Billy Joe Shaver is dead at the age of 81. The iconic outlaw country songwriter died of a stroke on Wednesday (Oct. 28), in Waco, Texas, Rolling Stone confirmed with a friend of Shaver’s, Connie Nelson.
“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.
Shaver was born on Aug. 16, 1939, in Corsicana, Texas, to a single mother, Victory Watson Shaver. His father, Virgil, left the family (which also included Shaver’s older sister, Patricia) before his son’s birth, and Shaver spent plenty of his childhood with his grandmother, so his mom could work in nearby Waco.
Shaver dropped out of school after eighth grade, and joined the United States Navy on his 17th birthday. After leaving the military, he worked various jobs, including one at a lumber mill where he lost most of two fingers on his right hand in an accident involving the mill’s machinery; a serious infection slowed his recovery, and the injuries required that Shaver learn to play guitar with only three fingers on his dominant hand.
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 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 as well. Throughout the decades, he released more than a dozen albums with Monument, Capricorn, Columbia, New West Records and other labels. 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 a 2007 shooting involving Shaver outside of Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena, Texas. Shaver was arrested that April on charges of aggravated assault and possession of a firearm in a prohibited place after allegedly shooting Billy Bryant Coker in the face. 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.
Funeral arrangements for Shaver have not yet been made available.