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Texas Music Legend Billy Joe Shaver Dies at Age 81

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Billy Joe Shaver was a songwriter who thrived in the genre of outlaw country, likely because his life was filled with tragic lows and highs. He passed away on October 28, 2020, at the age of 81 from a stroke. His career was a busy one, in total releasing 27 albums and 20 singles, not to mention the myriad of songs written and sold to other artists. The universality of his words, their unpretentious experience, and heartbreak made him popular throughout many categories of music.

Born in Corsicana to a single working mother, Billy Joe Shaver mostly stayed with his grandmother on her farm. After the eighth grade, he left school to help pick cotton with his uncles. His 17th birthday saw enlistment in the U.S. Navy. After discharge, he married Brenda Joyce Tindell; over their lives, they would divorce and reconcile, eventually remarrying three times.

Photo: YouTube/compadrerecords

While working at a lumber mill, Shaver lost most of two fingers in an accident, contracting a serious infection. After recovery, he taught himself to play the guitar without those fingers. Then, he decided to hitchhike to California but couldn’t catch a ride west, so he jumped to the other side of the highway and headed east, eventually landing in Nashville, where he worked as a songwriter. Waylon Jennings’s album Honky Tonk Heroes features many of Shaver’s songs. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson also recorded his music, leading to Shaver’s own records where musicians such as Willie Nelson, Flaco Jiménez, Nanci Griffith, and Charlie Daniels can be heard.

In 1999, his mother and his wife, Brenda, died from cancer; the next year, his son Eddy died at age 38. The following year, Shaver had a heart attack while preforming at Gruene Hall, nearly dying himself. After his recovery, Shaver continued to play shows and record, and in 2006, he was inducted in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. The Americana Music Convention awarded him their Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting. Bob Dylan mentioned Shaver in his song “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” and sang covers of his songs.

In 2007, Shaver faced charges of shooting a man in the face at a bar. The jury acquitted Shaver, who pleaded self-defense. Outside the courtroom, Shaver said of the man he’d shot,  “Hopefully things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet.”

Billy Joe Shaver was a believer in Jesus Christ and wrote of his faith in many songs. “I figure that when we do pass, we actually start the beginning of forever then,” Shaver told Rolling Stone. “And of course I do believe in God, and I’m a born-again Christian, and Jesus Christ is the one who made us all number two.”