Billy Joe Shaver, a singer and songwriter who had his work recorded by artists including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Elvis Presley, has died at age 81, his friend Connie Nelson confirmed to Rolling Stone. Shaver, who is considered a pioneer of outlaw-country, passed away in Waco, Texas on Wednesday after suffering a stroke.
Shaver was born in Corsicana, Texas in 1939 and eventually found his way to Nashville, where he began working as a songwriter. During a songwriting circle one night, Jennings liked what he heard and promised to listen to more of Shaver's songs but when he didn't follow through, Shaver paid Jennings a visit at a recording studio. "I told him, 'If you don’t listen to them, I’m going to whip your a— right here in front of God and everybody,'" he recalled to Rolling Stone in 2010. "And I was ready."
Jennings did listen, and he was such a fan that nine of the 10 songs on his classic outlaw-country album Honky Tonk Heroes were written by Shaver. Shaver later earned a record deal of his own and began releasing music, but labels he was with folded and his solo career could never quite get off the ground. Notable songs of Shaver's include "Tramp on Your Street," "Live Forever" and "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal."
Shaver had a number of personal troubles — he lost two fingers on his right hand in a sawmill accident at age 21, around the same time his mother died, he drove his car through the window of a car dealership in the '70s when his drug use escalated, and in 2000, his son and creative partner Eddy died of a heroin overdose. One year later, he almost died on stage when he had a heart attack while performing in Texas.
In 2007, Shaver and his then-wife Wanda went into a bar in Lorena, Texas, where Shaver got into an altercation with a patron. According to his testimony, Shaver said that the man was rude to Wanda and told Shaver to "shut the f— up." Witnesses say that the two went outside and Shaver asked the victim "Where do you want it?" before shooting him in the face. At his trial, Shaver claimed self-defense and was acquitted.
He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. Shaver recorded and toured until his death, joining Tanya Tucker on stage in January at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville to sing "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal." His final album, Long in the Tooth, was released in 2014 and featured the Nelson duet "Hard to Be an Outlaw."
Speaking to Rolling Stone in 2014, Shaver shared that he considered himself a songwriter first. "Not everyone can be dedicated to it. I’m a songwriter first and then whatever else I do second.… I enjoy the heck out of entertaining and I enjoy all the aspects of what comes with it, but the song is like the cheapest psychiatrist there is," he said. "And I pretty much need one all the time."