Billy Joe Shaver lived the way he wrote songs, Jason Isbell notes in a tweet honoring the outlaw country legend following his death on Wednesday (Oct. 28). The singer-songwriter was one of many to pay tribute to the late Shaver, who was 81.
“Billy Joe Shaver might’ve been the only true outlaw who ever made his living writing about the inner workings of his heart,” Isbell writes. “The realest of them all.”
“Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Live Forever” are among Shaver’s most famous songs: the former is the title track of Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album, while the latter is featured in the Jeff Bridges-starring movie Crazy Heart. In 2019, he earned the ACM’s Poet’s Award in recognition of his songwriting.
“His stories were captivating,” adds Travis Tritt in a tweet of his own. “He will be sorely missed.”
Josh Abbott, newsman Dan Rather and comedian Larry the Cable Guy are also among those sharing memories of Shaver and his music following his death:
After dropping out of school after eighth grade, joining the United States Navy on his 17th birthday and working various jobs — including one at a lumber mill where he lost most of two fingers on his right hand in an accident — Shaver landed in Nashville after setting out to hitchhike his way to Los Angeles, Calif. He began working a $50-per-week gig as a songwriter, and his writing earned the attention of Waylon Jennings, whose 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes is full of songs penned by Shaver.
Jennings’ endorsement led to other artists recording Shaver’s material, and to a record deal for Shaver himself. Shaver’s debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, arrived in 1973; his final and most successful album, 2014’s Long in the Tooth, charted at No. 19 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, though a 2007 record, Everybody’s Brother, earned a Grammy Awards nomination.
Shaver’s life inspired his fellow songwriters, too: for example, fellow Texan Dale Watson, who wrote “Where Do You Want It?” about the time in 2007 when Shaver was arrested on charges of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm in a prohibited place after allegedly shooting Billy Bryant Coker in the face outside of a Texas bar. While Coker maintained that the shooting was unprovoked, Shaver claimed Coker had threatened him with a knife, and that he shot Coker in self-defense. Shaver turned himself in, was released on bond, and, in 2010, was acquitted of the charges.
Shaver also occasionally worked as an actor, including in three movies with Robert Duvall: 1996’s The Apostle, 2003’s Secondhand Lions and 2005’s The Wendell Baker Story. In 2004, director Luciana Pedraza helmed A Portrait of Billy Joe, a documentary about Shaver. Additionally, Shaver performed the theme song for the Comedy Central show Squidbillies.
Shaver was preceded in death by his wife, Brenda Joyce Tindell, whom he divorced and remarried several times before her death from cancer in 1999, and their son, John Edwin “Eddy” Shaver, who died at the age of 38, on New Year’s Eve in 2000 of a heroin overdose. His mother also died of cancer in 1999.