Billy Joe Shaver would tell you he was blessed and charmed, but he also couldn’t hide that he knew he deserved better. Because he was better, even if he never got the hits or the theater bookings or the Country Music Hall of Fame ceremonies so many of his peers scored.
Nobody wrote songs like Shaver, who died Wednesday of a stroke at 81. Don’t take my word for it: Consider the list of artists who covered him, including the Allman Brothers, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley and, of course, Waylon Jennings. There was no mystery as to where these songs came from.
“All of them are based on things that happened to me,” he told me two years ago as we rambled through the Texas countryside in his touring van.
Shaver wrote with brutal honesty, a surgeon’s precision and the swagger of the greatest saloon poets of the 20th century.
“Billy Joe writes the kind of lines that make you think that you and he are the only ones who understand him,” Tom T. Hall wrote on the back cover of Shaver’s criminally overlooked solo debut, 1973’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.”
There’s a reason Bob Dylan once declared, in a song, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce.”
Things that happened to me. Shaver grew up in Corsicana, Tex., poor and abandoned by an abusive father. He quit school and picked cotton for a while, joined the Navy and eventually got a job in a sawmill, where he lost most of two fingers. But Shaver still managed to learn how to play guitar. His was a life full of love, conflict and chaos. Shaver would marry and divorce two different women three different times. (Yes, read that sentence again.) His struggles with drinking and drugs ended when he found Jesus. His misery over the loss of his son, Eddy — a talented guitarist who overdosed on heroin — never subsided.
Even his religious awakening didn’t soften him. He famously shot a man during an argument in 2007. The man survived and Shaver went on trial for aggravated assault. He was acquitted after testimony from his character witnesses, Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall, and then demanded that the guy give back his bullet, which was still lodged in his neck.
You could teach graduate school seminars on how Shaver constructed his songs, whether the coming-of-age tale of “Black Rose” or the heart-wrenching sadness of “Old Five and Dimers.” He could also convey a range of emotions within the deceptively simple language contained in just one paragraph.
“I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train honey
I wudn’t born no yestday
Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education
Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way”
Shaver was considered a pioneer or founding father of outlaw country music, which was an antidote to the slick, Nashville productions of the 1960s in the same way that punk responded to the bloated, arena-rock excesses of the ’70s. But Shaver preferred to see himself as an outcast — never quite fitting in, even within that outlaw subculture. It didn’t take him long to abandon Nashville, and he lived for decades in a modest home near Waco, Tex., playing gigs across the region. He wore denim tucked into denim and a cowboy hat. He tipped generously and signed most text messages, in all caps, GOD BLESS.
Though his geographic center was Central Texas, Shaver’s work traveled wide. Beyond the long list of covers, he would always be remembered for contributing nine of the 11 songs on Jennings’s “Honky Tonk Heroes.” That 1973 album would define both of their careers.
Actually, “Heroes” almost didn’t happen, as Shaver told me in 2018. The two met at a festival in 1972, where Jennings was impressed by Shaver’s performance of “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” a song Shaver had written for Nelson. Jennings said he wanted to record it. But then he avoided Shaver. Eventually, Shaver tracked Jennings down in a recording studio and cornered him.
Shaver recounted: “He said, ‘What do you want, hoss?’ I said: ‘Man, tell you what. I’ve got these songs like you said and you said you’d do an album of them, and if you don’t at least listen to them, I’m going to whip your a-- here in front of God and everybody.’ ”
Jennings listened, took the songs and, in the end, “Honky Tonk Heroes” drew attention not just from the country music press, but also Rolling Stone magazine.
Shaver’s own albums — he recorded 17 in all — never quite broke through, from his 1973 Kris Kristofferson-produced debut to 2014’s “Long in the Tooth.” But he never stopped working, performing as recently as January.
He had a heart attack onstage in 2001 but, rather than walk off, finished the gig and then fulfilled a commitment to tour Australia for three weeks. (He had quadruple bypass surgery after returning.) Shaver had a series of ailments over the years, including the coronavirus earlier this summer, and he had stopped playing guitar live because of a bad shoulder. But he remained intense during gigs, whether performing his nightly tribute to Eddy or arguing with someone in the crowd.
At a 2018 show at Riley’s Tavern in New Braunfels, Tex., I watched Shaver start the night smiling and posing for photos with fans. But midway through his set, he got annoyed by a man in the audience who he thought didn’t look enthusiastic.
So Shaver started cussing him out over the microphone.
“You’re standing up in front here and you got all these damned looks on your face like you hate the [expletive] world,” Shaver barked, “and you’re in front of a bunch of people who like me. Why don’t you come back yonder somewhere?”
He was 77.