Billy Joe Shaver was one of the greatest songwriters to ever pick up a pen. More than that, he lived and breathed outlaw country music. He was a contemporary of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Have you ever heard “Honky Tonk Heroes” by Waylon? Well, Shaver wrote that and hundreds of other big country hits. He didn’t just write songs though, he lived them.
Sadly, Billy Joe Shaver passed away last year. Many people first heard his name when Jason Isbell and his wife spoke out about the CMA Awards not including him, John Prine, or Jerry Jeff Walker in their “In memoriam” segment. Luckily, he left behind a legacy of great music. At the same time, there are enough stories about Billy Joe to fill a library. Today, we’re going to look at the time that he shot a man in Waco, got away with it, and wrote a song about it.
Billy Joe Shaver Shot a Man in Waco
It all started on March 31, 2007. Billy Joe Shaver and his wife Wanda were in Waco, Texas. That day, they were taking photos for Billy Joe’s upcoming album. After a great day of hanging out in Waco and snapping some photos, Billy Joe and Wanda decided to go have a couple of drinks. So, they went to Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena, which is just outside Waco.
Once there, Billy Joe Shaver was introduced to a man named Billy Coker. The two men didn’t get along from the start. In testimony reported by “The Statesman,” it seemed like Coker was trying to throw his weight around. At one point, he poured Shaver’s beer into a cup. Which is just a jerk thing to do. Later, Coker forced the country legend to a different table.
Billy Joe Shaver said that he was having such a good day that he just let it go. He wasn’t going to let some rude townie ruin his day. Things escalated, though.
Coker pulled a large folding knife from his pocket and used it to stir his drink, then used it to stir everyone’s beer. This just goes to show the level of human Shaver was dealing with. Who stirs a beer? Why would you get beer on a perfectly good knife? He made it worse by wiping the knife on Shaver’s shirt. Coker was just trying to look intimidating. It was working, too. Billy Joe Shaver was at least fifteen years older than Coker. At the same time, Shaver had suffered a neck and shoulder injury just a few months prior to that night. On top of that, Coker was a stout man. As Billy Joe put it, he was “Built doggone like a fireplug.” Shaver knew he wouldn’t win a fight with Coker, so he was trying to play it cool.
Some Things, a Man Can’t Let Stand
Things weren’t going well, but Billy Joe Shaver had seen worse. Then, Billy Coker realized that Wanda Shaver had once been married to his cousin. That cousin had committed suicide while he and Wanda were together. Because of this, things got “uncomfortable,” when Coker started to harass Wanda, Billy Joe suggested that they leave.
At that point, Coker got loud. He told Billy Joe to “Shut the f— up,” loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear it. Shortly thereafter, he told Shaver to step outside. Everybody knows what this means. It was time to throw hands. Even though Billy Joe Shaver was intimidated and knew he couldn’t win, he got up and headed for the door ahead of Coker.
This is when he saw someone hand something off to Coker at the door. He said that it looked like a pistol. So, Billy Joe checked his pocked. Sure enough, he found his .22 caliber Derringer right where he hoped it would be. The two men stepped onto the bar’s patio. Once there, Shaver asked Coker “Where do you want to do this? Why do you want to do this?”
According to court testimony, Coker charged at Billy Joe Shaver. He tried to take a step back, but Coker advanced, raising his knife. At that point, in fear for his life, Billy Joe fired the .22 at Coker. The bullet struck him in the mouth, broke a tooth and a cap, and lodged in his neck. His injuries weren’t life-threatening. He did, however, learn a valuable lesson that day. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.
The Trial of Billy Joe Shaver
In 2010, Billy Joe Shaver stood trial for the shooting. His defense was one of the best lawyers in Texas, Dick DeGuerin. He took the case free of charge. They claimed that Shaver was just defending himself from a larger, stronger, and younger man.
During the trial, the prosecutor, Beth Toben, grilled Billy Joe. For one, she brought up his outlaw image, which he waved away. Shaver said he was more of an outcast than an outlaw. Then, she asked if he was jealous over Coker talking to Wanda. To which he replied, “I get more women than a passenger train can haul. I’m not jealous.”
Finally, she suggested that if he felt so intimidated he could have just left the bar when Coker suggested they take their dispute outside. Billy Joe informed Toben that he would have done that if he was a “chickensh-t” but, he wasn’t. By the time things got heated, tucking tail and leaving wasn’t an option.
In the end, the jury found Billy Joe Shaver not guilty on grounds of self defense.
Notable Songs Inspired by the Shooting
Two great songs came out of the incident. “Wacko From Waco,” written and recorded by Billy Joe Shaver. It talks about the night of the incident as well as the trial. Shaver takes some poetic license in the song, but it still sticks pretty close to the official story. The opening lines, “I’m a wacko from Waco/ Ain’t no doubt about it/ Shot a man there in the head/ But can’t talk much about it/ He was trying to shoot me/ But he took too long to aim/ Anybody in my place/ Would have done the same,” lay out the events of the night pretty well. He goes on to talk about his lawyer and the famous people, including Willie Nelson, who showed up to support him at the trial.
The other song was “Where Do You Want It?” written by Dale Watson and recorded by Whitey Morgan and the 78s. The song is a celebration of Billy Joe’s outlaw image. The song sees Shaver asking Coker where he’d like to be shot. “Where do you want it/ Partner where do you want the pain/ Hell I’m gonna, I’m gonna give it my best aim/ Well I warned ya/ I told you boy leave me alone/ Now I’m askin/ Where do ya want it?”
Billy Joe Shaver could have spent a long stretch in a Texas state prison. Instead, he was acquitted and turned the whole thing into a song. Outlaw country at its finest.