Billy Joe Shaver, Outlaw Singer and Songwriter, Dies at 81

Billy Joe Shaver, the Texas singer-songwriter whose trenchant, vivid compositions helped launch nation music’s outlaw motion within the 1970s, died on Wednesday in Waco, Texas. He was 81.

His dying, in a hospital, was confirmed by his good friend Connie Nelson, who mentioned he had lately had a stroke.

Mr. Shaver wrote songs for lots of the main outlaw figures, together with Willie Nelson, Bobbie Bare and Kris Kristofferson. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash recorded his materials, and Bob Dylan, in “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” a tune written with the Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, sang admiringly of listening to Mr. Shaver’s music. (“I’m hearing Billy Joe Shaver/And I’m reading James Joyce.”)

Mr. Shaver’s early repute rested on his plain-spoken but poetic contributions to Waylon Jennings’s landmark 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” thought to be a quintessential expression of outlaw nation’s nonconformist spirit. “I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be/More than the measure of what I thought others could see,” Mr. Jennings sang on his model of Mr. Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.”

Mr. Shaver wrote or co-wrote all however one of many 10 songs on “Honky Tonk Heroes,” together with the title monitor and “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” — a tribute, its uncommon spelling of his first title however, to Mr. Nelson, his good friend and fellow outlaw.

“Black Rose,” a monument to self-recrimination and remorse, featured considered one of Mr. Shaver’s usually hard-hit but in addition self-aware narrators. “The devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own,” Mr. Jennings sang ruefully over a lean however steadily chugging rhythm part.

Three of Mr. Shaver’s songs from “Honky Tonk Heroes” additionally appeared on “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” his musically unvarnished, autobiographical first solo album, produced by Mr. Kristofferson for the impartial Monument label in 1973.

“Hell, I just thought I’d mention, my grandma’s old-age pension/Is the reason why I’m standing here today,” Mr. Shaver sang in a raspy drawl on “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.” Propelled by a headlong neo-rockabilly beat, the song revisited his hardscrabble childhood with dignity and pride: “I got all my country learning, milking and a-churning/Picking cotton, raising hell and baling hay.”

He joined the Navy at age 17 and, after completing his service, was working odd jobs back in Texas when he met, and later married, Brenda Joyce Tindell. The couple had a son, John Edwin, known as Eddy, in 1962.

At around this time Mr. Shaver took a job in a sawmill, where he lost the index and middle fingers of his right hand in a work accident and had to relearn how to play the guitar. In 1968, after several more years of scuffling, including periodic visits to Nashville to pursue his fortunes as a songwriter, Mr. Shaver persuaded Mr. Bare to give him a songwriting job at his publishing company.

Success eluded him until five years later, when “Honky Tonk Heroes” elevated him to the ranks of unfettered, imagistic country tunesmiths like Mr. Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and Guy Clark. His biggest success as a songwriter in the post-outlaw era came when the neo-traditionalist singer John Anderson had a Top 10 country hit in 1981 with “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (but I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday).”

Mr. Shaver recorded steadily, but with little commercial success, from the 1970s on. He eventually developed a following among fans of alternative country music with albums like “Tramp on Your Street” (1993) and “Unshaven: Live at Smith’s Olde Bar” (1995). Billed simply under the name Shaver, both albums reflected Eddy Shaver’s increasingly prominent role in his father’s band, with which he had been playing since he was a teenager.

In 1997 Mr. Shaver had a small part in “The Apostle,” a feature film written by, directed by and starring Robert Duvall.

Mr. Shaver’s wife and mother both died of cancer in 1999. His son died of a heroin overdose a little more than a year later.

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