Billy Joe Shaver, Singer-Songwriter and Pioneer of Outlaw Country, Dies at 81

Eric Todisco
·2-min read

M. Caulfield/WireImage Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver, the Texas singer-songwriter who was a key player in the Outlaw Country movement, died on Wednesday morning following an illness, a rep for Shaver said in a statement to PEOPLE. He was 81.

Born in Corsicana, Texas, on Aug. 16, 1939, Shaver was raised mainly by his grandmother. His father left before he was born and his mother had a job in Waco, some 60 miles away.

At age 16, Shaver left home to serve in the Navy. After, he landed several jobs, including one in the professional rodeo, before he followed his passion: music.

Shaver hitchhiked to Nashville in 1965, getting a job as a songwriter for $50 per week from country singer Bobby Bare. His big break came with Waylon Jennings' 1973 landmark album Honky Tonk Heroes, which Shaver co-wrote 10 of the 11 songs for.

That same year, Shaver released his debut album Old Five and Dimers Like Me, which earned him recognition as being apart of Outlaw Country, a movement in the 1970s that included singers like Jennings and Willie Nelson, the latter of which reportedly once referred to Shaver as “the greatest living songwriter."

Kirk West/Getty Billy Joe Shaver

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Along with Jennings and Nelson, singers like Elvis Presley, David Allan Coe, Patty Loveless, Tom T. Hall, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Paycheck and Doug Kershaw recorded Shaver's songs.

Shaver went on to release more than 20 albums including his most recent, 2014's Long in the Tooth, which became his first album to chart on Billboard's Top Country Albums and the Billboard 200. Some of his most successful songs include "Georgia on a Fast Train" and "Live Forever."

Shaver was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006. The following year, he received a Grammy nomination, in the best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album category for Everybody's Brother.

Daniel Knighton/FilmMagic Billy Joe Shaver

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Outside of country music, Shaver briefly appeared in the 1996 Robert Duvall film The Apostle and in 2004, a documentary about Shaver, A Portrait of Billy Joe, was released. He then detailed his colorful life in his 2005 memoir, Honky Tonk Hero.

In 2007, Shaver was charged with shooting a man in the face at a bar near his home in Waco. Following a high-profile trial, he was acquitted of aggravated assault after claiming self-defense.

Shaver was married to and divorced the same woman, Brenda Tindell, three times, and another woman, Wanda Lynn Canady, twice, the second time following an annulment. His son, Eddy Shaver, died of a heroin overdose in 2000.