Billy Joe Shaver, ‘outlaw country’ singer, dead at 81

Billy Joe Shaver, ‘outlaw country’ singer, dead at 81
Billy Joe Shaver, who pioneered outlaw-country music, died Wednesday. He was 81. (Laura Roberts/Invision/AP)

Billy Joe Shaver, a pioneer of outlaw-country music, died Wednesday in Waco, Texas, after suffering a stroke. He was 81.

Shaver’s death was confirmed by his friend, Connie Nelson, Variety reported.

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The singer-songwriter’s musical portfolio included classics such as “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Live Forever” and “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” He wrote nine out of the 10 songs on Waylon Jennings' 1973 album, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” Rolling Stone reported.

Shaver debuted the same year with “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” and was considered among the best performer of the “outlaw country” movement of the 1970s, along with Willie Nelson and Jennings, Variety reported.

Shaver’s song “Good Christian Soldier” was recorded by Kris Kristofferson on his 1971 album, “The Silver Tongued Devil and I,” according to the magazine.

Other artists to record his songs included Elvis Presley, David Allan Coe, Patty Loveless, Tom T. Hall, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Paycheck and Doug Kershaw. John Anderson took Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” to No. 4 on the country charts in 1981, Variety reported.

In 2007, Shaver released a duet he had recorded with Johnny Cash before that singer’s death, a gospel tune called “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” the magazine reported.

Shaver recorded 17 studio albums during his career; his last release was “Long in the Tooth” in 2014.

Shaver was born on Aug. 16, 1939, in Corsicana, Texas. He was raised by his mother and left to find a job working at a honky-tonk in Waco, Rolling Stone reported. When he was 21, Shaver lost two fingers from his right hand in a sawmill accident, prompting him to later joke, “I ain’t no finger-pointer. I can’t,” Rolling Stone reported.

Shaver’s life was dotted with tragedy. He married one of his wives three separate times; Brenda Tindell died of cancer in 1999, the same year as his mother. In December 2000, his son, Eddy Shaver, was found dead of a heroin overdose, the magazine reported. He also had a heart attack on stage during a performance.

Shaver made an appearance in the 1996 film “The Apostle,” and Robert Duvall sang one of his songs -- “Live Forever” -- in the film “Crazy Heart,” Variety reported.

A documentary about Shaver, “A Portrait of Billy Joe,” was released in 2004, the magazine reported.

Three years later, Shaver shot a man in the face outside a Texas bar but was acquitted of aggravated assault after claiming self-defense, according to Variety.

In January 2020, Shaver joined Tanya Tucker onstage to perform “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Rolling Stone reported.

Shaver was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.

“I know the power of words,” Shaver said in a 2014 interview with Esquire. “I figure they’d be here forever. I’m hoping a lot of them are gonna make it.”