The outlaw-country music genre has lost its second great singer-songwriter within a week, with the death of Billy Joe Shaver on October 28 in Waco, Texas. He was 81.
Shaver, who Willie Nelson had described as “the greatest living songwriter,” died only five days after country music lost Jerry Jeff Walker, acclaimed writer of the classic “Mr Bojangles.”
Like Jerry Jeff, Billy Joe could lay claim to a number of outlaw classics like “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Georgia on a Fast Train” and his impressive catalogue of songs would be covered by some of the biggest names in music from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash.
He got his big break in 1973 when fellow-Texan Waylon Jennings included nine of ten songs on his acclaimed album Honky Tonk Heroes – considered one of the greatest-ever albums in country music and certainly the most defining of the outlaw-country genre.
Billie Joe had come to Waylon’s attention in 1971 when they both attended a songwriter’s session during Willie Nelson’s annual picnic concert. The song Shaver played was actually an ode to Willie titled “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me.” Jennings loved the endearing number – it was to be included in Honky Tonk Heroes - and immediately asked if he had anymore “cowboy songs.” Billy Joe replied: “I’ve got a sackfull of them.”
It was to take nearly two years before Jennings got his hand in the sack. Billy Joe is said to have gone to Nashville to confront Waylon about his request and is famously quoted as saying: “‘If you don’t listen to them, I’m going to whip your ass right here in front of God and everybody.'” He never had any qualms about Jennings using his songs: “Oh it was great because the songs were bigger than me. And I couldn’t possibly sing as good as Waylon.”
In the same year that Jennings released Honky Tonk Heroes, Billy Joe delivered his debut album - Old Five And Dimers Like Me. The title track was tagged by one reviewer as “a masterpiece not only as a genesis for outlaw country, but of American song-writing at its very best.” Masterpiece it was, if only for such sensational lyrics as Fence yards ain’t hole cards and like as never will be/Reason for rhymers and old five and dimers like me
If there is one song – from a vast songbook of 18 original albums – that should resonate in the fractured society that is America 2020, it is “(We Are) The Cowboys.” In this 1981 tribute to the American cowboy, he profoundly wrote: Cowboys are average American people/Texicans, Mexicans, Black men and Jews. The song also includes another example of his literary wit: We’re picking our words/So we don’t have to eat ‘em
There were a bunch of clever lines littered amongst various songs, including Oh my and my how those eagles fly/Goodbye bottom dollar goodbye (“Bottom Dollar”); The devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own (“Black Rose); I may be as ugly as an old mud-rail fence/But I’m loaded with hillbilly charm (“Ragged Old Truck’); Hey I’m just an old chunk of coal/But I’m gonna be a diamond someday (“I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal”).
Shaver, who was born in Coriscana, Texas, has been quaintly described as a “colourful raconteur” largely because of his personal life which proved a combination of hard luck and hard livin’.
He joined the U.S. Navy on his seventeenth birthday and when he was eventually discharged from the military, he met and married Brenda Joyce Tindell. Their son Eddy was born in 1962. The couple divorced and remarried three times, and Shaver wasn’t shy about writing about the turmoil in song:
It’s my life and no wife of mine’s gonna tell me
I can’t go and have me some fun
So before that old heffer drives back in Waco
You can bet your rear end I’ll be gone
His life was, in fact, at times tragic. Brenda and Shaver’s mother both died in 1999 and the next year he lost son Eddy of a heroin overdose at age 38. Eddy had been a long-time guitarist for his father and the pair wrote songs together. In 2001, Billy Joe himself nearly died when he suffered a heart attack while performing in Texas. After surgery, he soon got back to work and was to release one of his finest albums Freedom’s Child in 2002.
Shaver made the headlines in 2007 when he was charged with aggravated assault and possessing a firearm after shooting a man in the face with a handgun. The pair had been involved in an altercation outside a saloon in Lorena, Texas. He was eventually acquitted in a Waco court after testifying he acted in self-defense.
Billy Joe was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. He released his final album Long in the Tooth in 2014. It included a duet “Hard to Be an Outlaw” with Willie Nelson and Willie cut a stunning version of “We Are the Cowboys” for his 2020 release First Rose of Spring. Billie Joe kept performing until his death and in January he duetted with Tanya Tucker on “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
He once told Esquire: “I’ll bob till I drop!”
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation