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Hard Country Poet Billy Joe Shaver Dies at 81

Billy Joe Shaver at Music City Roots, April 15, 2015

Billy Joe Shaver, the unruly, unpolished and utterly brilliant poet laureate of Outlaw country music, died early Wednesday in a Waco, Texas hospital following a stroke. He was 81. Shaver strummed his guitar with a right hand that was missing two fingers, casualties of a sawmill accident. He married and/or divorced the same woman, the mother of a son he lost to a drug overdose, at least four times. He stood trial for shooting a man in the face in 2007 and beat the rap. And over a fifty-plus-year career, his lyrics rang like iron on iron, plainspoken yet suffused with wordplay, poignancy and keen observation.

Shaver’s vast catalog has been revered and tapped countless times by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, George Jones, Keith Whitley and Elvis Presley. “Georgia On A Fast Train,” with its rippling autobiographical tale of a man born in a sharecropper’s shack and an upbringing of “picking cotton, raising hell and bailing hay,” was recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Commander Cody. “Honky Tonk Heroes” became the anchoring title track of a legendary 1973 album by Waylon Jennings that put Shaver on the map and which also included masterpieces such as “Old Five And Dimers Like Me” and “Ride Me Down Easy.” “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal” is a country blues stunner that likens the pressure of geological time and force to the tests that make a man (“I’m gonna be a diamond some day”). And “Live Forever,” written with his son Eddy during their time as a band, gracefully mingles Shaver’s Christian faith in the afterlife with the value of earthly, familial love. It was sung by Robert Duvall in the motion picture Crazy Heart.

“He was the ultimate sweetheart among the Texas outlaws,” said Ray Kennedy, a close friend who produced and engineered numerous Shaver projects. “He was a boxer when he was younger, and he was known for the one punch knockout. I mean, he played gigs in Texas bars, and after the gig, people would be lined up to fight him in the parking lot. Because he's a big guy, and he's tough and he's strong. He's a cowboy. But on the inside, he was the sweetest person, I would say I've probably ever known.”

Shaver was born in Corsicana, TX in the summer of 1939 and raised in and around nearby Waco by his single mother and his grandmother. The “eighth grade education” he sang about was his story, and when he turned 17, he joined the Navy. After that stint, the birth of his son in 1962 and the ill-fated sawmill job, he did have working thumbs and he put them to use hitchhiking, but plans to make it to Los Angeles got detoured to Nashville. He bulldozed his way into the attention of Music Row in the middle 1960s, starting with Bobby Bare, who gave him a publishing deal. Then it was Waylon Jennings, whom he promised he’d beat up if the star didn’t listen to his songs. After Waylon obliged, he wound up cutting the all-Shaver-penned Honky Tonk Heroes album.

Shaver’s first album as an artist came that same year, 1973, with Old Five And Dimers Like Me on Monument Records, produced by Kris Kristofferson. He never settled down long with any one label, pursuing a hot and cold recording career that included MGM, Capricorn, Columbia, Zoo/Praxis, New West, and Sugar Hill Records. His album Tramp On Your Street of 1993 was a landmark that featured the blazing guitar playing of Eddy along with the songs “Heart Of Texas” and “Live Forever.” Sadly, Eddy died on the last night of the year 2000, marking a time of hardship in Billy Joe’s life when he nearly died himself after a heart attack.

Shaver made it to the Grand Ole Opry in 1997 and a series of television appearances and press notices in the 2000s helped him achieve some of the fame his talents deserved. He earned a Grammy nomination for his 2007 album Everybody’s Brother. He was featured in the Mike Judge animated comedy documentary series Tales From The Tour Bus. The Americana Music Association granted him its first Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting in 2002, and last year the Academy of Country Music gave Shaver its Poet’s Award.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.