The world of outlaw country endured a devastating week as two of its seminal, esoteric legends, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver, died last Friday and Wednesday, respectively.
Austin stalwart Walker is best remembered for writing the immortal hit “Mr. Bojangles,” which was covered by Sammy Davis Jr.; Bob Dylan; The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band; Billy Joel; Nina Simone; Neil Diamond; Dolly Parton; John Denver and Cat Stevens. Shaver, who was born and raised in Corsicana, wrote all the songs on Waylon Jennings’ watershed 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes save for “We Had It All.”
Both singer-songwriters carry different legacies, but they share a common influence in the world of outlaw country, having been foundational influences for arguably the most iconic artist of the genre, Willie Nelson, who once called Shaver “the greatest living songwriter”.
While neotraditional Texas artists such as George Strait got catapulted to arenas, and while established country greats such as Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard played theaters and ballrooms, Shaver and Walker remained in the trenches of the club circuit while being equally, if not more, integral to the genre.
Despite this, they earned the fandom of some high-profile names.
“I was saddened to hear about the passing of Jerry Jeff Walker,” tweeted former President Bill Clinton last Saturday. “I’ll never forget seeing him at the Armadillo music hall in Austin in 1972, or his performance for my 1992 campaign the night before Election Day. He was a true original, and his music will live on.”
One of Walker’s closest friends was Jimmy Buffett, who credits Walker for having taken him to Key West for the first time. The two formed a tight camaraderie in the years since this Florida trek and together wrote the 1973 song “Railroad Lady,” which was famously performed by Nelson and another idol of his, Lefty Frizzell.
Shaver found a fan in famed comedian and Saturday Night Live veteran Norm Macdonald, who included him as a guest on his Netflix series Norm Macdonald Has a Show. Joining the likes of Lorne Michaels, David Letterman and Drew Barrymore, Macdonald’s musical idol was the only guest on the 10-episode run that wasn’t an A- or B-list celebrity.
“Billy Joe was already there before anybody was talking about an outlaw movement,” said another pillar of the outlaw country movement, Steve Earle, in 2010. “And I come from the generation that moved to Nashville because people started talking about an outlaw movement.”
Indeed, outlaw country would likely not even exist (and certainly wouldn’t take its current form) were it not for Shaver, and the same holds true for Walker. While mainstream artists stuck with country orthodoxy, Shaver and Walker boldly took creative risks and helped establish Texas as a refuge for Nashville rejects. They were outlaws in the sense that they weren’t beholden to the jurisdiction of the country music establishment, but for those who refuse to look at a genre title in such metaphorical terms, they were also outlaws by the very legal definition.
Walker joined the National Guard in the early 1960s, only to go AWOL and hitchhike around America. In 2007, Shaver was arrested in Lorena, Texas, for shooting a bar patron in the face. The man, Billy Bryant Coker, survived, so Shaver was charged with aggravated assault instead of murder. Shaver was acquitted of the charges in 2010 after successfully arguing that he acted in self-defense.
Shaver and Walker personified the Turnerian frontier characteristic that Texas culture takes pride in. When the cutthroat country music gatekeepers wanted nothing to do with Shaver, he created a small space for himself and owned it. Conversely, the music business leviathans wanted to keep Walker, but he moved to Austin and started his own label, Tried & True Music, in the interest of creative freedom.
The two artists came from different walks of life and coasted different trajectories, but at the end of the day, they composed a small alcove of country music that has been vastly influential and criminally obscure all the same. They were your favorite country musician’s favorite country musicians.
They were trailblazing mavericks, and Texas country is forever poorer for having lost them.
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