Tom T. Hall once said, “Some days, you wake up and you wonder how Billy Joe’s doing,” but in fact, I think about the True Heart of Texas daily. On Wednesday, October 28, 2020, at the age of 81, Billy Joe Shaver passed away from a massive stroke in Waco, TX. I have absolutely no problem recalling every instance I ever met the man, heard his Texas tremolo, and shook his unique hand. Character? Billy Joe was one. He also had it, and if I lived a hundred lifetimes, I don’t believe I could duplicate the circumstances of his existence and come out as genuine and generous as Billy Joe Shaver.
Billy Joe was born on August 16th, 1939, and raised hard in Corsicana, TX. Earning only an eighth-grade education, he left the cotton fields for the US Navy in 1956. The rodeo came next and a job at a sawmill that would cost him two fingers on his right hand. He taught himself to play guitar anyway and decided to try his luck in California. But nobody seemed to be traveling west that day, so he hitchhiked east to Music City instead.
In Nashville, Billy Joe talked his way into a job as a songwriter, and as legend has it, threatened to whip Waylon Jennings’s ass if he didn’t listen to one of Shaver’s songs. As fate would have it, Waylon did listen to one– and then another and another. Those songs would appear on Waylon’s 1973 masterpiece Honky Tonk Heroes.
Billy Joe released his own album that year, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, followed by two full-lengths on Capricorn Records– 1976’s When I Get My Wings (featuring appearances from Dickey Betts, Bonnie Bramlett, Charlie Daniels, and Chuck Leavell) and Gypsy Boy (1977). The ‘80s would see Billy Joe continue to write, record, and tour, but it would be 1993’s Tramp on Your Street that would cement Billy Joe’s legend status and inspire a new generation of alt-country rockers who recognized the real deal when they heard it. With his son Eddy on lead guitar and under the banner of Shaver, Billy Joe did what many of his contemporaries either couldn’t or wouldn’t do. He evolved.
In 1999, Billy Joe’s wife, Brenda (they’d been married and divorced several times), passed away after a bout with cancer, and their son soon followed. Eddy Shaver died of a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve 2000 at the age of 38. Billy Joe himself would nearly join them after a heart attack struck while on stage at Gruene Hall in 2001– but the then 62-year-old was back in the studio and back on the road within a year.
Perhaps the most talked about and infamous night of Billy Joe’s life and career occurred on March 31, 2007, when he asked Billy Bryant Coker quite possibly the most famous question in all of country music.
An altercation at Papa Joe’s Saloon turned bloody when Coker threatened Shaver with a knife and invited him to the parking lot. Once outside, Billy Joe waited for Coker to face him before drawing a small-caliber pistol, and politely asking, “Where do you want it?” Coker was shot in the face, but his injuries weren’t lethal. He actually drove away from the scene in search of treatment, and a few days later Billy Joe answered an arrest warrant by turning himself in and claiming self-defense.
At his trial in 2010, (we actually read the transcripts as they were being released in real time that day), the prosecutor asked why Billy Joe just didn’t leave the bar that night instead of following Coker outside. Billy Joe replied, “If I was a chicken shit I would have left.” He also quoted Jimmie Rodgers and put on a bit of a show for the courtroom (which was packed with friends including Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall) before being acquitted of all charges. He told reporters he was sorry for shooting Coker and that, “Hopefully things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet.”
Dale Watson wrote the song “Where Do You Want It” about the incident.
Billy Joe Shaver was the rowdiest, sweetest, toughest, and most original songwriter to ever place his bootheels on God’s green Earth. I don’t believe he ever lost him, but he found Jesus every chance he could and wasn’t afraid to tell you about it. He wrote for the stars, and each song shines like the diamond he always was. He gave his soul in those words and in them, Billy Joe Shaver will undoubtedly live forever.
Billy Joe Shaver has gone home to his wife and son. The gates are surely shaking under the weight of such a reunion in heaven.