Billy Joe Shaver: Gifted songwriter who embodied the lyricism of country music

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Garth Cartwright
·4 min read
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<p>Performing at a California music festival in 2016</p> (Getty)

Performing at a California music festival in 2016

(Getty)

Billy Joe Shaver, who has died from a stroke aged 81, was often heralded as the unofficial poet laureate of Texas. A gifted songwriter and gruff singer, Shaver embodied country music’s mix of lyricism, fatalism and hard living.

While his records enjoyed scant commercial success, Shaver’s exquisite songs would find everyone from Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson through to Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan singing them. Both on and off stage Shaver was a larger than life character, his music and rugged personality winning him a loyal following.

Shaver was born in Corsicana, Texas, to Victory (Watson) Shaver. His father fled the family after having beaten Victory brutally while she was pregnant, and young Billy and his sister were raised by their maternal grandmother. Victory worked in honky tonk bars (where young Billy would hear country music) but the youth had no inkling he might be a musician.

Having left school in his early teens to work as a farm labourer, Shaver joined the US navy aged 17 and, once discharged, briefly embarked on a career as a rodeo rider. An accident when working at a lumber mill cost him two fingers on his right hand.

Undeterred, Shaver taught himself to play guitar and turned an instinctive lyricism into songs. Shifting to Houston, he befriended Townes Van Zandt, another young songwriter with a poetic nature, and, at Van Zandt’s suggestion, hitchhiked to Nashville.

The country music establishment was reluctant to embrace Shaver and he struggled for several years until being signed to a publishing contract by Bobby Bare. He released his debut 45 in 1970 and his debut LP, Old Five and Dimers Like Me (produced by Kris Kristofferson), in 1973. On the title track, Shaver sings: “I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be/ More than the measure of what I thought others could see.” On another song, he noted how he was raised “on my grandmother’s old age pension”.

Shaver – an instinctive, droll, personal songwriter – would write hits for the likes of Johnny Cash while serving as a formidable reminder of country music’s rugged roots. In 1973, Waylon Jennings – then a country superstar – recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, an album of Shaver compositions.

Feted as one of the “outlaws” – those long-haired, non-conformist country singers who broke with Nashville’s conservative traditions – Shaver never enjoyed commercial success akin to Jennings and Willie Nelson. Publishing royalties allowed Shaver to live the life he loved, and his albums – which came out at a slow pace compared to Nashville’s production line – received excellent reviews; 1987’s Salt Of The Earth being a masterful homage to blue-collar American life. It featured Eddy Shaver, his son, on guitar. In the 1990s, the father and son would team up as Shaver, a country-rock outfit who appealed to a wide audience. Known for praying while on stage, Shaver would often write religious songs, claiming it was a hallucinatory visit from Jesus in a motel room that saved him from drug and alcohol addiction. But religion failed to temper Shaver’s wild side: in 2007 he shot a man in the face after a bar-room altercation. Pleading self-defence at trial, he was supported by Willie Nelson (who called him “the greatest living songwriter”) and actor Robert Duvall (Shaver acted in Duvall’s film The Apostle). He was found not guilty. He also survived a heart attack on stage in 2001.

His status continued to grow with Bob Dylan singing about listening to Shaver while reading James Joyce on “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”. In 2014, Shaver released his final album, Long in the Tooth. Interviewed by Rolling Stone, he declared: “I’m a songwriter first and then whatever else I do second... I enjoy the heck out of entertaining but the song is like the cheapest psychiatrist there is. And I pretty much need one all the time.”

He married Brenda Joyce Tindell in 1960 and their tempestuous relationship – they would divorce and remarry several times – fuelled his songs. Tindell died of cancer in 1999, as did his mother. Eddy Shaver, his only child, died of a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve 2000. Shaver swore that he was going to shoot the dealer responsible but Willie Nelson insisted he instead join him on stage that night.

He was an immensely exciting and unpredictable performer; his memoir, Honky Tonk Hero, reflects an American life lived without apology.

He is survived by his sister, Patricia Rogers.

Billy Joe Shaver, born 16 August 1939, died 28 October 2020

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