Billy Joe Shaver, whom Willie Nelson once called the greatest living Texas songwriter, died this morning following a massive stroke at Ascension Providence Hospital in Waco, reports Rolling Stone. He was 81.
Shaver, who took a bad fall last month and struggled with a bout of COVID-19 over the summer, had spent much of the past few months at his home in Lorena, just south of Waco. He continued to write songs, and was beginning to write his second memoir. Even as he stayed in isolation, his songs made their way through the world. Willie himself covered one of Shaver’s songs on his recent album First Rose of Spring. Titled “We Are the Cowboys,” it reimagines the cowboy way—as only Shaver could.
Shaver’s 81 years were a testament to the pleasures of the creative life. But he overcame a lot in that time—and struggled often with physical and mental adversities. Shaver was born in Corsicana on August 16, 1939, and his father left before he was born. At the age of 21, he sliced off most of two fingers on his right hand and part of a third in a sawmill accident. Over the next few decades he struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol. His wife, Brenda, his mother, Victory, and his son Eddy, the guitarist in his band, all died within two years of one another—the first two from cancer, the third from a heroin overdose. Shaver once had a heart attack onstage. And in 2007, he got in an argument in a bar near his home and shot a man in the face—then was acquitted at trial of aggravated assault.
All the while, Shaver wrote indelible songs that turned the heads of songwriters such as Willie, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” ”Honky Tonk Heroes,” and “Live Forever” have become classics oft-recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash. “From those first songs, like ‘I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,’ I was totally enamored,” says songwriter Rodney Crowell. “I understood: This is a poet, this is someone with a vision.” Shaver also recorded several beloved outlaw-country albums, such as his 1973 debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me. He toured relentlessly (often with Eddy), cowrote a book on his early life and career called Honky Tonk Hero (with Brad Reagan), and found time to break into the movies (he almost stole the show from Robert Duvall in The Apostle).
Shaver often leaned into his reputation as a hard-partying musician. “He could be a pretty rough, blustery character at first,” remembers Crowell, who met Shaver in a studio in California when Shaver was going to cover one of Crowell’s songs. “But later I got to know the sweetheart.” “He was the most difficult person I ever knew,” says Reagan, an editor at the Wall Street Journal who hails from Waco. “But he was also incredibly tender and spiritual. All these contradictions are in his songs. They are also in his soul.”
He was an indomitable man—even in his later decades. Shaver caught COVID-19, or as he called it, “the damn stuff,” in June, which kept him in quarantine at his home in Lorena. “I’m pretty strong,” he said then. “I can still kick. I think a lot of it is attitude. Some people want to die when they get up in age. I figure, with everything else that happened to me, this ain’t nothin’. I also got glaucoma in one eye and I’m gonna have to wear a patch. I read in the Bible it’s good to be one-eyed.” The singer said he had been a lot more concerned about the combined case of pneumonia and flu he caught in 2019. Those illnesses put him in the hospital for a week. “It was pretty rough,” he said. “I was on my death bed for two days.”