The Fascinating Friendship of Norm MacDonald & Billy Joe Shaver

“People hate country. And sometimes people go like, ‘Ah country music, it’s just your dog died, and your wife left you, and you’re a drunk.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s life.'”

–Norm MacDonald

Comedian, Canadian, and true country music fan Norm MacDonald died on Tuesday (9-14) after a private battle with Cancer. The long-time stand-up performer, comedic writer, and host of Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” along with podcasts and a Netflix program was 61.

There will be plenty of obituaries written for Norm MacDonald with warm remembrances and list of accomplishments for this often misunderstood, but incredibly revered and talented man composed by people much more qualified to compile such things than myself. But I would be remiss if I did not use this somber occasion to highlight one of the most curious and beautiful parts of Norm MacDonald’s life, which was his love for country music, and most importantly, his sincere and devoted friendship to Outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver.

They were strange bedfellows indeed—a Canadian comic steeped in the upper crust world of entertainment often sequestered on the two coasts, and a hardscrabble Outlaw songwriter who frankly was often overlooked even within the country music industry. But there was a close kinship between the two that you couldn’t measure in regular “friendship” terms, and when they got together, both the hilarity, and the honest contours of both of these characters were revealed.

The friendship appears to have been sparked simply by Norm MacDonald being a Billy Joe Shaver fan. A professed devotee of actual country music—especially the Outlaw era of which Billy Joe Shaver was so seminal and critical to—Norm MacDonald first signaled his Billy Joe Shaver love and appreciation when he included Shaver’s song “People and Their Problems” as the opening song on his 2011 comedy special, Norm MacDonald: Me Doing Standup.

At some point the two became so close, they would regularly call each other when they were on the road performing, and would meet up for wild romps out on the town, so wild in fact one time when Norm suggested (probably in jest) that Billy Joe change one of the lyrics to one of his his signature songs “Georgia On A Fast Train,” Shaver punched MacDonald in the face. Pot shots to the noggin or not, the authenticity of Billy Joe Shaver is something Norm MacDonald revered, while also cherishing his songwriting as some of the best to be found, and Billy Joe just seemed to love to go along for the ride.

Norm MacDonald would regularly bring up Billy Joe Shaver on his podcast, including one time when Norm mentioned his efforts to write country music, and specifically a song he once penned for Shaver personally when interviewing Billy Bob Thornton in 2013.

“My dream is to be a country music writer,” MacDonald said. “So I write all this country music. And then once … I’m friends with Billy Joe Shaver, and I wrote … it took me like two weeks to write this song to send to him. And then I didn’t send it. Because his songs are so fuckin’ good, and then I felt weird sending this graffiti over to him. I cowarded out.”

In 2018, Norm MacDonald was given a Netflix series simply called Norm MacDonald Has a Show, and you just knew at some point Billy Joe Shaver would materialize on it. That’s exactly what happened for the 9th episode of the series released on September 14th, 2018, interspersed between episodes with people such as Jane Fonda, David Letterman, and Judge Judy.

The Netflix episode is just about the most entertaining 32 minutes you can find on the planet, and Norm MacDonald introduces Billy Joe Shaver as a “founding father of Outlaw country, and my best friend.”

Billy Joe Shaver left us in October of 2020 at the age of 81, and now Norm MacDonald has checked out on us as well. But the enduring friendship between these two really helps underscores a few critically important things, including how similar we all are inside, how two people can find friendship now matter how disparate their backgrounds are as long as there’s a mutual respect, and how much a mutual love for country music can facilitate this through the shared experiences it speaks to.

RIP Norm MacDonald, and Billy Joe Shaver.

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