Billy Joe Shaver: The Man Behind Waylon Jennings’ ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ & More

by Clayton Edwards

Billy Joe Shaver was one of the best songwriters to put pen to paper. Plain and simple.

Over the course of his life, his songs were recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom T. Hall, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and more. In fact, before Billy Joe died in October 2020 at the age of 81, Willie Nelson once referred to him as “the greatest living songwriter.”

Billy Joe helped usher in the Outlaw movement of the 1970s. Most notably, Billy Joe penned or co-penned nine of the 10 tracks on Waylon Jennings’ seminal 1973 album, Honky Tonk Heroes. With a new contract from RCA in 1972, Waylon recorded the album with the greatest creative latitude of any artist in Nashville. And Waylon’s message came across loud and clear with Billy Joe’s pen leading the way.

The Roots of Outlaw Country

Contrary to its moniker, the Outlaw movement was not some nefarious enterprise. Mainly, the Outlaws rebelled against the corporate way of making music, where labels and producers dictated what songs artists would record and where artists would record them.

In his 1996 autobiography, Waylon said, “For us, ‘outlaw’ meant standing up for your rights, your own way of doing things.”

Artists like Waylon, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and more were stepping outside the conventions of the Nashville Sound. Artistic integrity was the heart of the Outlaw movement. The team of Jennings and Shaver exemplified that in a way that still reverberates through the genre today.

Honky Tonk Heroes featured Waylon recording songs that he identified with, even if those songs ran contrary to what RCA and Chet Atkins wanted him to record. At the same time, he was cutting those songs with his backing band. At the time, no one else had done that. Up until Hoss put his foot down, albums were recorded with studio musicians.

Billy Joe Shaver Makes Waylon Jennings a Honky Tonk Hero

The legend of how Billy Joe Shaver helped to fuel the Outlaw country movement started in Texas. More specifically, it started in the summer of 1972 at the Dripping Springs Reunion on Hurlbut Ranch just outside Dripping Springs, Texas. It was the Woodstock of Country Music. A mixture of hippies and cowboys came together to hear some of the best artists country music had to offer. The event would later evolve into Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July Picnic.

As the story goes, Billy Joe was sitting in a camper trailer with a handful of other guys, according to his interview with The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum for its Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit. When it was his turn to pick up the guitar, Shaver played “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” and out of the bathroom of that travel trailer burst Waylon Jennings. He immediately had to know, “Whose song is that?”

“Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me”

Billy Joe Shaver told Waylon that it was his song. Waylon loved it and said he would record it. Waylon sat down with Billy Joe and learned the song right then. He asked Shaver if he had any more cowboy songs. Shaver replied, “I got a whole sack full of ’em.”

Billy Joe Makes His Stand

The thought of Waylon Jennings cutting his songs excited Billy Joe Shaver. Waylon wasn’t an Outlaw legend yet, but he was a star with a handful of hits and a Grammy under his belt.

So, Billy Joe traveled back to Nashville shortly after the Dripping Springs Reunion wrapped up. Once there, he stayed at Bobby Bare’s office and repeatedly tried to get in touch with Hoss. But, he didn’t have much luck. “He kept dodging me,” Shaver said to the CMHOF. It went this way for months. Billy Joe was fed up waiting on Waylon. He was fed up with wasting time in Nashville. Shaver planned to pack up and head back to Texas.

However, Billy Joe Shaver learned that Waylon was working on an album at the RCA studio in Nashville. So, he decided he would corner Hoss there. He was a man on a mission. That was the last day he wanted to spend waiting on Jennings to make good on what he said in that little trailer in Texas.

Roger “Captain Midnight” Schutt, a prominent Nashville radio DJ and member of Waylon’s inner circle let Billy Joe in the back door of the building. Shaver planned to wait there for Waylon to come out. Then, he would be forced to talk to the songwriter. Perhaps thinking that Shaver had already waited long enough, Schutt went to let Waylon know his fellow Texan was looking for him.

Moments later, Schutt came back with a tightly folded $100 bill and handed it to Billy Joe Shaver, telling him, “Waylon told me to give this to you and for you to get out of here.” Shaver was having none of that. He handed the bill back to Captain Midnight. “Take this back and tell him to shove it up his ass and twist it,” said Shaver.

Waylon Strikes a Deal With Billy Joe Shaver

Now, that got Waylon Jennings’ attention. Moments later, he came storming into the hallway, flanked by two big, burly bikers. Jennings asked, “What do you want, Hoss?”

Billy Joe Shaver, not one to mince words on the best of days, replied, ”Waylon, I tell you what I want. If you don’t listen to the rest of these songs . . . I’m gonna have to kick your ass right here in front of God and everybody.”

In the words of Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon didn’t like that “worth a damn.” Neither did the bikers. They started to move in on the songwriter, but Jennings stopped them. He then walked over to Shaver, grabbed him by the elbow, and led him into a room off the hallway. Shaver had his guitar with him, he said in the CMHOF interview, because he was on his way back to Texas that day.

Once in the room, Jennings laid out his terms, “I’ll tell you what, Billy,” he said, “‘Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,’ I’ll do that. I’m not going to do anything else unless I hear something that’s real good. If you can play me something real good, you can play another one. If not, you’re gonna hit that door, you’re gonna leave, and ain’t gonna see you again.” To Shaver, that sounded fair.

“Black Rose”

So, Billy Joe Shaver started playing his songs, including “Black Rose” and “Ain’t No God In Mexico.” Waylon never stopped him. Then, Shaver played “Honky Tonk Heroes.”

At that point, Waylon slapped his knee and told Billy Joe, “You’re in.”

One Last Thing Before You Go…

Waylon ended up making the music he wanted, and his albums became highly distinctive artistic statements: Honky Tonk Heroes, This Time, The Ramblin’ Man, Dreaming My Dreams, and Lonesome, On’ry And Mean. By the time the Outlaw movement had been fully replaced by the Urban Cowboy phenomenon that began in 1979, Waylon had emerged as a counter-culture icon known for his rugged individuality.

It’s only right to close this out the same way Billy Joe Shaver closed out many of his live performances, with a song called “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”

In this song, you can clearly hear three things. First and foremost is Billy Joe’s songwriting ability. Secondly, you get a look at the personality of the man who helped shape Outlaw country. Finally, you can hear Billy Joe—as pure, unrefined, honest, and moving as the songs he wrote.