Few people lived so hard, sinned so easily, or worked so thoroughly to redeem themselves the way country musician Billy Joe Shaver did in his 81 years. Willie Nelson once called Shaver “definitely the best writer in Texas,” yet nobody felt more insecure about his career. These tensions ran through Shaver’s long life, one that ended October 28 when he died of a stroke at Ascension Providence Hospital, in Waco.
In mid-October, Shaver had been rushed to the hospital after falling off a swing. Following hip surgery, he was transferred to St. Catherine Center, a rehab facility. On Friday, October 23, a confused Shaver called his close friend Connie Nelson, Willie’s ex-wife. He was unsure where he was and nervous because he had signed some papers. Nelson spoke with a nurse, who told her they were release forms for the surgery. “I told him, ‘They’re doing the work of the angels,’ ” Nelson says. “ ‘You and me, we ain’t through kickin’ ass yet.’ ”
That Sunday, Shaver texted Nelson, “I love you, Connie.” She replied, “I love you too.” He called other friends—singer Tanya Tucker and producer Gary Nicholson, both in Nashville. He seemed in good spirits. Shaver told Nicholson that they had him up and walking, and he thought he would get to leave the rehab center and go home soon.
Nelson got a call two days later, on October 27. Shaver had suffered a massive stroke. He was unresponsive and going back to the hospital. She called Shaver’s doctor and asked him to relay a message, whether he could hear it or not: “Let him know Willie and Connie love him so much.” The doctor assured her he would. The next day Shaver was taken off life support, and he died soon after.
Tributes poured in as the news got out. “Billy Joe Shaver might’ve been the only true outlaw who ever made his living writing about the inner workings of his heart,” tweeted the country musician Jason Isbell. “The realest of them all.” Tucker told me, “He was the constant songwriter. He was always writing. God put him on this earth to write songs.” From the very first Shaver songs that the Houston-bred singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell ever heard, “I was totally enamored,” he says. “I understood: this is a poet, this is someone with a vision.”
Billy Joe Shaver had a difficult early life. He was born in Corsicana on August 16, 1939, and was raised by his grandmother, Birdie Lee Watson. His mother, Victory, lived in Waco and waited tables in a honky-tonk called the Green Gables. Shaver’s father had left before he came into the world. Birdie Lee earned money making lye soap; she got Billy Joe a guitar when he was still in elementary school, and he would sometimes sing for coins at his mother’s bar. He started writing songs and dropped out of school in the eighth grade. At seventeen he joined the Navy, but he had a quick temper and was thrown out for punching an officer. He picked cotton, roughnecked, and worked at a sawmill to support his then-girlfriend (and later wife), Brenda, and then their young son, Eddy, who was born in 1962. At the age of 21, Shaver sliced off most of two fingers and part of a third on his right hand in a sawmill accident. The accident helped persuade him to try and make his living writing songs, and after getting some encouragement from Willie Nelson, whom he met in a Waco bar, Shaver spent several years in Nashville. He was inexperienced but cocky; once, he drove a motorcycle onto songwriting legend Harlan Howard’s porch and proclaimed that he himself was the greatest songwriter who ever lived. Nashville also offered plenty of opportunities for a licentious lifestyle, and Shaver took full advantage. “Drugs, doping, smoking, women,” he told me. “All kinds of drugs—speed, coke. I tried heroin once . . . I was so goddamn crazy. I was crazier than any of them. I went for it.” Not surprisingly, he and Brenda divorced.
Willie was Shaver’s idol, and the younger man wrangled an invite to play the Dripping Springs Reunion in 1972. Backstage, Waylon Jennings heard him play “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and was so impressed that he pledged to do an album of Shaver’s “cowboy” songs. The result, Honky Tonk Heroes (1973), included nine of Shaver’s soulful redneck tunes and became one of the founding documents of the progressive country movement. Everyone started covering Shaver, including Elvis and the Allman Brothers Band. “His songs are so real. And Texas,” Willie told me. “They’re pieces of literature. Everything he writes is poetry.”
Shaver and Brenda remarried, and he began releasing albums on his own, starting with Old Five and Dimers Like Me, in 1973, which was rife with emotionally honest songs—some of them culled from his own life. In “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” for instance, he sang about his “good Christian raising and an eighth-grade education.” His struggles with drugs and other vices continued through the seventies until he quit cold turkey. At the end of that decade, though, he and Brenda divorced a second time.
He revived his career in the mid-eighties, playing with his son, Eddy, on lead guitar. Shaver hadn’t been around much for Eddy’s childhood, but the two became inseparable; they called their band Shaver and released albums, including 1993’s Tramp on Your Street, on independent labels. The album featured one of Shaver’s greatest songs, “Live Forever,” a spiritual anthem cowritten with Eddy that reflected on Billy Joe’s born-again faith. “I’m gonna live forever,” he sang, “I’m gonna cross that river, I’m gonna catch tomorrow now.” It would go on to be covered by many artists, from Johnny Cash to the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Eddy, who struggled with heroin addiction, died of an overdose on December 31, 2000, at the age of 38. Shaver was devastated—and felt alone in the world. Both Shaver’s mother and Brenda had died of cancer the year before. “We always figured I’d be the one to go first,” said Shaver. He almost expired dramatically when, at an August 2001 show at Gruene Hall, in New Braunfels, he had a heart attack onstage. He thought this was part of God’s plan, and he prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for letting me die in the oldest honky-tonk in Texas. ”
Shaver’s faith got stronger as he continued writing songs, releasing albums, and touring. He loved the road, and his backing bands were composed of men half his age, whom he delighted in leading around. Shaver, who wore the same uniform every day—a faded denim shirt, jeans, worn cowboy hat, and boots—would carry $100 bills in his pockets and bet bandmates on the outcomes of football games or whether a convenience store carried bacon or not. “He didn’t give a shit about money,” says Mark Patterson, who drummed for Shaver at numerous shows for more than sixteen years. “He liked to keep things interesting.”
