Billy Joe Shaver, the outlaw-county music pioneer who wrote some of the genre’s greatest songs, died Wednesday October 28 in Waco, Texas, after suffering a stroke at the age of 81. Connie Nelson, one of Shaver’s friends confirmed his death.
A hardscrabble Texas singer-songwriter whose earthy and haunting lyrics helped inspire the “outlaw” movement in country music. Shaver’s hard-lived career classics included “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” and “Live Forever.” He wrote nine out of the 10 songs on Waylon Jennings’ 1973 outlaw-country breakthrough Honky Tonk Heroes and also appeared on the album’s cover. Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recorded his songs; and in 2010, Willie Nelson called him “the greatest living songwriter.”
Other country performers to record his songs included such stars as Patti Loveless, John Anderson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Despite never having a solo career as successful as the peers who cut his songs, Shaver’s solo recordings are country-music essentials: “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Tramp on Your Street” and “You Asked Me To,” among them. His optimistic track “Live Forever” became his signature song, with Shaver performing it onstage with arms outstretched. A devout Christian, he’d dramatically drop to his surgically repaired knees during “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” an irreverent prayer in which Shaver calls his savior a “compound country kinda guy.”
He further preached his faith in the equally rambunctious “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” with John Anderson.
Shaver recorded and toured up until his death. In January, he joined Tanya Tucker onstage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium to perform “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal.” In 2004, Shaver was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. But while he’s mentioned in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s exhibit devoted to outlaw country, his own induction has eluded him.
He also wrote religious and redemptive songs, such as “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday”), recorded by Anderson and Johnny Cash, that reflected a born-again Christian faith. (A bumper sticker on Mr. Shaver’s car proclaimed, “If you don’t love Jesus Christ, go to hell.”)
Mr. Shaver appeared in Robert Duvall’s acclaimed 1997 film “The Apostle” as the friend who helps Duvall’s character, a preacher who has murdered his wife, hide and leave town. Mr. Shaver and many others believed that he inspired the character of Bad Blake, the hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck country singer played by Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” (2009).
Mr. Shaver recorded “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” the first of his 14 albums, in 1973. He never had a hit record of his own, but his performing career was rejuvenated when he teamed up with his son Eddy, a protege of Allman Brothers guitarist Dickie Betts, in 1987 to form the band Shaver. And on New Year’s Eve in 2000 he lost his son Eddy, the lead guitarist in his band, who died of a heroin overdose.
Billy Joe Shaver was born in Corsicana, Tex., on Aug. 16, 1939. As a teen, he sang for tips in the Waco honky-tonk where his mother worked. A list of survivors could not be immediately determined.