Billy Joe Shaver, the outlaw country music pioneer who wrote some of the genre’s greatest songs, died Wednesday in Waco, Texas, after suffering a stroke. He was 81. Connie Nelson, a friend of Shaver’s, confirmed his death to Rolling Stone.
Shaver’s hard-lived career classics included “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” and “Live Forever.” He wrote ten out of the 11 songs on Waylon Jennings’ 1973 outlaw country breakthrough Honky Tonk Heroes; Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley all recorded his songs; and in 2010, Willie Nelson called him “the greatest living songwriter.”
Shaver lived the outlaw lifestyle that others only sang about. In 2007, he was charged with shooting a man in the face at a bar near his home in Waco. The trial drew friends including Nelson and the actor Robert Duvall in support of Shaver, who was ultimately found not guilty and went on to turn the ordeal into a song, “Wacko From Waco.”
Born in Coriscana, Texas, on August 16th, 1939, Shaver was raised by his mother, Victory, and would later leave town to find a job working at a honky-tonk in Waco. He would often accompany his mother to her job at the local nightclub, where he became exposed to country music. In the early Sixties, Shaver moved to Houston, and frequented a club called the Old Quarter where he met Townes Van Zandt. They became drinking buddies, and their friendship led him to Nashville. He scored an apprenticeship for Harlan Howard, and then a job working for Bobby Bare.