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Billy Joe Shaver, Texas songwriting legend, dies at 81

Peter Blackstock
Billy Joe Shaver, pictured at the 2019 Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Circuit of the Americas, died Wednesday morning in Waco.

Texas singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, who rose to prominence amid the outlaw country uprising in the early 1970s, died Wednesday morning in a Waco hospital after suffering a massive stroke the day before. He was 81.

Close friend Connie Nelson confirmed reports of Shaver’s death. Shaver had recently undergone hip replacement surgery and was recovering in a Waco rehabilitation facility when the stroke occurred on Tuesday morning. Nelson was called because she was listed as his emergency contact.

“They called me yesterday morning and told me they were taking him to the hospital and that he’d had a stroke,” Nelson said. “The doctor said it was a brain stem stroke, and that no one comes back from that.”

Doctors made the decision to wait until Wednesday to take Shaver off life support. Nelson said Shaver’s sister visited him in the hospital Tuesday night.

Shaver was born in Corsicana on Aug. 16, 1939, and lived primarily in Waco, but he had strong ties to Austin. He was a close friend and associate of Connie Nelson’s ex-husband, Willie Nelson, who recorded many of Shaver’s songs over the years. He performed here often, in settings ranging from the Austin City Limits Music Festival to honky-tonk haven the White Horse. He appeared four times on the TV show “Austin City Limits.”

In addition to releasing his debut album “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” in 1973, he wrote almost all the songs on Waylon Jennings’ landmark album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” released that same year.

A song Jennings and Shaver co-wrote, “You Asked Me To,” was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1975. That was just one of many Shaver songs eventually recorded by hundreds of artists. Among them: “Ride Me Down Easy” (Jerry Lee Lewis), “Georgia on a Fast Train” (Johnny Cash), “Black Rose” (Willie Nelson) and “Live Forever” (actor Robert Duvall, on the soundtrack to the film “Crazy Heart”). Nelson also included Shaver’s song “We Are the Cowboys” on his latest record “First Rose of Spring,” released in July.

Shaver released more than two dozen albums of his own across the ensuing decades, initially for major labels such as Columbia Records and later for indies like New West and Houston-based Compadre. The most recent, “Long in the Tooth,” came out in 2014 on the Lightning Rod label.

Shaver was a larger-than-life figure whose biography included dramatic highs and lows. He married, divorced and remarried Brenda Tindell, who died of cancer in 1999. Their son Eddy Shaver, who played guitar in his father’s band for many years, died of a heroin overdose on Dec. 31, 2000.

» READ MORE:Shaver tells audience he wants his bullet back

In 2007, Shaver was arrested for aggravated assault after shooting a man outside a bar in the Waco suburb of Lorena. Shaver was acquitted in 2010 after testifying that he acted in self-defense, in a trial that also included character-witness testimony from Willie Nelson.

Shaver lost most of two fingers while working at a lumber mill in the 1960s, then learned to play guitar without them. Connie Nelson says she met Shaver in 1970, around the time he became a close companion to Willie Nelson. He was part of a close circle of friends that included Nelson’s Highwaymen bandmates Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, as well as Texas music greats Jerry Jeff Walker and Johnny Bush, both of whom died earlier this month.

Connie Nelson said she and Shaver had been in constant contact over the past year, speaking at least once a week “and sometimes almost every day. So I know what he was feeling and thinking.”

She continued, “In one of our conversations a couple of months ago, he told me, ‘I’m not afraid of dying, because I made my peace with Jesus a long time ago. The only thing I’m afraid of is being irrelevant.’ I told him, ‘Oh my god, with all the songs you’ve written, there’s no way. And the stories about you are going to live forever.’”

» READ MORE:Part poet, part outlaw, all Texan: Billy Joe Shaver at 80

In addition to his many appearances at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnics, Shaver played the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion that was the spark for the future picnics. In 2012, he spoke to former American-Statesman staffer Dave Thomas about that event, which was Shaver’s first public performance.

"I rode bulls, and I done everything in the world with cattle and horses and stuff, and I wasn't scared," Shaver said. "But of all places, I got out there (onstage), my knees started knocking. And they gave me a chair. Somehow or another I was able to get the songs out and the trembling in my voice, I guess they thought that was emotion, but I was scared."

After a few songs, Shaver "was trying to get off the stage, and (Tex Ritter) grabbed me by the ear and put me back out there on the chair and said ‘keep playing.’ I said, ‘Man, I ain't no good.’ He said, ‘No, you're marked for greatness.’ I said, ‘I guess I am now.’”


2005: Billy Joe Shaver’s hard-knock past is an open book (by Richard Skanse)

1993: Outlaw songwriter Billy Joe Shaver finds champion in Willie Nelson (by Don McLeese)

Billy Joe Shaver onstage with Willie Nelson at the 2017 Luck Reunion in Spicewood. A sought-after songwriter, Shaver also released more than two dozen albums of his own.