Famously described by Willie Nelson as “the greatest living songwriter” Billy Joe Shaver led an eventful and often tragic life before succumbing to a massive stroke at the age of 81. Although he will perhaps be primarily remembered for the quality of the songs he wrote, he also recorded and performed consistently in his own right, releasing seventeen studio albums as well as six live ones. Amongst those albums were some genuine classics. However, throughout his career, they tended to find favour more with fellow songwriters, musicians, critics and his dedicated fanbase than they did with a wider public. Bob Dylan’s reference to him in his 2009 song ‘I Feel a Change Coming On’ illustrates this perfectly “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce”. Only his final 2014 album, the self-deprecatingly titled ‘Long in the Tooth’ registered (modestly) on the US Country Music Chart. Yet despite his limited sales, the influence of Billy Joe Shaver was enormous.
Billy Joe Shaver’s 1973 debut album ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ immediately marked him out as a songwriter of exceptional quality. With two of the songs on the album covered by leading members of country music’s ‘outlaw’ movement, Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe, Shaver became associated with that sub-genre. In the same year, Jennings included no less than ten songs written by, or co-written by Shaver on his influential ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ album. Shavers’ songs were also recorded by many leading artists including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall and Patty Loveless, but arguably his own gritty delivery served them best, both live and on the best of his recorded output.
Shaver followed up his debut with two albums that he recorded for Capricorn Records, ‘When I Get My Wings’ (1976) and ‘Gypsy Boy’ (1977), each one further cementing his songwriting reputation. A switch to a major label in the form of Columbia, seen at the time as his big break, failed to bring commercial success. His three albums for Colombia were all reasonable enough, with the third, 1987’s ‘Salt of the Earth’ narrowly the pick of them, but failed to reach the heights of those which both preceded and then followed them. His first post-Colombia album ‘Tramp on Your Street’ was issued under the name ‘Shaver’ and heavily featured his son Eddy on guitar. The album was widely acclaimed and is often cited as amongst his best. A consistent run of albums then followed for Justice and New West Records including ‘Highway of Life’ and ‘Victory’ which were also issued under the ‘Shaver’ name.
Billy Joe Shaver was always a man of faith – he wrote ‘You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ’ in 1987, but following the death of his son Eddy in 2000, religion played an ever more prominent part in his life. Increasingly this was reflected in his music too, culminating in the 2007 release of his ‘Everybody’s Brother’ album of country-gospel songs which was nominated for a Grammy Award. The album featured duets with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and others, as well as the playing of Marty Stuart and Randy Scruggs. A series of health issues then limited his work thereafter, with his final album, the aforementioned ‘Long in the Tooth’ released some seven years later.
In addition to his musical career, Billy Joe Shaver occasionally took acting roles. His best-known part being in the 1996 film ‘The Apostle’ in which he played alongside Robert Duvall. Duvall also performed Shaver’s best-known song ‘Live Forever’ in the 2009 movie ‘Crazy Heart’. In 2004 Shaver was the subject of a documentary about his extraordinary life and music (little did they know what was still to come). The film is called ‘A Portrait of Billy Joe’ and is well worth a watch to reveal a fascinating insight into the man and his music.
The life of Billy Joe Shaver was filled with events, often tragic, that if they were fictional might have been deemed far-fetched. Born in August 1939 in Corsicana, Texas, Shaver was brought up by his mother Victory Shaver, his father having left her before he was born. As a boy, he would sometimes accompany his mother to work at a local bar where he first heard country music played. He joined the US Navy when he reached seventeen. After his discharge, Shaver aimlessly drifted from job to job before taking one in a sawmill. An accident there resulted in the loss of two fingers on his right hand. Undaunted, Shaver taught himself to play the guitar in a unique style, without the use of those fingers.
Prior to the sawmill accident, Shaver met and married Brenda Tindell. The pair had one son Eddy, who would later play on some of his father’s records before his tragic death from a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve 2001. This followed on from Billy Joe having suffered a heart attack on stage earlier that year from which he was still recovering. Billy Joe and Brenda had a stormy relationship resulting in frequent separations, two divorces each later resulting in a re-marriage. Shaver lost Brenda and his mother, both to cancer, in a two-year period when he also lost son Eddy. If that wasn’t enough to take, Shaver also fought a continuous battle with drug and alcohol addictions for over twenty years.
In 2007 Shaver hit the headlines when shot a man outside a bar in Lorena, Texas. The man survived and Shaver was charged with aggravated assault. He was later acquitted on the grounds that he had acted in self-defence. In 2019 he narrowly escaped death when he contracted flu and pneumonia, then in June 2020, he managed to see off Covid-19 before finally, the stroke took him four months later.
Notwithstanding sometimes being portrayed as difficult and awkward, Billy Joe Shaver was an inspiration to many other musicians and writers who admired his work. Despite being labelled as part of the ‘outlaw’ movement Shaver was always his own man. His fierce independence probably cost him greater commercial success, particularly at Columbia. What it did do though, was to bequeath a formidable legacy of music that sadly and ironically may only get the wider recognition it deserves, through his passing.