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Billy Joe Shaver, singer-songwriter who inspired outlaw country, dies at 81

Billy Joe Shaver performs in 2013.
Billy Joe Shaver performs in 2013. (Frederick Breedon IV/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum)
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Billy Joe Shaver, a hardscrabble Texas singer-songwriter whose earthy and haunting lyrics helped inspire the “outlaw” movement in country music, died Oct. 28 at a hospital in Waco. He was 81.

His friend Connie Nelson told the Associated Press that the cause was a stroke. Mr. Shaver also had a fall in September and had been diagnosed over the summer with the novel coronavirus. He had a history of health problems, including a heart attack onstage in 2001.

Although he never commanded big record sales, Mr. Shaver garnered a devoted following among critics and his fellow musicians. Willie Nelson called him “the best writer in Texas,” and Bob Dylan acknowledged him with the line “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce” in his 2009 song “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”

Country performers such as Patti Loveless, John Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his songs. Waylon Jennings devoted nine of the 10 tracks of his album “Honky Tonk Heroes” (1973) to compositions by Mr. Shaver, who also appeared on the album’s cover.

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“His songs were of a piece, and the only way you could ever understand Billy Joe was to hear his whole body of work,” Jennings wrote in his autobiography. “Billy Joe talked the way a modern cowboy would speak, if he stepped out of the West and lived today. He had a command of Texas lingo, his world as down to earth and real as the day is long, and he wore his Lone Star birthright like a badge.”

The son of a waitress and a laborer, Mr. Shaver was raised in grinding poverty worsened by the abandonment of his father. He was raised mostly by his maternal grandmother, and after her death when Mr. Shaver was 12, he soon dropped out of school. He often credited an elementary school teacher with encouraging his interest in poetry and writing.

Mr. Shaver’s songs evoked dusty back roads, rural isolation, bar fights, knock-down drag-out marital squabbles and money lost at poker games, as well as the near-destitution of his youth and his own lofty ambitions.

As he sang in “Old Five and Dimers Like Me”:

I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be

More than the measure of what I thought others could see

Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between

For Cadillac buyers and old five-and-dimers like me

He also wrote religious and redemptive songs — such as “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday”), covered by Anderson and Johnny Cash — that reflected a born-again Christian faith. (A bumper sticker on Mr. Shaver’s car proclaimed “If you don’t love Jesus Christ, go to hell.”)

Mr. Shaver appeared in Robert Duvall’s acclaimed 1997 film “The Apostle” as the friend who helps Duvall’s character, a preacher who has murdered his wife, hide and leave town. Mr. Shaver — and many others — believed that he inspired the character of Bad Blake, the hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck country singer played by Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” (2009).

A salient detail at the beginning of the film involves Blake relieving himself in a bottle on a long road trip between gigs.

“I didn’t think anybody knew about that,” Mr. Shavers told the Kansas City Star. “But Robert Duvall is one of the guys that produced that thing, and I am sure that is where it came from.”

Mr. Shaver’s personal life was fraught. He struggled with cocaine and alcohol before swearing off both in the late 1970s. He married — and divorced — his childhood sweetheart three times. And on New Year’s Eve in 2000, his son Eddy, the lead guitarist in his band, died of a heroin overdose.

In 2007, Mr. Shaver shot a man in the cheek outside a bar in Lorena, Tex. He claimed the man insulted his wife and then attempted to knife him when they stepped outside to fight. He was found not guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

At a performance a couple of days later, he told the crowd: “It’s good to win. It’s so great because, they asked me, ‘What are you going to do about that boy you shot?’ I said, ‘I’m getting the damn bullet back.’ ”

Billy Joe Shaver was born in Corsicana, Tex., on Aug. 16, 1939. As a teen, he sang for tips in the Waco honky-tonk where his mother worked. He joined the Navy at 17 but was reportedly kicked out for fighting with an officer; he claimed he received an honorable discharge because the officer threw the first punch and was in civilian clothes.

Upon his return to Waco, he married his girlfriend, then pregnant with their son. At 21, Mr. Shaver lost two fingers and part of a third on his right hand — his picking hand — in a sawmill accident. After that, he used a fingerpick on his pinkie to strum the guitar. The incident convinced him to give up hard labor and pursue music.

“I wouldn’t ever have gone into music if I hadn’t lost my fingers,” he told Texas Monthly. “It led to a bunch of weird dominoes falling in a weird order.”

He saw Nelson perform in a local honky-tonk near Waco, and the two discussed his ambitions. Nelson wrote “Good luck with your songs in Nashville” on a matchbox, and in 1966, Mr. Shaver left his wife and son behind for the music city.

His relentless hustling led him to a job as a staff songwriter with a Nashville publishing company. At Nelson’s 1972 July Fourth picnic in Dripping Springs, Tex., a coked-up Jennings heard Mr. Shavers perform “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and promised to record the song. But then Jennings stopped returning his phone calls.

For six months, Mr. Shaver stalked Jennings, culminating in an uninvited appearance at a recording session. When Mr. Shaver threatened a fight, an angry Jennings told him he could audition one song — just one. Instead, he got to do several, and Jennings committed to an album of his songs.

Later, Mr. Shaver toured with Jennings, who, in the throes of cocaine addiction, would scratch himself raw. He recalled putting Jennings into a tight space in the back of the bus and holding him so that his arms wouldn’t move until he fell asleep.

Mr. Shaver recorded “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” the first of his 14 albums, in 1973. He never had a hit record of his own, but his performing career was rejuvenated when he teamed up with his son Eddy, a protege of Allman Brothers guitarist Dickie Betts, in 1987 to form the band Shaver.

A list of survivors could not be immediately determined. Mr. Shaver wrote a memoir, “Honky Tonk Hero (2005), with Brad Reagan, and sang “Warrior Man,” the theme to “Squidbillies,” an animated Adult Swim television series.

After his son’s death, Mr. Shaver briefly considered retirement but instead returned to writing and performing.

“To me, it’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is,” he told the Boot website in 2002. “Most of my songs are written trying to get back in the house or trying to stay alive — one or the other.”

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