Tary's Tale
In the face of mortality, a story of music,
drugs and making things right

By Brad Buchholz


March 26, 2000

At a South Austin service station, Tary Owens pops the latch of his brown leather briefcase just to make sure he's carrying all the right drugs. We're driving to the Hill Country this afternoon, for there is music near Kerrville. His wife, jazz vocalist Maryann Price, is singing at a wedding.

He's in the front seat of my car, balancing the boxy briefcase on his knees, taking inventory. There are at least 10 bottles of pills inside: Donnatal, Carafate, papaya extract. But at this moment Owens is looking for a syringe. Insulin, for his diabetes.

"Just look at this," he says, frustration in his voice, still digging for the lost syringe, the pills clattering in the bottles. "All this, just so I can leave my house for half a day. "

Not so long ago, the courtly, gray-haired man in the front seat one of the most compelling figures in the Austin music community was a heroin addict. For years, for more than two decades, Tary Owens' drugs of choice included LSD, cocaine, peyote, mescaline, pot, alcohol. A journey into music wasn't complete without them, until he got clean in 1983.

Today, at age 57 , Owens finds that his body is breaking down. He suffers from Parkinson's disease, hepatitis, diabetes and the drugs in the briefcase have become his lifeline. Even so, he has other worries, about cirrhosis and heart problems and tremors. There are times when he loses concentration. He can't work in the afternoons. His time, he suggests, is running short.

"A Chinese doctor has me on an herb treatment for my hepatitis," Owens says softly. "And it's those herbs, literally, that are keeping me alive right now. I'm living each day as if it's the only one I've got."

I'd barely heard of Tary Owens until a few months ago, when a Who's Who of Austin musicians Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Ely, Marcia Ball staged a benefit concert at Antone's on his behalf. What I did know about Owens was his reputation as a selfless champion of "forgotten" Texas bluesmen over the years. It was Owens who rediscovered barrelhouse piano player Roosevelt T. Williams Austin's late "Grey Ghost" in 1986 and recorded an album of his music.

But Tary's tale is much larger than that. It's a journey that has intersected the lives of singer Janis Joplin, bluesman Mance Lipscomb, novelist Billy Lee Brammer and, for an instant, President Bill Clinton. It's about a passion for lost music and lost souls, the burned bridges that come with drug abuse, and, at last, a commitment to "make things right" in the years of recovery.

Tary Owens is ready to share this story on our drive into the Hill Country, but the insulin injection must come first. I turn away as he puts the needle in his arm, though I suspect the tale to come will be harder to take.

We'd met earlier in the day, at Owens' home in East Austin. It's a peaceful, quiet place on the banks of the Colorado River, surrounded by ancient pecan trees. On his back porch, there is the sound of songbirds, and wild ducks, and woodpeckers. In the morning, the sunlight glistens against the water in the most musical kind of way.

Owens grew up on a river the Mississippi in southern Illinois. Fascinated by lost voices and lost cultures, he would collect Indian arrowheads from the freshly plowed fields near the water. He's still very much the collector; the walls of his house are covered with photos and posters of the musicians in his life. An urn containing Grey Ghost's ashes rests atop an old piano in the living room. A rare Janis Joplin cassette sits atop the stereo. There are guitars, banjos and a vintage tube radio belonging to his grandfather.

"I like blues and jazz, especially, because it is music that speaks honestly," says Owens. "It's music that communicates real feelings. Blues echoes all the pain that African-Americans have been through for 500 years. But the blues are also a method of transcending that pain and turning it to something positive.

"For me, the lesson of life is taking the pain we are given in this life and finding a way to transcend that and turn it into something positive."

Owens developed his affinity for jazz and blues when he moved to Port Arthur, where he was a friend and high school classmate of Janis Joplin.

"I loved Janis," he says. "I felt a special kinship with her, like brother and sister."

Together, Owens and Joplin ran in a group of a half dozen outcasts. Their mentor, a student named Jim Langdon (today a copy editor for the Houston Chronicle) introduced them to the alternative music of the day blues, jazz, bluegrass, folk. Together, they read Jack Kerouac's beat novel "On the Road." Together, they discovered Leadbelly and Thelonious Monk. And when Joplin moved to Austin in the early 1960s, Owens soon followed.

Owens lived in a house of artists and musicians known as "The Ghetto," near the University of Texas. Joplin sang with two of his roommates, Larry Watkins and Powell St. John, at Kenneth Threadgill's old service station and beer joint on Wednesday nights. "It really was like going out into the country in those days," recalled Owens, who learned to sing and play guitar at Threadgill's. "It was just one room, with a big circular table. We sat around that table and played music. At one point, Mr. Threadgill ended up hiring us for $2 a night and all the beer we could drink."

During his first year in Austin, Owens married his first wife, Madeline, and became a father with Joplin serving as occasional baby sitterbabysitter. After enrolling at UT, Owens met Dr. Americo Paredes, the renowned folklorist, who helped him secure a grant to make field recordings of vintage Texas blues. Throughout 1964 and '65, Owens immersed himself in a world of barrelhouse piano, small-town blues players and the songs of Mance Lipscomb the Navasota bluesman who would become a "mentor." But the most haunting music he encountered came from Texas prisons, sung by black inmates in the Walls, Wynne and Ramsey units.

This music preserved today at UT's Center for American History is remarkably polished. Some of the songs have roots that date to the 18th century and evoke images of slavery. Some are racy spoken-word rhymes forerunners of rap, but delivered in somber slowness known as "toasts."

"The inmates were nervous about performing," says Owens. "You could see the years of pain in their faces particularly that of an inmate named Dave Tippen, who was 70 years old at the time and been in prison all his life. He just touched me to my heart and he never got out."

Shortly after Owens completed his Texas blues tapes, Joplin left Austin for San Francisco and her career took off. Her success was a form of validation for all of those in Port Arthur whose tastes in music and lifestyle had seemed so extreme.

"Our group knew how talented she was, from the time she started singing along with Odetta records when she was 17 years old. It was a validation for us," said Owens. "I remember she wrote me a note from San Francisco, when she made the posters, saying 'I'm the first hippie pin up girl!' She was real proud. And so were we."

There is another note in Owens' house, from an old yearbook, hanging near the bathroom. There's a playful and affectionate inscription, written in a clear hand. The closing line: "Always remember, Janis Joplin."

At the service station, Tary Owens finishes his insulin injection apologizing, excessively, for slowing us down and then pops the syringe into the brown briefcase. Before long, we're out of the city, heading west, and Owens is reminiscing about Austin's underground artist colony of the 1960s. On the way to Johnson City, I ask about Billy Lee Brammer, whose novel "The Gay Place," inspired by Lyndon B. Johnson, is considered one of the great works of American political fiction.

Brammer is also the man who gave Owens his first dose of LSD.

"Billy Lee was basking in attention and a fair amount of money at the time," recalls Owens. "He rented a place on the corner of 15th Street and West Avenue that real big house. Billy Lee lived upstairs, and the band, the Conqueroo with (illustrator) Tony Bell and cartoonist Gilbert Shelton lived in the back." Short story writer Dave Hickey and artist Jim Franklin were part of the crew, too.

Owens describes "underground" Austin of the 1960s as a way station between similar cultures in San Francisco and New York. He remembers author Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters parking their bus in front of Brammer's house. Wavy Gravy slept on Owens' sofa. Author Larry McMurtry passed through. So did cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

"Billy Lee I guess through his New York literary connections acquired some LSD. We were smoking pot at the time. And we'd already been through the peyote thing, which made you so sick that you couldn't abuse. But LSD changed everything.

"Billy Lee was incredible," says Owens, alluding to an era of open sexual relationships. "He's the only person about whom you could ever say: 'He (stole) my wife and I'm not mad at him.' "

As the wind whistles through the window of the car, Owens speaks in an open sigh. "We were all trying to have open relationships. But we hadn't learned yet that it causes too much pain. We were trying to be open and loving, you know. but we just hadn't learned about the pain. We all had to learn the hard way."

