Will Owsley is Dead.

Man this bums me out.  Will Owsley is dead.  I found out about it yesterday, third-hand. I was listening to a really cool podcast, Michael Butler’s Rock and Roll Geek Show, and it was mentioned casually.  Apparently he killed himself back in 2010.  I wish that I was able to write something like “Will Owsley is dead, you might not know who he was, but no doubt you know his music…”  But I can’t write that because you most certainly didn’t know his music.

And I think that on some level, that might be why he’s no longer with us.

But I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I know the reason I man I never met killed himself.  I think it would be a waste of time to trot out the old cliche of the tortured artist who kills himself.  We all toil in obscurity, to some degree, so why should that matter?  Besides, it’s ghoulish to romanticize the suicide of a 44-year-old father of two (his children are so young, the oldest being around 14).  I can’t tell you why Will Owlsey killed himself, but I can tell you why I think he was special.

Will Owsley was a guitarist, first and foremost.  He moved to Nashville and became a side-man in some semi-impressive B-level country acts.  His biggest claim to fame was his stint as a member of Amy Grant’s live band during the early 1990’s.  From there he landed a gig playing for Shania Twain.  It was this modest tour work that allowed Owsley to pay for the recording of his own music, and in 1999 he released his first solo album OWSLEY. Despite coming from a largely country background, OWSELY was a “power pop” album.  Influenced by The Beatles and The Cars, Owsely’s first album was met with critical praise…but little commercial success. Despite the fact that the album was nominated for a Grammy for it’s production.

This is a great fucking record.

OWSLEY is a great record. The songs are all super-catchy.  I would compare OWSLEY to a mid-period Weezer album performed entirely by Ben Folds.  As I re-listen to some of the songs, I notice there is a lot of bitterness mixed in the catchy, sugary lyrics . Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m projecting my knowledge of his death onto a simple pop artifact.  That’s a good word to describe OWSLEY, “artifact.”

I remember the first time I heard it in 2004, I felt like an archeologist who’d just unearthed a long lost treasure.  When the punk-y album opener “Oh No The Radio” blastedg out of my car’s stereo I was in heaven.  Top-to-bottom I was impressed with the record, and when it was finished I hit ‘play’ again.  It was that good.

I was soon excited to learn that Owsley had recorded and released a follow-up album a few months before I’d initially stumbled upon him.  So as soon as I’d  sufficiently absorbed OWSLEY I went and bought THE HARD WAY.  I can still remember the first time I played THE HARD WAY and was floored at how…different Owsley’s voice sounded.  I still can’t put my finger on it, but it was different.  Deeper and less playful. Once I got over the slight difference in the vocals (I blame auto-tuneing), I was once again impressed with the songwriting.  THE HARD WAY was more rock and less-pop, but good nonetheless.  Of course, it was a sophmore album, so there were a few clunkers (like “Dude” which is too serious to feature such prominent use of the word dude).

I was always on the look-out for Owsley, determined to see him live.  But if there was a tour for THE HARD WAY it never came to city near me. The songs were all good, but not what was being played on the radio.  No one I ever met seemed to have heard of him.  Indie online label Not Lame Records were big supporters online, and his records are highly rated on serious music websites, like AllMusic.  Bit he never got much attention elsewhere.    I’ve been a fan of small, independent bands for a long time, so I knew the drill–a really good band/songwriter puts out a killer album, it gets overlooked and he/she/it/they are never heard from again.  The fact that Owsley got to put out a second record meant that he’d had SOME measure of success, but not the kind that makes you famous.

I never forgot about Owsley, but I did move on.  Apparently he put out a digital-only double single in 2005 “Psycho” and “Upside Down” but I’ve never heard them.  Owsley spent the last five years of his life backing super-lame, but more successful Disney-brand artists like The Jonas Brothers and Miley “The Virus” Cyrus. It makes me sick because they weren’t even in his league, not by a mile.  But that’s the “business” part of show business, I guess.

Anyway, I guess I’m done eulogizing someone I never met.  Instead, let me turn you onto some awesome songs. Let me introduce to Owsley:

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14 thoughts on “Will Owsley is Dead.

  1. RK says:

    “Owsley spent the last five years of his life backing super-lame, but more successful Disney-brand artists like The Jonas Brothers and Miley “The Virus” Cyrus. It makes me sick because they weren’t even in his league, not by a mile. But that’s the “business” part of show business, I guess.”

    Boy, ain’t it the truth. I’m not that familiar with his 2nd CD, but his first one is first rate all the way. ‘Sentimental favorite’ should have gotten massive amounts of airplay. “Uh oh the Radio”, “Coming up Roses”, etc. – just superb. RIP great musician, Will Owsley.

