Billy Joe Shaver, the tempestuous Corsicana-born singer and songwriter who helped launched the outlaw country movement, died Thursday in Waco after suffering a stroke. He was 81.
His songs were covered by Elvis Presley (“You Asked Me”), Bob Dylan (“Old Five and Dimers Like Me”) and dozens of country singers, including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, who helped him get his start. Shaver first gained widespread attention in 1973, when he wrote 11 songs on Jennings Honky Tonky Heroes, an album that helped launch the rough-hewn outlaw country genre.
Shaver’s songs could be poignant, like his classic “Live Forever.” But he often laced his lyrics with dark humor, as in “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” a Top 10 country hit for John Anderson in 1981.
His songwriting skills inspired awe among his peers. “He’s as real a writer as Hemingway,” Kris Kristofferson once told The Dallas Morning News. “He is timeless … he’s not as famous as he ought to be.” The late Dallas blues-rocker Bugs Henderson summed up his sense of wonderment in the song title: “Wish I Could Write Like Billy Joe.”
“My childhood was really very sad. My daddy left me before I was born and I didn’t have my mother ... she wouldn’t have much to do with me because she hated my father so,” he told the News in 1983.
After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he moved to Houston and Nashville to become a songwriter, without much success at first. To pay the bills, he worked at a sawmill, where he cut off two fingertips in an accident. He also tried being a carpenter but fell off a roof and broke his back.
His fortunes changed in 1971, when Kristofferson cut his tune “Good Christian Soldier” and got Shaver booked at Nelson’s first picnic in Austin, where he met Jennings. From there, he wrote songs for dozens of stars, from Patty Loveless to the Allman Brothers, and also recorded his own albums, which were met with strong reviews but modest sales.
Shaver battled drug and alcohol addiction, illness and tragedy for much of his life. His wife Brenda — whom he married three times and divorced twice — died in 1999 of rectal cancer. A year later, his son and touring partner Eddy Shaver died of a heroin overdose. In 2001, Shaver suffered a near-fatal heart attack while performing at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, requiring quadruple heart bypass surgery.
But it seemed nothing could keep him down. In 2007, at a bar outside Waco, he shot a man in the face but was later acquitted because he was acting in self defense. In typical Shaver fashion, he turned the incident into a song, “Wacko from Waco.”