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Waco’s songwriting icon — Billy Joe Shaver remembered as ‘a genius and a poet’
  • 4 min to read
Earl Neikirk, Bristol Herald Courier 

Billy Joe Shaver tips his hat to the crowd of fans from the State Street Stage during the 2013 Rhythm and Roots Reunion in Bristol, Virginia.

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald file photos  

Billy Joe Shaver performs at Indian Spring Park in June 2008. Shaver died Wednesday in Waco after a stroke.

Country music songwriting icon Billy Joe Shaver died Wednesday in Waco after suffering a massive stroke.

Shaver, 81, a member of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame, is best known for his rough and tumble image throughout a career of writing that includes songs Waylon Jennings recorded on his 1973 album, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” a 1981 classic turned into a hit by John Anderson.

Raised in Corsicana and Waco, he wrote from his life which, warts and all, encompassed fast living, hard drinking and a temper, a lifestyle that made him fit in with musicians like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker and Kris Kristofferson, the core of the Outlaw Country movement of 1970s Austin.

It included his stormy relationship with his first wife, Brenda, who he married and remarried three times; his only son, Eddy, the lead guitarist in his band before dying in 2000 from a drug overdose, a year after Brenda and his mother, Victory, died; and a Christian faith that endured, though battered, for much of his life.

Life also included a sawmill accident early in adulthood that took two fingers and gave him a reason to go into music; the 2007 shooting of a man in the Lorena bar Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon, of which a McLennan County jury acquitted him; and small roles in movies including Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” and “Secondhand Lions.”

And then there are the songs: “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Tramp On Your Street,” “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” for starters and even “Wacko From Waco.”

Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represented Shaver at his McLennan County criminal trial after Shaver shot a man in the face during a scrape at a Lorena bar in 2007, said Shaver had hip replacement surgery a few weeks ago and was not in good health. He later suffered a stroke and died in a Waco hospital, Rolling Stone magazine first reported.

“Billy Joe’s a poet,” said DeGuerin, who won an acquittal for Shaver on the assault charge at a Waco trial attended by Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall. “He’s a very sensitive guy. You look at him and you think he is just the roughest guy on the planet, and he did have a rough upbringing. But throughout his life, he has been above his learning as a poet. So I guess the way I think of him and will always think of him is as a poet.”

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald file photo 

Billy Joe Shaver (left) smiles as he walks out of the McLennan County Courthouse with attorney Dick DeGuerin in 2010 after being acquitted of a shooting charge. Shaver, 70, was on trial for shooting Billy Bryant Coker outside Papa Joe's Texas Saloon in Lorena on April 1, 2007.

Brad Reagan, a Wall Street Journal reporter and former Tribune-Herald staff member who wrote Shaver’s 2005 biography, “Honky Tonk Hero,” was last in touch with Shaver a few weeks ago and said Shaver was in good spirits, writing songs and thinking about writing another book.

“As always with Billy Joe, he was a hard guy to be friends with because he had mood swings,” Reagan said. “But at the end of the day, he was a genius and a poet. That is who he was in his soul.”

Shaver lived in a south Waco neighborhood, unpretentious like him, for more than the past 20 years, when not on the road for out-of-town gigs.

Generations of Waco fans knew him for his grizzled friendliness, his unvarnished personality and accessibility before and after local shows.

Kyle Ericson, Associated Press  

Billy Joe Shaver and his band perform with Willie Nelson (left) during a 2009 Farm Aid Concert event in St. Louis.

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald file photo 

Actor Robert Duvall (left) stands with Billy Joe Shaver during a break in Shaver's trial in Waco in 2010. Shaver was acquitted of a 2007 shooting charge.

Waco Parks and Recreation Director Jonathan Cook booked Shaver for city-sponsored Brazos Nights concerts at Indian Spring Park in 2001 and 2003, opening for Jack Ingram in 2006 and Tommy Alverson in 2008 and a Pints in the Park festival with The Reverend Horton Heat in 2015.

