Billy Joe Shaver Biography

16 September 1941, Corsicana, Texas, USA. Shaver was raised in Waco, Texas, and lost two fingers in a sawmill accident. In typically contradictory fashion, he took up bronc-busting as a safer job and started to learn guitar. An early song, ‘Two Bits Worth Of Nothing’, was written about his wife - a woman he has both married and divorced three times! Shaver spent some years in Nashville before Bobby Bare discovered him. He and Bare co-wrote his first single, ‘Chicken On The Ground’, for Mercury Records in 1970. Bare hit the US country charts with the simple, gutsy philosophy of ‘Ride Me Down Easy’ in 1973. Johnny Rodriguez did well with ‘I Couldn’t Be Me Without You’, while Tom T. Hall favoured ‘Old Five And Dimers’ and a song about Willie Nelson, ‘Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me’. Waylon Jennings’ important Honky Tonk Heroes contained nine Shaver songs, including their co-written ‘You Ask Me To’, which was subsequently recorded by Elvis Presley. Shaver’s first album, produced by Kris Kristofferson, contained his gruff-voiced versions of many excellent songs including his first country hit, ‘I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train’. His Texan influences (blues, jazz, Mexican) and his themes (life on the road, brief encounters, how it used to be) fitted in with outlaw country music. His best song, ‘Black Rose’, tells of his love for a black girl and contains the dubious line, ‘The Devil made me do it the first time, The second time I done it on my own.’

Shaver hated live performances and he fell prey to ulcers, alcoholism and drug-addiction, so much so that an album for MGM Records was never made. Other songwriters wrote about him, including Kris Kristofferson’s ‘The Fighter’ and Tom T. Hall’s ‘Joe, Don’t Let The Music Kill You’. In 1976, Shaver released his second album and followed it with a glittering line-up (Willie Nelson, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris) for ‘Gypsy Boy’. He turned to religion and ‘I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday)’ was recorded by both Johnny Cash and John Anderson.

Perhaps there were too many outlaw singers and Shaver, with his lack of product, was overlooked. His output up to 1990 of six studio albums in 17 years, with several songs repeated, was astonishingly low, particularly for a country singer. He enjoyed a creative renaissance in the 90s with Shaver, a duo he formed with his guitar-playing son Eddy. On New Year’s Eve 2000, shortly after father and son had completed recording their sixth album together, Eddy was found dead in an Austin, Texas hotel room of a suspected heroin overdose. Billy Joe’s first album following that tragedy was released in 2002, and Freedom’s Child proved to be a powerful and revealing collection. Shaver was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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