The outlaw country great was 81
To some, Billy Joe Shaver might have seemed like one ornery individual.
Indeed, he was one of Americana’s original insurgents. In many ways, he was also a true forebear of the so-called “Outlaw Country” movement, although that singular designation didn’t stop him from attaining a wider reach. That came courtesy of his songs, many of which were covered by any number of leading lights — Elvis Presley, the Allman Brothers, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Patty Loveless, among them.
“I found out a long time ago that if you’re going to be honest, you have to write about things you know, and what’s going on with you,” Shaver told this writer when interviewed for the book Americana Music: Voices, Visionaries & Pioneers of an Honest Sound. “I decided to just be honest, and that made it necessary to write about things that happened to me, as well as the way I felt about this and that. It worked out good, and it’s stayed that way. I enjoy writing. It’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is…and I still need one, of course.”
Indeed, he was able to sum up his sentiments succinctly when he told another writer, “When you write songs, and you write good songs, people will always remember you. Words will always outlive us. And if your name is attached to those words, you’re gonna live forever.”
It was appropriate then that one of Shaver’s best known songs, appropriately titled “Live Forever,” was performed by actor Robert Duvall in his more memorable films Crazy Heart. In fact, Duvall was so enamored with Shaver’s gruff persona and world-weary perspective that he cast him in his film The Apostle and produced a documentary titled A Portrait of Billy Joe. Of course, Shaver himself was a natural as a character actor, as evidenced by his roles in the films Secondhand Lions, The Wendell Baker Story, and Bait Shop.
VIDEO: Robert Duvall performing Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” in Crazy Heart
Shaver, who died Tuesday at age 81 after suffering a stroke, leaves behind one of the most iconic catalogs in modern country history, including such classics as “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “I’ve Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” and “Ride Me Down Easy.” It was little wonder that he was honored with the first Americana Music Award for Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting in 2002, and then subsequently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006.
Then again, his irascible attitude sprung from real-life circumstance. His father left home before he was born and he was raised mainly by his grandmother. He worked the family farm while growing up, limiting the amount of time he had for formal schooling and never making it beyond the eighth grade. It was an experience that he immortalized in an especially notable line that accompanied the song “I’ve Been to Georgia on a Fast Train”: “I got all my country learning picking cotton, raising hell and bailing hay.”
Sadly, trouble and turmoil remained a constant throughout his life. He lost two fingers while working at a lumber mill as the result of an industrial accident. He lost his mother and his wife Brenda to cancer, and his son Eddy to a heroin overdose, after the two had teamed up on a series of highly regarded albums over the course of the ‘90s. He himself suffered a nearly fatal heart attack during a stage performance on stage and then had to undergo emergency heart surgery. However, his most legendary encounter may well have been an incident that took place at a bar in 2007 when he ended up shooting his antagonist. After fleeing the scene, he turned himself in and was subsequently acquitted. True to form, he immortalized the incident in one of his typically telling songs, “Wacko from Waco.”
AUDIO: Willie Nelson performing “Wacko From Waco” with Billy Joe Shaver
Nevertheless, despite his unconventional attitude — or perhaps because of it — he earned the respect and admiration of countless numbers of his peers, a wellspring of respect that began soon after he hitchhiked to Nashville in 1965, where he eventually arrived in the back of a cantaloupe truck. Bobby Bare hired him to write songs for $50 a week, and Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall followed suit by recording some of his compositions early on. His big break came in 1973 when Waylon Jennings recorded ten of Shaver’s songs for his landmark album Honky Tonk Heroes, followed by Shaver’s own iconic debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, which produced Kristofferson on borrowed and then made its way to the marketplace that same year. More than 20 albums followed on a variety of labels, including Everybody’s Brother, which earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Southern/Country/Bluegrass Album.
“I’ve had my moments, but all in all I’ve taken it well,” he said in that earlier interview. “I’m real proud of myself that I was able to stand up and carry on. There’s alway someone that has it worse than you. I don’t feel like I was picked on or kicked down. That’s just the luck of the draw. You play the hand you’re dealt with.”
And he did. So it’s little wonder then that on hearing of his passing, his friends and admirers quickly shared their sadness.
“On October 28th, I lost one of my greatest songwriting friends, Billy Joe Shaver,” Tanya Tucker remarked. “It’s a sad day and I’m just so torn between raising hell and lowering heaven a little bit…I just go from looking back on our wonderful memories together to tears, then back to memories again…He’s written so many songs, and I’m so glad I got to write a few of them with him. The whole songwriting community has suffered a huge loss today and most importantly the fans of country music. Billy was one of a kind, he wasn’t like anyone else…I just can’t find the words right now. Billy, he never had any trouble finding the right words when it came to a song, he was a master… I miss you already, my friend. Adios.”
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top added his thoughts as well, “Having been a longtime friend and fan of Billy Joe Shaver’s there was so much about him to love and enjoy. He was a great singer, songwriter and performer and, above all, a great storyteller. He will be missed.”
Indeed he will. Iconic individuals like Billy Joe Shaver don’t come around very often, but when they do, they make an indelible impression. Shaver certainly did and even in death, his music and memory will likely remain with us for a long time to come.