“When he first played Brazos Nights, it was down in the (Indian Spring Park) amphitheater and he went down on his knees and spread his arms when he sang ‘When Fallen Angels Fly,’” Cook said. “I was getting chill bumps watching him.”

Jack Ingram thought he should have opened for Shaver and termed him “the Waco warrior,” Cook said.

Texas country aficionado Brad Beheler, who runs the Texas country music site, considers Shaver one of the underappreciated pillars of Texas music.

“Billy Joe Shaver was nothing if not an oak,” he said in an email. “His songs were seemingly simple, yet always contained a deeper meaning than at first blush. … The songs he wrote that became “Honky Tonk Heroes” for Waylon Jennings exist alongside Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Viva Terlingua” and Willie Nelson’s “Shotgun Willie” as being the building blocks of Outlaw Country which gave way to modern Texas Country and Americana.”

Rod Aydelotte, Tribune-Herald, file 

Billy Joe Shaver performs at Indian Spring Park in June 2008. Shaver died Wednesday in Waco after a stroke.

Shaver’s death, in fact, follows on the heels of Jerry Jeff Walker’s death last week and the death of another Texas country icon, Johnny Bush, two weeks ago. It also comes after those of Waco-area musicians James “Slim” Hand, who died in June, and recent Shaver sideman Tonee Calhoun, who died in November last year.

Shaver left Texas for Nashville in 1968, writing songs for Bobby Bare’s publishing company. His big break came, however, when Jennings recorded his songs for “Honky Tonk Heroes.”

It put Shaver on the map, even as he left Nashville for Austin, and gave an identifiable marker for what became known as Outlaw Country.

“When Waylon did ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ and all those songs in the early 1970s, I couldn’t have possibly sang those songs as he could,” Shaver told the Associated Press in 1993. “The songs were bigger than my talent as a singer and I knew that, too.”

Shaver songs found their way into the recording studio for artists including John Anderson, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, John Hartford, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Loveless and Johnny Rodriguez, whose version of “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You” hit No. 3 on the country charts.

Ralph Lauer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service, file  

One of Billy Joe Shaver’s songs found its way into the recording studio for Elvis Presley, who famously visited the Elite Cafe in Waco during the 1950s.

Shaver recorded his first album in 1973 and went on to more than 20 more, but bad luck with record labels — seven went out of business — undercut his chances for recording success. His 2014 album “Long in the Tooth” was his last.

His songwriting, however, landed a measure of fame and attention for the Waco musician. The Americana Music Association honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting in 2002. The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame made him a member in 2004 and last year the Academy of Country Music awarded him its Poet’s Award.

Shaver was “an absolute pure genius,” said Walt Wilkins, a Texas singer-songwriter who lived in Waco in the 1990s and shared a stage with Shaver a few times over the years.

“His lyrics were so economical of language and so direct,” Wilkins said. “They were like an arrow straight to the truth.”

Photo gallery

Photos: Remembering Waco singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, 1939-2020

Two teens arrested in South Waco shooting death, victim identified

Waco police arrested an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old Wednesday on capital murder charges in a South Waco shooting death last month, and officials believe a third man may have been involved in the shooting.

Police also have identified the victim as Kaden Hitchcock, 21. Police responded to call in the early morning hours of Sept. 25 at Hitchcock’s residence in the 300 block of Wagon Wheel Circle and found Hitchcock dead of a single gunshot wound.

Jose A. Herrera, 19, and Kyle Eric Depolito, 18, were arrested Wednesday.

According to arrest affidavits, they told police they went to Hitchcock’s residence to buy drugs, and he had several firearms lying on his bed when they arrived.

Hitchcock’s roommates told police they had seen Depolito and two other men in Hitchcock’s room before the roommates went to bed at about 3 a.m. that morning, according to the affidavits.

