This is the grave of Billy Joe Shaver.
Born in 1939 in Corsicana, Texas, Shaver grew up in the Texas working class. He was the son of a single mom who dragged the boy to honky tonks, which is really where he grew up, along with at his grandmother’s house. Let’s not beat around the bush–honky tonks in the 40s and 50s were not nice places. These were rough houses. This was the era of drinking and fighting in bars. Honky tonks were a good place to get into a fight. The reason the Buck Owens played his super loud Telecaster guitar that became the staple of the Bakersfield sound is that he wanted to be heard above the insanity in the crowd.
So let’s just say that Shaver was the product of such a childhood.
Shaver dropped out of school after the eighth grade and picked cotton while learning to play guitar and get interested in country music. He joined the Navy the day he turned 17, did his term, got out, went back to Texas, and tried to become a rodeo cowboy. What a career option. But really, Shaver was the kind of young man who belonged in a honky tonk, whether it was playing, drinking, fighting, or, much later, shooting a dude in the face. He worked in lumber mill, got his hand caught in a machine, lost two fingers, and had to learn to play the guitar without them.
Shaver wanted some other life, some other adventure. He tried to hitch hike to Los Angeles, but ended up going the other way on a whim and eventually made it to Nashville. By this time, Shaver is in his early 30s, a hellion and a rabble rouser. He’s also a hell of a songwriter. He got a job in Nashville writing songs for $50 a week. This was at the same time that the Outlaw movement in Nashville was just starting to brew. Willie Nelson was still there at the time. The songwriters of the city like Tom T. Hall and Harlan Howard and Roger Miller had legendary get togethers to pick and sing and drink and drink some more and Shaver fit in just fine.
Meanwhile, Waylon Jennings was really chafing at the terrible Nashville production he faced. Waylon was known for a raucous live show, but the albums coming out at this time are mostly lame Nashville productions. It frustrated him. He was stuck in the Nashville machine that really did not want to change. Well, Shaver helped him win that battle. Jennings learned of Shaver and was just amazed by these songs. Shaver played him a couple and Waylon asked him if he had any more like that. He was like, oh yeah, I got tons of songs like this. This led to Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes album in 1973. Other than “We Had It All,” which was the big single off the album, every song was a Shaver composition. This included such greats as “Ride Me Down Easy,” “Ain’t No God in Mexico,” “Low Down Freedom,” and the title track. It’s a great album and it helped make both Waylon’s and Shaver’s career.
The same year, Shaver recorded his solo debut Old Five and Dimers Like Me. This is such a fantastic album. Some of these songs were also on Honky Tonk Heroes, others were ones Waylon did not initially record. This includes my very favorite Shaver cut, “I’ve Been to Georgia On a Fast Train,” with its reference to his eighth grade education. It includes “Black Rose” and the title track and “Jesus Was Our Savior and Cotton Was Our King” and so many more. This is an absolute A+ of an album, one of the greatest country albums ever recorded.
Interestingly, Shaver did not really keep up the incredible output. He was something of a minor star by this point himself and he was still a crazy motherfucker, which probably didn’t help. When I Get My Wings, from 1976, is really just OK, though there are some great songs on there such as “Texas Uphere Tennessee.” Gypsy Boy, from 77, is fine. I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal, from 81, is pretty great. But that’s kind of it. He continued playing, long after the Outlaw movement dissolved in a mountain of cocaine and self-regard. By the 80s, he was starting to play with his hotshot young guitarist son Eddy, but Eddy was also a boy of the honky tonks and probably saw too much. They did an album in 1993 called Tramp On Your Street that I think is fine and many think is a classic. A lot of it is re-recordings of his old songs, which I don’t think ever works out all that well.
This led to something of a comeback for Shaver, but then Eddy overdosed on heroin on New Year’s Eve in 2000 and Shaver was just gutted. He wanted to die, as he stated in an interview I heard with him years later. Then he almost did die, having a heart attack during a show in 2001. He recovered.
Then in 2007, Shaver shot a dude in the face. Shaver claimed the guy threatened him with a knife at a bar. They went outside. Shaver pulled out his gun, asked “Where do you want it?” and then shot him in the face. The guy survived and it seems that maybe Shaver wasn’t a great shot. Later, in an NPR interview of all things, Shaver said about it: “I hit him right between a mother and a fucker. That was the end of that. He dropped his weapons and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you had said that inside, there would have been no problem.” I have to remember that line about being between a mother and a fucker. Now, you think a court was going to convict Billy Joe Shaver? No way. He was acquitted in 2010.
Later in life, Shaver began to act some, including a role in Robert Duvall’s The Apostle. He was very proud of this and thus the grave inscription. He also became friends with Norm MacDonald, who constantly promoted Shaver (if you listen to Norm’s interviews, he is constantly dropping lines from country songs in his bits).
I saw Shaver play once. 2007 I think. It was nuts. He’s play one of his sex songs and started thrusting his crotch at the crowd. Then the next song would be some gospel number and he’d literally get down on knees and sing to the Lord. He was one crazy dude. Wish I had seen him a few more times.
Shaver died of a stroke in 2020. He was 81 years old.
And no, I have no idea why someone left a can of Red Bull on Shaver’s grave.
Let’s listen to some Shaver.
Billy Joe Shaver is buried in Waco Memorial Park, Robinson, Texas, just south of Waco. It’s as unpleasant as a cemetery can really be, a small cemetery right off I-35 and a frontage road. But what’s more Texas than that?
Somewhat surprisingly, Shaver has never been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. But he has been elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. If you would like this series to visit other great Nashville songwriters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Roy Orbison is in Westwood, California and Alton Delmore is in Athens, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.