Even the Outlaw Country community considers Billy Joe Shaver to be an outlaw. The Texas native learned to play guitar at 11 and dropped out of school in the eighth grade to pick cotton but returned sporadically to play sports. After a Navy hitch, Shaver married Brenda Tindell in 1960; she divorced him six years later when he pursued a songwriting career (they subsequently remarried, divorced and remarried).
By the time Shaver hitchhiked to Nashville, he’d already lost the better parts of three fingers in a sawmill accident and relearned guitar with his remaining digits. In 1968, Bobby Bare hired Shaver as a staff songwriter for $50 a week and ultimately recorded 20 of Shaver’s songs, one of which, “Ride Me Down Easy,” hit Billboard’s Top 5.
In 1973, Shaver nearly abandoned his music dream until Kris Kristofferson discovered him and manned the board for Shaver’s classic debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me. That same year, Waylon Jennings stocked his Honky Tonk Heroes with 10 of Shaver’s songs; the classic Outlaw album sold more than a million copies. Shaver was invited to collaborate on Wanted! The Outlaws with Jennings, Willie Nelson and Jessi Colter in 1976, but his wife talked him out of it. As a consolation prize, the trio recorded Shaver’s “Honky Tonk Hero” for what became Country’s first platinum album.
Shaver recorded just three albums in the ‘80s, but experienced a resurgence in the ‘90s when he did five albums under his own name, formed the band Shaver with his son Eddy in 1993 and made his film debut in The Apostle with Robert Duvall. In 1999, Shaver lost his wife and mother to cancer, in 2000 his son overdosed on heroin and, in 2001, he nearly died himself after suffering a heart attack onstage in Texas. He released Freedom’s Child the following year.
Since then, Shaver has recorded four studio albums and released five live sets and, as he nears his 75th birthday in August, he may well be enjoying one of his most productive artistic periods. Outlaws don’t get any more out (or in) than Billy Joe Shaver.
BILLY JOE SHAVER plays Southgate House Revival 9 p.m. Thursday, July 17. Tickets/more info here .