During the transaction between Hitchcock and the three men, a 9mm pistol that had been on the bed went missing, and Hitchcock started searching for it and accused them of taking it, according to the affidavits. When police arrived at the house, several guns were missing, and they found a single spent 9mm shell casing, the affidavits state.

Herrera and Depolito remained in McLennan County Jail on capital murder charges Wednesday.

Bond for each was listed at $1 million.

Baylor’s Tyquan Thornton misses a catch as he’s defended by Texas’ Josh Thompson during the first half.

Waco physicians urge care during Halloween as COVID-19 death toll hits 154

A 100-year-old woman was among three McLennan County COVID-19 deaths announced Wednesday as local health authorities brace for Halloween activities they fear may fuel the pandemic.

Sixty-three new COVID-19 cases were confirmed Wednesday during a weekly local press conference on the situation, and three local physicians said they would not hesitate to get any new federally approved vaccine to prevent COVID-19.

“I do trust the process,” Dr. Mike Hardin, director of the Waco Family Health Center residency program said of vaccine development and approval. “More than 100 are being developed, and 11 are in Phase 3, which means they’re deciding if it’s safe and if it works. It’s unprecedented that drugs are being produced even as testing continues, which means doses could be made available in short order upon federal approval. If the vaccine is found to be unsafe or ineffective, the doses would be disposed of.

“It’s important the public clearly understands this.”

There have been 10,077 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in McLennan County residents, and 154 have died, including a 100-year-old woman, a 62-year-old man and a 59-year-old man whose deaths were announced Wednesday. Twelve deaths of McLennan County residents attributed to COVID-19 had been announced in the seven days through Wednesday, and 43 such deaths have been announced so far this month, already the most of any month so far.

It is important to take precautions as holidays and cooler weather arrive, said Hardin, joined by Dr. Brian Becker, chief medical officer at Ascension Providence Medical Center, and Dr. Marc Elieson, with Baylor Scott & White Health.

“We remain in an area of accelerated spread,” Hardin said.

The doctors again said it remains important to get flu shots this year, and both the flu and COVID-19 can lead to respiratory problems.

Having the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously “could make you more susceptible to a serious outcome,” Elieson said.

Of the 10,077 cases, an estimated 9,392 people have recovered and an estimated 531 have active infections, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. Waco hospitals were treating 42 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, including 28 McLennan County residents and eight on ventilators.

The county has had a daily new case count averaging in the mid-60s over the past week, Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said.

“We continue to have far too many cases for a community our size,” Deaver said.

Deaver said residents should refrain from traditional Halloween celebrations.

“Create a new tradition, a new memory,” he said. “Have a family Halloween movie night, a pumpkin carving or a virtual Halloween costume contest. If trick-or-treating is an absolute must, remember that plastic masks worn as costumes are not suitable replacements for cloth COVID-19 masks.”

Even if an activity is allowed, it does not mean it is advisable.

“Don’t focus on guidelines,” Deaver said. “Focus on being smart.”

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Elieson said fighting COVID-19 requires caution and diligence. He said people with the illness do not always exhibit symptoms.

“I asked one of my patients in the hospital how he was exposed,” Elieson said. “He said he was in a deer blind with his brother and his brother’s co-worker. No one was wearing masks. The co-worker later was diagnosed.

“He didn’t know he was infected.”

Officials praised Baylor University’s response to the pandemic, saying the average number of confirmed cases daily has dropped to fewer than 10.

They said there are no active cases involving Baylor athletes.

Officials said the health district often faces “pushback” when it contacts people who have tested positive for COVID-19. They often rebuff efforts to find others they have come in contact with.

Officials said it is important that people who have recovered from COVID-19 consider donating plasma that could serve to help treat others who become infected.

Also Wednesday, the health district announced it has contracted with Aardvark Mobile Health to provide a mobile COVID-19 testing platform. The small truck can park in a space equivalent to two parking spaces, and can reconfigure to administer up to 500 tests each day using two lines.

“The fully self-contained unit has its own onboard power, onboard air-conditioning, heat and the ability to provide either positive or negative pressure to keep the clinicians safe while they supervise the free COVID-19 tests,” according to a city of Waco press release.

Tests administered are saliva tests which require participants to not eat, drink or brush their teeth for at least 30 minutes before testing.

The free tests are provided through the federal Community-Based Testing Site program that started in the Waco area in mid-October. It is administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Testing dates, locations and pre-registration links are available at

These are the top costumes of 2020

These are the top costumes of 2020

Nurse indicted in sexual assault at Waco hospital

A nurse accused of sexually assaulting a patient he was treating at a Waco hospital in 2017 and who is a defendant in a pending lawsuit remains in the McLennan County Jail after his arrest this week.

Miguel Angel Martinez-Rivera, 26, was indicted Oct. 1, but his indictment remained sealed because he had not been arrested. The indictment was unsealed this week after he was jailed under $40,000 bond and on an immigration detainer.



According to the indictment against Martinez-Rivera, he sexually assaulted a 54-year-old Robinson woman Aug. 1, 2017, at Ascension Providence while she was under hospital care for an abdominal abscess.

Martinez-Rivera, the hospital and Providence Healthcare Network are the subject of a lawsuit the woman filed in Waco’s 74th State District Court in March of last year.

Judge Gary Coley granted a request Wednesday from the woman’s attorney, Ryan Johnson, to depose Martinez-Rivera while he still is in jail and before any possible action could be taken by immigration officials.

Johnson said his client reported the sexual assault to hospital staff and to a social worker on the day it happened, but claims hospital officials encouraged her not to report the assault to law enforcement, instead telling her “we’ll take care of it,” Johnson said. However, the hospital did not report the sexual assault as required by law, he said.

Johnson said after his firm took the woman’s case, he again asked Ascension Providence officials to report the assault.

“Inexplicably, Providence again refused to notify local law enforcement or to the Department of Health and Human Services as required by law,” Johnson said. “When you go to Providence Hospital to be treated, no one expects to be sexually assaulted by a Providence nurse. In light of the recent grand jury indictment, the leadership of Providence Hospital should be ashamed of itself. Waco deserves better.

“On behalf of our entire community, we demand full transparency by Providence leadership and a clear answer as to why Providence Hospital leadership never reported this sexual assault to local law enforcement or to the Department of Health and Human Services. Providence leadership’s failure to act enabled this nurse to continue treating vulnerable patients for the past three years, despite knowing about this sexual assault,” Johnson said. “This case should be important to all Wacoans because it affects some of the most vulnerable people in our community.”

Ascension Providence spokesperson Danielle Hall declined comment Wednesday, saying the hospital does not comment on pending litigation.

According to the lawsuit, Martinez-Rivera entered the 54-year-old woman’s room after her husband left the hospital and closed the door. He took the patient’s remote that is used to call for help and moved it beyond her reach, according to the lawsuit.

He tried to give her a sponge bath, but the woman refused his treatment. So he gave her soap and a towel and watched her clean herself, the suit alleges. Martinez-Rivera said he was going to clean the woman’s catheter, which the lawsuit claims was unnecessary and undocumented. She refused, but he persisted, saying, “you will enjoy this,” the suit alleges.

She threatened to scream for help, but he told her no one would hear her, according to the suit. As the woman continued to tell him no, Rivera lifted her gown and sexually abused her with his fingers, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit said the woman reported the sexual assault to a hospital social worker, Providence quality department and Providence risk management. She was told “there is no need to talk to authorities, we’ll take care of this,” the suit claims.

“Plaintiff assumed that Providence would terminate Defendant Martinez-Rivera, report the sexual assault event to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, report this incident to the Texas Board of Nursing and report Defendant Martinez-Rivera’s sexual assault to local authorities,” the suit states. “Defendant Providence took no such action and instead has simply covered up this sexual assault.”