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Born and raised in Whitney, Texas, Shafer's musical career began in his hometown of Whitney where he played in a school band. In the following years he toured the U.S., performing with, among others, the then-known Willie Nelson. In 1967 Shafer moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he signed with the Blue Crest Music Publishing Company. There he wrote two songs for George Jones, "Between My House and Home" and "I'm a New Man in Town", along with many other tunes for lesser-known acts. Shafer signed contracts with Musicor and RCA as a singer, but he was never as successful as he was as a songwriter.
In the early 1970s Shafer signed an exclusive contract with Acuff-Rose Music. In the following years he wrote many songs which went on to become successful on the U.S. country charts, including several No. 1's. His songs included "The Baptism of Jesse Taylor" for Johnny Russell, "Tell Me Lying Eyes Are Wrong" for George Jones, and a series of hits for Moe Bandy. He had a longstanding friendship with Lefty Frizzell, whom he had met at his record label. He and Frizzell wrote the song "That's the Way Love Goes" together, a hit for Johnny Rodriguez and also Merle Haggard in 1983; they also wrote "I Never Go Around Mirrors". After Frizzell's death Shafer wrote the tribute song "Lefty's Gone".
Three divorces helped him with his song writing in the 1980s when Shafer wrote "Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind" (1985; with Darlene Shafer) and "All My Ex's Live in Texas" (1987; with his fourth wife Lyndia J.). Both of these were No. 1 hits for George Strait, and both were nominated for CMA's Song of the Year. "All My Ex's Live in Texas" was also nominated for a Grammy Award, for Best Country Song (lost to: Paul Overstreet & Don Schlitz for "Forever and Ever, Amen").
In the middle of the 1980s Shafer released two albums, I Never Go Around Mirrors and So Good for So Long, containing his greatest hits. In 1989 Keith Whitley chose two Shafer songs for his upcoming album, "I Wonder Do You Think of Me", which was the first song released after his death and went to No. 1, and followed up with "I Never Go Around Mirrors". Also in 1989 he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Shafer continued to write for musicians such as John Michael Montgomery, Lee Ann Womack, and Kenny Chesney. In 2004, Shafer's recording of "All My Ex's Live In Texas" appeared on the soundtrack to the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.