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.
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: