Country Music Outlaw and songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver passed away on October 28th, 2020 at the age of 81, but the matters surrounding his estate remain unresolved, including his recurring songwriting royalties. It’s all the subject of an ongoing dispute between the nephew of Willie Nelson, and Billy Joe Shaver’s own nephew, with both parties claiming to be the rightful heir to the estate.
Freddy Fletcher is the son of Willie Nelson’s sister Bobbie and musician Bud Fletcher, who Bobbie Nelson married when she was 16. Freddy was one of three children born before the couple divorced in 1955. Bud Fletcher passed away in 1961, and Bobbie eventually moved her family to Austin. In 1984, Freddy Fletcher opened the famous Aryln Studios in Austin, and in 1999, Fletcher also co-founded Pedernales Records with his uncle Willie.
Freddy Fletcher is also a producer and a drummer. He’s performed on numerous recordings from Willie Nelson, Jesse Dayton, Kinky Friedman, and others, including on Billy Joe Shaver’s album Everybody’s Brother from 2007. It was the next year, on October 2nd, 2008, that Billy Joe Shaver reportedly hand wrote a last will and testament, leaving all his worldly possessions, a.k.a. “anything of value,” including his song royalties and his house in Waco, TX, to Freddy Fletcher.
“I want him to continue to administer all my music business and to keep all profits,” the note says, and is even signed by multiple witnesses who apparently watched Shaver write the document. However, part of the dispute is that the original handwritten letter is nowhere to be found. Freddy Fletcher claims he kept the letter, but lost it in 2009 when he moved his office. Another witness claims Billy Joe Shaver kept the original himself. Either way, only a photocopy of it now exists (see below).
The other issue is that at the time the 2008 handwritten will was composed, Billy Joe Shaver already had a last will and testament written and on the books, and done in a more traditional manner through a lawyer, initially naming Shaver’s older sister Patricia as the executor of his estate in 2000, then refiling the will in 2003 naming Patricia’s son and Billy Joe Shaver’s blood nephew Terry Dwayne Rogers as the heir.
“If I am going to leave all of my worldly possessions to someone, I am going to leave it to my family,” attorney for Terry Dwayne Rogers, Whitney Fanning, said to KWTX. “I am not going to leave it to some music director whose sole purpose is to make money. My client has a proper will left to his family members, which is how we do things.”
Even if Billy Joe Shaver wished the 2008 handwritten will to supersede the previous 2003 will, he never went through the proper effort to make the earlier will null and void. Further complicating matters, the original attorney who prepared the 2003 Billy Joe Shaver will passed away in January of 2021.
This week, McLennan County Judge Vik Deivanayagam denied a motion from Freddy Fletcher’s lawyers to throw out Billy Joe Shaver’s 2003 will, bequeathing his estate to Terry Dwayne Rogers. The lawyers of Terry Dwayne Rogers have made similar attempts to toss out the handwritten version of the will, since it’s only a photocopy and not the original document. Both sides of the legal dispute seem to believe the issue is likely heading to a jury trial amid the continuing dispute.
Beyond the saucy details of the legal fight, what happens with the estate of Billy Joe Shaver is of importance to the country music community. Making sure the legacy of Billy Joe Shaver and his songs remains healthy and in the public sphere is important to many Billy Joe Shaver fans. Whomever ends up in control of the estate will also being in control of Billy Joe Shaver’s songs. As has sometimes occurred in estate disputes in the past, they can result in difficulties in the effort to preserve an artist’s legacy, especially if assets are liquidated and split down the middle. This happened most famously with the estate of Conway Twitty.
As Saving Country Music noted earlier this year, it took an extended time period for a headstone to be placed at the Billy Joe Shaver grave. Perhaps the ongoing legal dispute was partly to blame. For Willie Nelson’s part, he always remained a strong champion of Billy Joe Shaver and his legacy, releasing the song “Hero” in his honor in 2012, along with other tributes over the years.
As the legal dispute continues, so does the effort to keep Billy Joe Shaver’s memory alive. Just last week, a new version of Shaver’s classic song “Old Chunk of Coal” was released as part of a new documentary from Shaver’s friend and comedian Norm MacDonald. Shaver’s “surrogate son” Jeremy Lynn Woodall who played guitar for Shaver for years after the death of Shaver’s son Eddie has also started a tribute band that plans an annual concert around Billy Joe’s birthday of August 16th in Waco.
Stay tuned for further developments in the Billy Joe Shaver estate dispute.
Billy Joe Shaver’s Handwritten Will from 2008: