Sunday, May 09, 2010


I know, the same sounds like Pugsley's masochistic brother, but "Owsley," no first name, was 44 year-old Will Owsley's chosen identity for 16 somewhat obscure years in Amy Grant's touring band, plus session work, and several critically praised indie solo albums. A victim of depression, not even the steady Amy Grant gig, his parents, his wife or his two kids was enough to keep him grounded, and he was pronounced dead at Williamson County Hospital in Franklin Tennessee, high noon April 30th, a suicide.

If there's anything more tedious than repeating "suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem," it's repeating "he was strongly influenced by Paul McCartney." But both must be written about Will Owsley.

Born in Alabama, Owsley gigged at local clubs in Calhoun County and in Jacksonville, Florida. He wasn't getting lucky, but he later recalled, "There ain't no luck involved. I practiced till my freaking fingers bled, and begged to play for free." Between the world of "pay for play" gigs and the fierce competition among studio musicians in Nashville where he migrated, Owsley's outstanding talent managed to be recognized. He worked with Judson Spence, Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Vince Gill and Charlotte Church. His band The Semantics toured with Ben Folds Five and were signed to Geffen, but to no avail; their 1996 release Powerbill was available only as a Japanese import.

Owsley made a solo album which got a 1999 release via the indie Giant Records label. He created it in his self-built studio back home in Anniston, Alabama, and got a Grammy Award nomination, not for the music, but the engineering. With CD sales in a state of disaster, and touring with Amy Grant taking up so much of his time, Will wasn't inspired to complete a second album until 2004. The McCartneyesque "The Hard Way" was issued on the indie label Lakeview. Will tried to promote it via UMe Digital as a download, but he found out that few people actually buy digital music when it can be gotten free, and that the "final solution" of everyone tossing their music onto MySpace or cheap-shit eMusic didn't even the playing field, just crater it.

In 2005 Will managed a digital-download single, "Psycho/Upside Down," and that was it; he considered himself more of a session musician and a producer. He produced albums for other obscure solo artists (Chris Sligh and Kevin Max) and brought in some bucks backing musicians for tours and TV appearances: "It's what guys like me do, studio rats. I'm 43. They're not going pay me to shake my ass on MTV." Unfortunately the reality of music today, is that creating music in a studio doesn't pay; it's only by performing live night after night that a band can make any money. Owsley knew it, but he was too old for that type of rock and roll: "I would tell young bands to get their live shows together. That's the one thing they can't take from them. That's the only thing left."

Reality was continuing to spoil Owsley's dreams. What happens when your music is being stolen by the "we like free" brigade" and you don't get the satisfaction of a decent royalty check? What happens when indie artists can't afford to hire you as a producer to be the George Martin or Rick Rubin they need? What happens when hanging on for a a month of touring with Amy Grant no longer makes it for you? When fewer and fewer TV shows have the budget to hire extra musicians to back up a singer's guest spot? Owsley said last year, "This is a commitment I made at 10 years old. This dream is going to go on, whether I'm producing, singing, writing, playing or engineering. I'm going to be creative somehow." He stopped for a moment. Then he said, "Maybe I'll be a teacher or something. Maybe I'll start the school of rock." Maybe not. Even though he had his own "school of rock" at home (his kids, aged 7 and 11) he admitted, "It's hard to feed kids," and maintain a music career.

He specifically mentioned the depressing state of a music industry crippled by illegal downloading, a business no longer friendly or viable to older or non-touring musicians. In fact, the music industry has become downright cold and hostile to anyone with a dream of creating magic in a studio and having someone buy it. These dreamers are told, "get a day job," and "tour and sell MERCH at your GIG" or just give it all away for the "fame" involved. Well, Owsley had some fame. "How many kids can say their dad played with the Jonas Brothers?" he asked. But sporadic session work didn't pay the rent or give him satisfaction, and so he left his two kids behind. And his wife. And his parents.

“We are all reeling today from the news of Will Owsley’s death,” Amy Grant posted on her website. “So many of us in Nashville worked with Will, lived with him on the road, celebrated his talents and knew his anguish. Please join us in praying for his family and children.” Donations in honor and memory of Will Owsley can be made to: The Will Owsley Family Fund c/o Christ Community Church 1215 Hillsboro Road Franklin, TN 37069 MAKE CHECKS PAYABLE TO CHRIST COMMUNITY CHURCH. He left behind two young sons and every dollar donated will be greatly appreciated by his grieving family.

Your sample is four songs from The Semantics ("Future For You," "Jenny Won't Play Fair," "Don't Say Goodbye," "Life Goes On") and four songs from "The Hard Way;" the title track, plus "Undone," and the last track "Rainy Day People which, after about ten seconds, leads to the bonus track, a cover version of "Band on the Run."


JW said...

Will's debut album was created in his home studio on Hobbs Road in Nashville, not in Anniston, AL. His second album was cut in his home studio in Franklin, TN. He had been divorced for a couple of years by the time of his death.

Anonymous said...

Have to much of this is conjecture on the author's part? Yes, the quotes can likely be attributed to him, but, by accounts, he had a constant stream of work.

Some other people on message boards claim he 'sought, and received, treatment for depression' over the years, not that his topical feelings about the music business were what did him in.