Essentials: The Top 10 Billy Joe Shaver albums

Billy Joe Shaver is one of a particular brand of people that seem to populate americana music; a legend within the genre, but virtually unknown outside of it. One measure of the esteem in which he was held is to look at the artists who appeared on last year’s tribute album ‘Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver’. They included Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Miranda Lambert, Margo Price, Ryan Bingham and Nathaniel Rateliff. In short, Billy Joe Shaver was a songwriter that other songwriters admired and looked up to.

Billy Joe Shaver didn’t have the most promising start in life. Raised by his single mother, he was first exposed to country music when he, from the age of 12, started to accompany her to her job in a Waco nightclub. He left school early to pick cotton and then joined the US Navy at 17 years old. Upon leaving the navy he took a series of manual jobs including working in the sawmill that saw him lose two fingers in a machine accident. After recovering he taught himself to play guitar without the missing fingers. He began writing and moved to Nashville where he got a job as a songwriter. Among those who recorded his songs were Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. This success led him to his first record deal with his debut album ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ released in 1973. His last album ‘Long in the Tooth’ was released some 41 years later in 2014. Billy Joe Shaver died from a stroke in October 2020, aged 81 years.

With albums spanning 41 years inevitably some very good records are going to not appear in this list, particularly as I have omitted any live albums, the best of which are ‘Unshaven: Shaver live at Smith’s Olde Bar’ and ‘Live at the Bluebird Cafe 1992’.  However, such was the consistency of the man, there is not a Billy Joe Shaver album that I would not be happy to listen to, or indeed to recommend. But the remit for this feature is the Top 10, so with apologies to anything missing, here goes:

Number 10: Shaver ‘The Earth Rolls On’ (2001)
‘The Earth Rolls On’ was the last Shaver recorded with son Eddy before his suspicious death on New Year’s Eve 2000 – the official cause was given as a heroin overdose. However, the daughter of the Austin police chief had been in his flat and Eddie had mysteriously suffered injuries to his head consistent with multiple blows. Having lost his mother and then his wife Brenda in 1999, the album was already a reflection on love, life, and mortality. Eddy’s death brings an even greater sense of sadness and poignancy to the title track.

Number 9: Billy Joe Shaver ‘Freedom’s Child’ (2002)
Following the loss of son Eddie, ‘Freedom’s Child’ was the first album to carry Billy Joe’s full name since 1987’s ‘Salt of the Earth’. On the album Shaver mixes up the styles with rockers and honky-tonkers, taking their place alongside quieter folk songs and acoustic laments. Following Shaver’s personal tragedy ‘Freedom’s Child’ is a remarkable response.

Number 8: Billy Joe Shaver ‘Billy Joe Shaver’ (1982)
Despite being self-titled, this was in fact Shaver’s fifth album. It featured new recordings of some of Shaver’s most popular songs to this point. Rather than overblow them, Shaver uses largely subtle arrangements to give the songs a slightly different hew rather than a major overhaul. Recorded in Nashville, amongst the players featured are Gordon Payne, Ricky Skaggs and Randy Scruggs. Unfortunately the album was never issued on CD and consequently original vinyl copies fetch very high prices.

Number 7: Shaver ‘Victory’ (1998)
Billy Joe Shaver was always an unashamedly spiritual man, and this had been reflected in some of his songs on previous albums. With ‘Victory’ though he and son Eddie stripped everything back musically to make an acoustic album of warm and soulful faith songs. Shaver sounds relaxed and comfortable with this more laid-back approach, delivering perhaps his best vocal performance of any album.

Number 6: Billy Joe Shaver ‘When I Get My Wings’ (1976)
Shaver’s second album, and the first of two that he made for Capricorn Records, contains many excellent songs, although they are sometimes slightly strangled by Bob Johnston’s overzealous production. Nevertheless, despite this, the songs do manage to shine through with Shaver affirming his reputation as a songwriter of some distinction. Capricorn certainly went to town in welcoming their new signing, amongst the musicians appearing on the album are Dicky Betts, Bonnie Bramlett, Charlie Daniels, Tommy Talton and Scott Boyer.

Number 5: Shaver ‘Highway of Life’ (1996)
During the Shaver years it can be argued that Eddy’s guitar sometimes overwhelmed Billy Joe and left him struggling to get his words across. Here the polar opposite applies. ‘Highway of Life’ presents a more subtle folky-acoustic side of the Shavers with everything dovetailing perfectly to create a crisp sound where both voice and instrumentation complement one another, rather than being in competition.

Number 4: Billy Joe Shaver ‘I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal…But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day’ (1981)
Despite its rather unwieldy title, the title track of Shaver’s fourth album became one of his best-known songs and was covered by multiple artists including Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, and more recently Miranda Lambert. However, despite the title track hogging the limelight, the album is crammed full of other equally good, and arguably better songs, making it one of Shaver’s strongest and deepest albums.

Number 3: Billy Joe Shaver ‘Long in the Tooth’ (2014)
Like his contemporary, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver’s final album was his best in years. Featuring guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and Tony Joe White, ‘Long in the Tooth’ contained ten brand new Billy Joe Shaver compositions. It was also after 41 years his first album to make the US Country Music Chart albeit at a modest Number 19. Shaver’s world-weary voice coupled with the sympathetic production of Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson, not to mention a fistful of great songs make this album a very fine epitaph for a true honky-tonk hero.

Number 2: Shaver ‘Tramp on Your Street’ (1993)
‘Tramp on Your Street’ was the first album to be credited to ‘Shaver’ the father and son duo of Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver. The combination of Billy Joe’s lyricism and Eddy’s guitar-playing and arrangements are just stunning. The material is a bit rockier and in-your-face than previous Billy Joe outings, but he pulls it off with great power and conviction. Six years after the relatively lame ‘Salt of the Earth’ this is the sound of a man reinvigorated.

Number 1: Billy Joe Shaver ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ (1973)
Billy Joe Shaver’s debut album, produced by Kris Kristofferson, announced the arrival of a major songwriting talent. He went on to make 17 studio albums, many of them top drawer, but arguably, and Guy Clark is again a good parallel, none quite so consistently excellent as his first. Drawing from country, folk and blues, Shaver’s songwriting was already making waves even before he recorded this album, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings being amongst those that had recorded his songs. Sometimes criticised for the limitations of his own voice, this album demonstrates clearly that you cannot surpass the poignancy of a writer delivering his own words. The songs themselves are absolute gems – every one of them, and demonstrate that despite the lack of success of his own recordings, Billy Joe Shaver was a major and criminally underrated talent.

About Clint West 327 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andy Trott

A great appraisal Clint and a nice choice of albums. Billy Joe Shaver, they aint making outlaws like him anymore!

Ian Richardson

Great piece about a true Texan legend. When I did my father of the bride speech in 2011, I was looking for a neat way of finishing and leading to the toast. I said I had scoured the works of the romantic poets, classic movies and the Bronte sisters – but the most romantic message i could find was from BJS – LOVE IS SO SWEET, IT MAKES YOU BOUNCE WHEN YOU WALK DOWN THE STREET.