Outlaw Country Legend Billy Joe Shaver Has Died

Photo: Sandy Carson

The heart and soul of the songs and words of the American country music Outlaw movement has passed on. Billy Joe Shaver, with only three fingers on his right hand and an 8th grade education, left an indelible mark on country music that will never be worn down. From writing all but one of the songs on the landmark, breakout album from Waylon Jennings—1973’s Honky Tonk Heroes—to beating the wrap for shooing a man in the face (in self-defense) near Waco in 2010, Billy Joe Shaver was the full embodiment of the “Outlaw” country icon and hero.

Billy Joe Shaver died on Wednesday, October 28th after suffering a massive stroke on the morning of October 27th significantly affecting his brain stem. Billy Joe was currently in a rehabilitation facility after undergoing hip replacement surgery when the stroke occurred. They placed Shaver on life support, but he did not make it. He was 81 years old.

Born in Corsicana, Texas, Billy Joe Shaver was raised by his mother after his father left before he was born. Shaver was looked after primarily by his grandmother until he was 12, when he would regularly accompany his mother at the nightclub she worked at. Despite the inference in his song “I’ve Been To Georgia On A Fast Train,” Billy Joe Shaver actually attended school beyond the 8th grade, specifically LaVega High School in Bellmead, and wrote for the high school’s literary annual, The Pirate’s Jewels.

For a while Shaver’s mom ran a Waco honky tonk called Green Gables. Billy Joe would run around the place bumming nickels from soldiers from nearby Fort Hood, and by the time he got a little older was known as quite a dancer and ladies man. His whole Green Gables childhood experience was later recapped in the song “Honky Tonk Heroes.”

Shaver worked a number of odd jobs, including in the rodeo, and he enlisted in the Navy on his 17th birthday. Shortly after he started working in a sawmill, he lost two of his fingers in an accident. It was then that he decided to teach himself guitar, and aspired to become a songwriter. But it was a random chance that led him to Nashville. First planning to hitchhike to L.A., but unable to find a ride West, he instead took a trip east, which led him to Memphis, and eventually Nashville, where he signed on as a songwriter, making $50 a week.

Shaver landed cuts for Bobby Bare and others in his early days in Nashville, but getting his songs recorded by Waylon Jennings was Shaver’s big break. Waylon first heard Shaver singing “Willy The Wandering Gypsy and Me” at Willie Nelson’s Dripping Springs reunion, and said that he wanted to learn and record it.

“I took him at his word and I chased him around about six months, and I’m doing little odd jobs, you know. I used to wash dishes and stuff,” said Shaver. “Finally one night, Captain Midnight whose a friend of mine, a disc jockey there, very popular guy, he managed to get me into a session of Waylon’s, and Waylon didn’t like me because he’d run every time he’d see me. He knew he made me a promise but he didn’t want to keep it. Waylon found out I was there and he sent Midnight back with a $100 bill just folded up into a little bitty square and [Waylon] said, ‘Give this to him and tell him to get lost.’ I looked at that and thought ‘Wow’ because I was broke. I could have used it. But I told him, ‘Here, tell [Waylon] to stick this where the sun don’t shine, and twist it.’”

As you can imagine, Waylon was not too happy.

“He’s mad as hell. And there’s a bunch of hangers on and groupies and people like that all up and down the hall. It was a long hall and it was almost like a gunfight deal. He comes out of there and he’s got two bikers on each side, and he says, ‘Hoss, what do you want?’ And I says, ‘I’ll tell you what I want … 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.”

The rest is history. Waylon listened to one song, and then another, and then another, and decided to cut a whole album of them. “His songs were of a piece, and the only way you could ever understand Billy Joe was to hear his whole body of work,” Waylon said in his biography. “Billy Joe talked the way a modern cowboy would speak, if he stepped out of the West and lived today.”

From there, Billy Joe Shaver secured a record deal, became a performer in his own right, and had songs recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and many others. Willie Nelson remained a long-time friend and champion of Billy Joe Shaver, cutting numerous of his songs throughout the years. Songs like “I’ve Been To Georgia On A Fast Train,” and the songs featured on Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes such as “You Asked Me To” and “Honky Tonk Heroes” became standards. Though Shaver’s solo career never took off like some of his Outlaw contemporaries, he enjoyed wide appreciation from his peers, with artists like Charlie Daniels and Dickey Betts appearing on his records.

Billy Joe Shaver’s son Eddy was also an accomplished and renown musician and guitar player, who comprised the backbone of Billy Joe’s touring band, and co-wrote one of Shaver’s signature songs, “Live Forever.” When Eddy died of a drug overdose in 2000 at the age of 38, Billy Joe Shaver reaffirmed his religion. One of his favorite phrases became, “If you don’t love Jesus, you can go to hell.” He recorded a gospel album in 2007 called Everybody’s Brother with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Tanya Tucker, and others joining him for duets.

On March, 31st of 2007, Billy Joe Shaver shot Billy Coker with a .22 pistol outside Papa Joe’s Saloon in Lorena, TX, near Waco, claiming self-defense in the shooting after Billy Coker stirred Billy Joe’s drink with a knife, and followed him outside when Shaver left. Shaver faced up to 20 years in prison if he was found guilty for aggravated assault. Both Willie Nelson and actor Robert Duvall showed up to the trial as character witnesses. He was acquitted on April 9, 2010.

Though stories had Shaver saying to Billy Coker, “Where do you want it?” before shooting him, Billy Joe claims he said to Coker, “Why do you want to do this?” Nonetheless, the story became legend, and Dale Watson wrote a song called “Where Do You Want It?” first recorded by Whitey Morgan, and later by Dale as well, furthering Billy Joe’s legend.

Later in life, Billy Joe Shaver continued to receive accolades and attention. He performed on the Grand Ole Opry in 1999, was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, and sings the theme song for the Adult Swim animated comedy, Squidbillies. He was also the subject of an episode of the Mike Judge-produced Tales From The Tour Bus series. His name also regularly comes up as a contender for the Country Music Hall of Fame under the songwriting category.

Not nearly as famous as Willie or Waylon, Billy Joe Shaver was nonetheless the heartbeat of the country music Outlaw movement, making his plainspoken language soar with hillbilly wisdom and elegy that will live forever.

READ: 10 Badass Billy Joe Shaver Moments

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