If you’re primarily a fan of mainstream rock and pop music, maybe you’re not familiar with Billy Joe Shaver. But if you’ve had any interest in a genre known as Outlaw Country, you know that a seminal figure, an absolute giant, has just left us. A true pioneer of the movement, Shaver wrote about it, as well as lived it, arguably like no one else has in history. The Outlaw Country music scene essentially broke through with the defining and iconic 1973 Waylon Jennings album, Honky Tonk Heroes. Shaver wrote 9 of the 10 songs it contained (including the wry title track), penning what Jennings referred to as “soul music for rednecks.” Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash recorded his songs. So did Elvis. Not long ago, Willie Nelson called him “the greatest living songwriter.” That ended yesterday, when Shaver died in Waco, Texas, at 81, after suffering a stroke. Although somewhat less renowned than Jennings, Kristofferson, Cash, Presley, and Nelson, he was no less respected by my friend and walking musical encyclopedia, Tom Clifford, who responded to my note calling Billy Joe “One of the best” by clarifying “He was the best of the best.”

Shaver wrote such Outlaw standards as ‘Georgia on a Fast Train’ and ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me,’ a tune whose lyric “Too much ain’t enough” adorned the marquee of New York City’s only honky tonk music club, The Lone Star Cafe throughout its legendary existence. For over four decades Shaver was an iconic institution of Outlaw Country music, touring and recording up until his death, including what turned out to be his final album of 17 in all, 2014’s Long In The Tooth, which featured the full-circle duet ‘Hard To Be An Outlaw’ with Willie Nelson.

But Shaver’s own hard-living, hell-raising, tragicomic experiences, as much as the roughneck, scoundrel characters and hardscrabble stories he created in his songwriting, cemented his stature as the embodiment of the Outlaw lifestyle in both Texas and his one-time adopted home in Nashville. A partial list of what could be called The Ballad of Billy Joe Shaver would include the following:

  • He joined the Navy at 17 but was soon thrown out for punching an officer, and spent the next six months in a New Hampshire prison.
  • Outdoing Jerry Garcia by one, Shaver lost two fingers on his right (dominant) hand in a sawmill accident, but subsequently taught himself to play without them. He couldn’t hold a pick, but plucked his guitar with his thumb and pinkie. “I wouldn’t ever have gone into music if I hadn’t lost my fingers,” Shaver recounted, after having become convinced that he wasn’t suited for hard labor. “And I ain’t no finger-pointer,” he was known to joke, “I can’t.”
  • He married his wife, Brenda, three separate times, before losing her to cancer in 1999; Around the same time his mother, about whom he’d written the song ‘My Mother’s Name Is Victory’ (her actual name), also died; And then just three months later, his son, best friend, and long-time musical collaborator, Eddy, a remarkable, incandescent guitarist and master of countless styles, was found dead of a heroin overdose at 38.
  • Billy Joe himself survived a heart attack, which he had on stage while performing alongside his Outlaw comrade Kinky Friedman at a seedy Texas saloon. “I said, ‘Thank you, Lord, for letting me die in the oldest honky-tonk in Texas.’ I wanted to die. I was going home to see Eddy, Brenda, and my mother.” Instead, he joined Friedman on a three-week Australian tour, and had quadruple bypass surgery upon returning.
  • Shaver shot a man named Billy Bryant Coker in the face, following an altercation at Papa Joe’s Saloon in Lorena, Texas, in which Billy Joe was famously heard to say “Where do you want it?” Despite Coker’s claims (yes, he survived) that the occurrence was unprovoked, Shaver was ultimately acquitted after testifying that he acted in self-defense. Billy Joe, who went on to turn the episode into a song called ‘Wacko From Waco,’ said in an interview years later he’d proceeded because Coker was “such a bully,” and so “I hit him right between a mother and a f*cker, and that was the end of that,” before belatedly adding, “I’m very sorry about the incident. Hopefully things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet.”

Another of Billy Joe’s classic tunes, which seemingly became his signature, is the unspeakably powerful number ‘Live Forever,’ a bluegrass hymn off his 1993 album Tramps On Your Street, put out in tandem with Eddy, simply under the banner of Shaver, which was a transcendent masterpiece upon its release, but was always going to become yet more poignant someday. When Shaver would perform it for an audience, he would often end the song on his knees, hands at his sides, head bowed in silence. As much as that would be the obvious and proper song choice to feature here upon his passing, I’m still going to pick another, a song of aspiration and affirmation, which Shaver wrote and first released in 1981 but then re-recorded as a more revved-up version with Eddy for their same ’93 record. Eddy’s casual guitar wizardry in the two solo breaks (starting at :52 then again at 1:53) would otherwise be the natural show-stoppers, but Billy Joe’s slow-cooked, drawling delivery is truly understated Outlaw magic. The title line, ‘I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal,’ is followed immediately by the completion of just one more of Shaver’s incomparable couplets, “But I’m gonna be a diamond someday.” I believe that day, Billy Joe, has arrived.

(and hell, let’s also include a ‘Live Forever’ clip, in addition to the amazing lyrics)

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now

You’re gonna want to hold me
Just like I always told you
You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

Nobody here will ever find me
But I will always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now

You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right

Don’t let the darkness take ’em
Don’t make ’em feel forsaken
Just lead them safely to the light

When this old world is blown us under
And all the stars fall from the sky
Remember someone really loves you
We’ll live forever, you and I

I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now