Onstage, Shaver came alive. In front of a crowd, the songwriter became an entertainer—singing, roaming the stage, gesticulating wildly, telling stories and jokes. He’d draw the crowd in with “Live Forever” and introduce his set-closer “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” by saying, “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell!” At the end of the song, he’d drop to his knees. “I thank Jesus Christ every chance I get,” he’d say.
But he was also mercurial. “He would go from one extreme to another,” says Jerry Hollingsworth, who had grown up in Waco idolizing Shaver and played guitar with him in the early 2000s. “As a person, he was extremely gentle, though he could have a bad temper.” Shaver would fire musicians and hire them back. He would fall into fits of paranoia, raging at band members (one night after a gig he accused guitarist Gabriel Rhodes of conspiring to drive their van into oncoming traffic, and he took over behind the wheel). He would then apologize the next day, pull each young man aside, and slip him a $100 bill. Though Patterson says Shaver was always extremely confident in his abilities, he suffered from dark bouts of insecurity. “I think he felt he never got his due.”
In 2005 Shaver cowrote a book on his life and career, Honky Tonk Hero, with Brad Reagan, who also hailed from Waco. Reagan loved Shaver and his music, but his subject wore him out. “He was the most difficult person I ever knew,” says Reagan, now an editor at the Wall Street Journal. “He was also incredibly tender and spiritual. All these contradictions are in his songs. They were also in his soul.”
Shaver cemented his infamous reputation in 2007, when he and his second wife, Wanda Lynn Canady (whom he had married, divorced, and remarried; as with Brenda, he would divorce and remarry her several times), walked into Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon, in Lorena, near Waco. There, he got into an altercation with a man whose cousin had previously been married to Wanda. In the ensuing argument, Shaver, according to one witness, asked the other man, “Where do you want it?” He then shot him in the face, almost killing him. Shaver went on trial for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and both Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall showed up to support their friend in court. Though several witnesses said that Shaver was the clear aggressor (“He may be a honky-tonk hero, “ said the prosecutor, “but on that day, he was a honky-tonk bully”), he was found not guilty.
Even in his final years, Shaver was indomitable. He spent this time mostly in isolation, living by himself in his home in Lorena. He kept writing and in 2014 released his last studio album of rollicking country songs, Long in the Tooth. His friend Gary Nicholson, who had known Shaver since the eighties, produced the album and cowrote about half the songs with him. “He was the most natural, intuitive songwriter I have ever worked with,” says Nicholson. Willie sang with his old friend on “It’s Hard to Be an Outlaw,” and at age 75, Shaver hit the road again with a three-piece band.
Shaver almost expired dramatically when he had a heart attack onstage at Gruene Hall. He prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for letting me die in the oldest honky-tonk in Texas. ”
He played Willie’s Fourth of July picnic in 2019, gray hair flying from under his worn old cowboy hat. And this past January, he got onstage with Tanya Tucker at the Ryman Auditorium to sing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday).” But in June 2020 he caught COVID-19, or as he called it, “the damn stuff,” which kept him quarantined at home. “I’m pretty strong,” he told me shortly after he contracted the virus. “I can still kick.” He attributed that to his attitude. “Some people want to die when they get up in age . . . I figure, with everything else that happened to me, this ain’t nothin’. I also got glaucoma in one eye and I’m gonna have to wear a patch. I read in the Bible it’s good to be one-eyed.”
Being alone suited Shaver. He used the time to start working on the second volume of his biography, which would start with the 2007 shooting. He also wrote more songs. “I got some stuff that’ll curl your toenails,” he told me. One of his new ones was called “The Yin Yang Thing,” which he said was about “yin and yang and karma,” adding: “If you do too much bad, you gotta start doing something good.” Shaver planned to record the songs by himself with his guitar if he couldn’t get into a studio. He wanted to tour again, if only he could get his hip replaced (he had a fracture in each hip), and he talked with Nicholson about going on the road together.
Shaver once told Connie Nelson he wasn’t afraid of dying. “I made my peace with Jesus a long time ago,” he told her. “The only thing I’m afraid of is not being relevant anymore.” Nelson, astonished, told him, “Your songs will live forever. And the stories about you will be told for eternity. And most of them are funny.” Shaver laughed out loud. She thought his feelings of inadequacy came from old wounds. “Billy Joe grew up feeling he was irrelevant his whole life,” Nelson says. “He had to fight for everything he got. He never felt like he was anything more than the kid with the eighth-grade education. I think that’s why he wrote all the time—so people would think, ‘Wow, he’s really good.’ ”
Nelson is grateful that she got to witness one of Shaver’s final performances. In July 2019, the family of recently deceased Western-wear matriarch Pat Cavender reached out to see if Shaver would sing at her funeral in Pittsburg, Texas. Shaver, who knew Cavender’s daughter Traci, agreed (he initially refused to be paid), and the family sent a private plane to pick him up in Waco, along with Nelson. He was in a bad way physically, Nelson remembers. “He was so fragile—he could barely walk.”
When it came time for him to sing, Shaver hobbled slowly up the stairs to the dais at the First Baptist Church, carrying his hat in his hand. He sat down in front of the crowd of mourners, placed his hat over his heart, then laid it beside him. Accompanied by a guitar player, Shaver performed a few gospel numbers, then closed the show with his own sublime “Live Forever.” “Just like the songs I leave behind me,” he sang, “I’m gonna live forever now.”