Singer-songwriter and outlaw country legend Billy Joe Shaver dies aged 81

Singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver performs on stage at Belly Up Tavern on March 8, 2015 in Solana Beach, California
(Image credit: Daniel Knighton/FilmMagic)

Billy Joe Shaver, the singer, songwriter and guitarist whose songs were recorded by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley and others, died on Oct. 28 in Waco, Texas, after suffering a stroke. He was 81.

Upon the news of Shaver’s death, friends and peers shared public tributes.

"Having been a longtime friend and fan of Billy Joe Shaver’s, there was so much about him to love and enjoy," ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons said in a statement to Billboard. "He was a great singer, songwriter and performer and, above all, a great storyteller. He will be missed."

“Billy Joe Shaver might’ve been the only true outlaw who ever made his living writing about the inner workings of his heart,” wrote Jason Isbell on Twitter. “The realest of them all.”

Shaver’s colorful life mirrored some of the hard-luck, outlaw characters he wrote about: as a young man he lost the tops of several fingers in a sawmill accident; in 2001 he suffered a heart attack onstage during a New Year’s Eve show; and in 2007 he was charged with shooting a man in the face outside a bar in Texas.

It was his songs, however, that made him a legend. He wrote classics like Georgia on a Fast Train and Live Forever, as well as almost all of Waylon Jennings’ 1973 seminal outlaw country effort Honky Tonk Heroes.

Shaver was born in Corsicana, Texas on August 16, 1939. He was mostly raised by his mother and on occasion accompanied her to a job at a local nightclub, where he was exposed to country music. He once said he started writing his own songs and performing at “five or six years old.”

At 17 Shaver joined the US Navy. After he was discharged, he got married and had a child. He picked up a series of dead-end jobs, one of which was at a lumber yard. While working there, he got his right hand caught in a piece of machinery, resulting in the loss of part of two fingers and several others being partially mangled. Nevertheless, he taught himself to play guitar and became determined to make a career of music.

“When I cut my fingers off, I made a deal with God,” he told CMT in 2012. “I said, 'If you get me out of this, I will go on and do what I am supposed to do.' "

Shaver went to Nashville, and spent several years trying to get publishing companies to listen to his songs. Without success, he returned to Texas. He soon headed back to Music City for another go at it. 

This time, he caught the ear of singer Bobby Bare, who liked what he heard and hired Shaver to write songs for his publishing firm, Return Music Company, for $50 a week.

Ride Me Down Easy, written by Shaver, became Bare's first number one hit. Shaver also came to the attention of Kris Kristofferson, who recorded his song Good Christian Soldier in 1971, as well as Waylon Jennings, who released the Shaver-packed Honky Tonk Heroes two years later.

Other artists who recorded Shaver's songs include Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, David Allan Coe, Patty Loveless, Tom T. Hall, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Paycheck and many more.

Shaver released more than a dozen solo albums over the course of his career, beginning with 1973’s Old Five and Dimers Like Me, though he never had the same success with his own recordings as he did when others interpreted his music.

He released his final album, Long in the Tooth, which featured a duet with Willie Nelson, in 2014.

In 2009, Bob Dylan referenced Shaver in a lyric in his song I Feel a Change Comin’ On, singing, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce.”

Shaver was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006 and was also a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Americana Music Association and in 2019 the Academy of Country music gave him its Poets Award.

In 2010 Willie Nelson called Shaver “the greatest living songwriter.”

Whether or not Shaver agreed with Nelson's statement, he told CMT, “I am happiest right after I write a great song. For me, it’s a wonderful gift that God gave me. I am proud to do the best I can with it.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.