Billy Joe Shaver, Country Artist Who Wrote Songs of Sin and Redemption, Dies

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Billy Joe Shaver performing at Farm Aid in 1994

Billy Joe Shaver, the country artist whose songs were recorded by many of the genre’s stars but who never earned significant success with his own recordings, died October 28, 2020, according to several online reports. Rock Cellar Magazine published an obituary based on an announcement by SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. Shaver, 81, reportedly died as the result of a stroke.

Shaver never became a household name, but his songs, often about sin and redemption, became country standards during the ’70s and his reputation among musicians and critics continued during the ensuing decades.

In 1968, the musician showed up in Bobby Bare‘s Nashville office, where he convinced Bare to listen to him play. Bare ended up giving him a writing job for $50 a week and soon his songs were recorded by Kris Kristofferson (“Good Christian Soldier”), Tom T. Hall (“Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me”), Bare (“Ride Me Down Easy”), and later, the Allman Brothers Band (“Sweet Mama”) and Elvis Presley (“You Asked Me To”). Shaver’s real breakthrough, though, came in 1973 when Waylon Jennings recorded an album composed almost entirely of Shaver’s songs, Honky Tonk Heroes — considered by many to be the first true “outlaw” album.

Shaver’s own debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was produced by Kristofferson in 1973. Along with the title track, it contained now-classic Shaver songs “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.”

In 1978 Johnny Cash recorded “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” a song Shaver wrote just after he chose to give up drugs and alcohol.

Among Shaver’s many classic songs are “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Live Forever,” “Tramp on Your Street,” and “Try and Try Again.”

“Live Forever” was performed by his friend Robert Duvall in the film Crazy Heart.

Shaver was born on August 16, 1939, in Corsicana, Tex. In 2006, he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. The Americana Music Association awarded him their first Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting, in 2002.

Bob Dylan, who rarely covers other writers, has often played Shaver’s “Old Five And Dimers Like Me” in concert. Dylan refers to Shaver by name in his song, written with Robert Hunter, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”

The Washington Post has noted, “When the country outlaws were collecting their holy writings, Billy Joe Shaver was carving out Exodus.”

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