Producer championed Austin's blues
By Brad Buchholz
Tary Owens devoted most of his life to music, though only rarely to his own. The greater mission, to Owens, was to champion the music of forgotten or unsung Texas bluesmen -- to put their songs on records, to place them on a stage, to encourage a larger public to celebrate their artistry.
It was Owens, in 1986, who sought out forgotten 1920s-era barrelhouse piano legend Roosevelt Williams -- the Grey Ghost -- and revived his career. Owens didn't find him over the phone; he walked to the old man's house in East Austin and beat on the door. Sparked by Owens' backing and encouragement, the Ghost put out a well-received solo album, "Grey Ghost," on the Spindletop label in 1992 and found a new generation of fans.
As a producer, Owens aspired to showcase homegrown blues musicians at a time when the city had emerged as a national blues mecca. With the help of his partner Jon Foose, he revived the careers of East Austin blues players T.D. Bell and Erbie Bowser and brought attention to East Texas blues musicians such as Frank Robinson and Long John Hunter.
"If it hadn't been for Tary, there would have been no resurrection for Grey Ghost. Most people thought Grey Ghost wasn't even alive anymore," recalled Saira Morgan, who worked with Owens for 20 years. "Erbie and T.D. got to play play in Carnegie Hall and tour in Europe before they died. That wouldn't have happened if not for Tary Owens."
Born in Illinois and raised in Port Arthur, Owens was a high school classmate and friend of Janis Joplin. When Joplin moved to Austin in the early 1960s, Owens followed and was a part of the early Threadgill's beer-joint folk scene. He attended the University of Texas for a time and was inspired by legendary folklore professor Americo Paredes to document "roots" music in Texas.
As an archivist in the 1960s, Owens gathered vintage field recordings of the roots music throughout Texas -- collecting cowboy songs, fiddle music and small-town blues; striking up a friendship with Mance Lipscomb; and recording haunting "toasts" sung by black inmates in Texas prisons. Many of these recordings are part of a special collection at the UT Center for American History. (In 1999, he released some of his finest field material on a self-produced sampler album, "Catfish, Carp & Diamonds: 35 Years of Texas Blues.")
Owens spoke openly about his abuse of drugs and alcohol as a young man; it was a vice that almost killed him. When he became sober in the mid-1980s, Owens became a friend to countless Austin musicians and artists who were seeking a life of recovery. Owens and his wife, singer Maryann Price, opened their riverside home in East Austin to many of these musicians, and it became widely known as a place of sanctuary and peace.
Owens had been fighting health problems since the late 1990s. Partly because of his long history of drug abuse, he suffered from hepatitis C, Parkinson's and diabetes. In recent years, he began writing and recording music of his own with a band called the Texas Redemptors and recently released a solo album, "Milagros."
"I think Tary Owens, once he found sobriety, truly wanted to make amends with the world," said Bill Bentley, a vice president for Warner Bros. records who has deep Austin roots. "He helped so many people that it was clear he was trying in his own way to repay his past. He's the person who first suggested to me what a great thing a Roky Erickson tribute album would be for Roky, and helped make it a reality.
"Helping others was such a natural instinct for Tary that it seemed second nature. There wasn't any grand plan behind it; it was just the way he was inside. He knew on a real ground-floor level what it meant to be a good human being and reminded a lot of us how to go about doing it. He was as good a teacher as any of us ever had, on or off the bandstand. Texas music never had a better friend."
This article on the Austin American Statesman website
Scan of newspaper