came up to Shaver and stirred his drink with a knife, threatening him. After some words were exchanged, Shaver decided it was time to leave before the scene got nasty, but Billy Coker followed him out the door. In the parking lot, Billy Coker kept coming after him with his knife, so Billy Joe Shaver pulled a small caliber pistol out of his boot, and was overheard asking Coker, “Where do you want it?” Shaver later testified in court he actually said, “Why do you want to do this?” to Coker before shooting the man in the face.

The news made it down to Austin where Dale Watson decided to write a song about the incident called “Where Do You Want It?” The song ended up on a Whitey Morgan album, and eventually on one from Dale too. Billy Joe Shaver was acquitted of all charges after proving self-defense to a jury of his peers, and calling upon Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall as character witnesses.

In 2017, Billy Joe Shaver was scheduled to headline the Long Beach Folk Revival Festival when he ended up in the hospital after falling as he walked into a nearby restaurant, smashing his face on the ground. Shaver stepped into a hole, which caused his knee to buckle sideways, and his forehead was split open and his nose was broken. Being 78 years old at the time, the first fear was if Shaver would even survive the fall. But despite the numerous injuries Shaver sustained at about 3:30 in the afternoon, he still made it to the stage later that evening, playing a full set for shocked attendees.

Billy Joe Shaver’s acts of heroism were not exactly saving a baby from a burning building. But this isn’t Hollywood, this is country music. And there were many acts that also didn’t involve bluster and violence. Billy Joe was a hero for being one of those artists who waits by the merch table after every show to meet everyone, giving a big bear hug and photo op to any fan who wanted one. He was a hero in the way he was so outspoken about the overdose death of his son and stellar guitar player Eddy. You could consider Shaver a hero for putting a black guy in his band in the form of Waco legend Tony Calhoun for many years.

It was these kinds of acts of heroism throughout his career that had many labeling Billy Joe Shaver a “hero,” including his long-time friend Willie Nelson. While most of the music industry had forgotten or abandoned Billy Joe Shaver just like so many legends of the past, Willie Nelson did his level best to make sure the world remembered. Willie regularly featured Billy Joe Shaver music on his albums, and collaborated with Shaver often.

Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson recorded the song “Wacko From Waco” about Billy Joe’s incident at Papa Joe’s in Waco as a duet in 2011. Willie Nelson appeared on the song “Hard To Be an Outlaw” off of Billy Joe Shaver’s 2014 album, Long in the Tooth. Willie Nelson’s most recent album First Rose of Spring released in July includes the Billy Joe Shaver-written song, “We Are The Cowboys.”

But it’s Willie Nelson’s song “Hero” off his 2012 record called Heroes where Willie paid tribute to Billy Joe Shaver directly. Featuring an appearance from Jamey Johnson and Billy Joe Shaver himself, the song laments the loss of honky tonk heroes over time, with Shaver as the centerpiece.

He used to be king of the bars
He’s opened and closed them from Waco to Mars
Now he sings on the streets and he sleeps in his car
But he used to be king of the bars.

Where is our hero tonight?
He left here a-sailing, he was high as a kite
Feeling kinda sorry, and looking for a fight
Where is our hero tonight?

Where is our hero today?
Can we just tag along, we’ll stay out his way.
Does he still write the sad songs and can he still play
Where is our hero today?

Unfortunately, our hero is gone now, just like so many of them that made country music the proud institution it is today. But thanks to Billy Joe Shaver’s music, he won’t be forgotten, like he says in one of his signature songs.

Nobody here will ever find me
But I will always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now.

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