  2. Road-E says:

    I’m in agreement with this article as well my alliance with Axl. I was fortunate to assist Will and his bandmates on tour for a brief stint in Summer while he opened for Chris Isaak “Speak of the Devil Tour 99.” I can tell you that his live performance was just as amazing as his recorded work. Every set on tour was perfection. The entire band was spot day in day out, great supporting cast. In retrospect, the label tripped at the time pairing him with not the most viable acts but to his credit he wowed the foreign Chris Isaac fan base. He was a nice guy, a true artist, and was fully invested in his work. RIP Will and blessing to your family.

    • Wow, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I never got a chance to see Owsley perform live, which is a real bummer. I wish the public had embraced Will and his music, now that he’s gone that’ll probably never happen…but I’ll keep a torch burning for him as long as I’m around.

  3. Kelli says:

    Hi Jason. I just wanted to comment and tell you how much I loved your post. I also just love the Owsley record and lament what an undiscovered gem it is/was. I worked in the music business in Nashville back when that first record came out and got to see him live several times. He was fantastic and everything you’d hope he would be. I always watched for him and did everything I could to tell people about him and that record. I still love it. Like you, I was so sad to learn, more than a year after the fact, that he had died. Even though the larger “pop culture” world may not have known of his talents, I know the music community knew Will and how talented he was and what a huge loss he was. I’m always surprised when I’m in message boards or on other artist Facebook pages how often I hear other real music fans bring up his name… so that’s a good thing. I’m glad I found your post… nice to meet another fan of such a great record.

  4. kellijanesmith says:

    Hi Jason. I just wanted to comment and tell you how much I loved your post. I also just love the Owsley record and lament what an undiscovered gem it is/was. I worked in the music business in Nashville back when that first record came out and got to see him live several times. He was fantastic and everything you’d hope he would be. I always watched for him and did everything I could to tell people about him and that record. I still love it. Like you, I was so sad to learn, more than a year after the fact, that he had died. Even though the larger “pop culture” world may not have known of his talents, I know the music community knew Will and how talented he was and what a huge loss he was. I’m always surprised when I’m in message boards or on other artist Facebook pages how often I hear other real music fans bring up his name… so that’s a good thing. I’m glad I found your post… nice to meet another fan of such a great record.

  5. Steve Xian says:

    The two Owsley albums are among my “desert island” discs. I never tire of listening to them. Will’s playing and songwriting, singing and production is just top notch all around. I am sad to this day that he’s no longer with us. I was fortunate to see him open for Guster in Los Angeles a few years ago. My wife and I stood at the corner of the stage. We had listened to the first album so many times by that point that we knew practically every word to his songs and were singing along with him. He noticed, and in between songs, I remember him saying something like “wow, you guys know all the words!” He was so gracious and appreciative. It’s really a crime that his music hasn’t been heard by more people.

  6. Holiday says:

    Yes thanks Jason, I first seen Owsley on Amy Grant’s ( Time and Again) live DVD and my favorite song is Lead me On, he does an awesome guitar work there, I fell in love with the dude, and when I found out he passed on, I was crushed. Thanks for adding his videos. He does deserve a standing ovation for sure. Thank you.

  7. Henry Mauve says:

    Semantics – you never even mentioned Semantics.

  8. stoney says:

    I knew him when he was in Baghdad. I was in college at jsu they played brothers bar on most weekends. great guitar player. wish I could have talked to him before his taking his life,and just tell him that people love him and his music.

  9. cineblax says:

    I know that I am a little late with this comment….but I had the exact same experience…in finding out about Will’s death 6 months after he passed. Thank you for writing about his amazing music. Here is a link to my blog past which I wrote upon finding out about Will’s deathj.
    Billy (Jarvy) Csernits

    Jarvy’s Cafe Link: http://jarvyscafe.blogspot.com/2010/10/will-owsleygone-but-not-forgotten.html

  10. cineblax says:

    I know that I am a little late with this comment….but I had the exact same experience…in finding out about Will’s death 6 months after he passed. Thank you for writing about his amazing music. Here is a link to my blog past which I wrote upon finding out about Will’s deathj.
    Billy (Jarvy) Csernits

    Jarvy’s Cafe Link: http://jarvyscafe.blogspot.com/2010/10/will-owsleygone-but-not-forgotten.html

  11. Somebody should make a movie about his life. Owsley was an exceptional artist.
    I was introduced to Will’s music when I was living in Dallas. I’m a power pop fan and musician myself and found his combination of precision, angst and reminiscing to be strangely satisfying. While in New York on a business trip, I discovered that he and his band would be playing the Mercury Lounge in the East Village, so I extended my trip through the weekend and got to see the show which I enjoyed immensely. I got to chat with him afterwards and we corresponded briefly. I found him to be an approachable and extremely talented artist. I miss him.

    • Thanks for the comment! You are so lucky to have seen him live. I miss Will and was so bummed about what happened to him (obviously) and that his music didn’t reach a larger audience.

      His music lives on in his fans, so I guess wetsuit gotta keep listening.

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