The Outlaw Country legend passed away Wednesday in Texas.
Billy Joe Shaver, the famed and influential country music singer-songwriter who was a prime mover behind the ‘70s Outlaw Country movement, passed away Wednesday morning after suffering a stroke at his home in Waco, Texas. He was 81.
A native of Corsicana, Texas, Shaver arrived in Nashville aboard a cantaloupe truck in 1966 — he was hitchhiking at the time — and signed a $50-a-week songwriting deal with Bobby Bare two years later. After Bare recorded Shaver’s “Ride Me Down Easy,” other musicians also took notice of his tunes — Kris Kristofferson did “Good Christian Soldier,” Tom T. Hall recorded “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me.” But he didn’t score his biggest career-boosting breakthrough until he wrote ten of the 11 songs Waylon Jennings recorded for his landmark 1973 LP Honky Tonk Heroes, largely considered to be the first true Outlaw Country album.
One of the songs Shaver wrote for Honky Tonk Heroes, “You Asked Me To,” was a Top 10 hit for Jennings, and later covered by Elvis Presley. Another song, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” served as the title track for Shaver’s first solo album, also released in 1973, which Kristofferson produced.
Shaver went on to record more than 20 albums for such labels as MGM, Capricorn, Columbia, Zoo/Praxis, New West, and Sugar Hill Records, often accompanied by such notables as Willie Nelson and Charlie Daniels. His 2007 album Everybody’s Brother earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Southern/Country/Bluegrass Album, and his most recent release, 2014’s Long in the Tooth, was his first to chart in Billboard’s Top Country Albums.
But he remained throughout his career better known as a songwriter rather than a singer, penning such classics “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Tramp on Your Street,” and “Try and Try Again.”
One of Shaver’s signature songs, “Live Forever,” was performed by Robert Duvall in the film Crazy Heart. A long-time admirer and friend, Duvall cast Shaver in his 1996 movie The Apostle, leading to Shaver’s landing roles in such other films as Secondhand Lions, The Wendell Baker Story, and Bait Shop. Duvall also produced the documentary A Portrait of Billy Joe.
Shaver’s music attracted many other superstar admirers over the years. Johnny Cash, who covered Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” called him “my favorite songwriter,” while Willie Nelson, a frequently Shaver collaborator, declared that “Billy Joe is definitely the best writer in Texas.” Bob Dylan not only performed Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” in concert, but even name-checked him in his tune “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”
“Billy Joe Shaver might’ve been the only true outlaw who ever made his living writing about the inner workings of his heart,” country artist Jason Isbell noted on Twitter after hearing of Shaver's death. “The realest of them all.”