Among those who suffered, Owens remembers Roky Erickson the Austinite who fronted a psychedelic band known as the 13th Floor Elevators. Owens had seen him play Austin's Jade Room and bragged about him to his buddies. The kid was only 16, but my, how he could sing! Like Buddy Holly! Or James Brown! Almost immediately, Erickson was embraced by Austin's drug and music scene and it ruined his career.

"I remember at the time, thinking, what have I gotten him in to?" says Owens. "Within a year, the 13th Floor Elevators were proselytizing LSD and taking it on a daily basis and it did them all in. Within a year, Roky had just gone into outer space." Emotionally scarred, Erickson has been unable to perform, outside the occasional benefit, since the late 1970s.

Brammer would suffer, too. Though his book and his notoriety gave Austin a certain literary cachet, he never wrote another novel. Though hired to write an LBJ biography after "The Gay Place," Brammer was denied access to the White House, which essentially squashed the deal.

"Financially, it ruined him. And it ruined him creatively, too," says Owens as we breeze closer to Johnson City. "It broke his heart because he really loved Lyndon, and his book was the definitive portrait of LBJ.

"But as it turned out, Billy Lee couldn't get anything published after the book. He couldn't even get a job. it was real sad to see it happen. He covered the pain of it all with drugs, taking more amphetamines, and acid, and pot. He died of an overdose at age 47. What a waste, man. What a waste."

At a bend in the road near Pedernales State Park, Owens asks to stop; he wants to pull out the briefcase and take some papaya enzyme for his stomach. There's a wide spot in the road right ahead of us, beyond the cemetery on McCall's Creek.

We roll to a stop. Owens shuffles uneasily through his briefcase. I try to ignore the graves on the hillside. Neither one of us says a word.

Owens has run out of papaya enzyme and he needs more, because his stomach is killing him. It's ulcers, probably caused by all the medicine. We agree to search for a pharmacy in Johnson City, though it is our destiny to prowl in vain.

As we roll into town, Owens is talking about his move, in the late 1960s, to San Francisco where he played bass guitar, sang in several bands and re connected with Joplin Drugs were the constant of his experience.

"In 1969, my wife and I split up. I was snorting heroin, hanging around with Janis' friends who were into heroin," he says. "Janis tried to warn me away from it 'You don't need this,' she said. 'Stay away from it' but I was already on my way. After snorting for about a year, I let someone put a needle in my arm. Then I started doing it myself.

"My life was on a downward spiral. I could kick but I couldn't stay kicked. I don't know why I didn't die of an overdose, then."

We circle the town square of LBJ's home town, looking for the pharmacy that doesn't exist. I can't help think the man doesn't look like an addict. He's gray and round and fatherly.

"Janis was still alive then in those days," he's saying. "The last time I saw her was at a party at her house, in the summer of 1970. Kris Kristofferson was there. It was right before our high school reunion in Port Arthur, and Janis offered to pay my way to go with her. But I was strung out, afraid to go. I knew Janis could buy her way out of any trouble down there, but I couldn't. I don't think I ever saw her again after that, though we did talk on the phone many more times."

Owens says he doesn't remember where he was when told of Janis' death in October 1970. His own addiction was too severe. But he wasn't surprised: She'd overdosed before, been brought back before. Just like him.

"I was so into my downward thing that I didn't feel a lot of pain about it," he says, shrugging off the notion that Joplin's death might jolt him into abstinence. "By that time, I was feeling so hopeless that there was no jolt that could stop me."

After Joplin's death, Owens stumbled home to Austin where, much to his astonishment, he found "there was as much heroin here as there was in California." For a while, he slept on the sofas of friends. Then, in 1971, he visited his old friend Mance Lipscomb in Navasota and stole the bluesman's guitar.

"My girlfriend and I were strung out and broke, and Mance trusted me," says Owens. "He had this great big guitar, which had been given to him by the Gibson company. Somehow, my sick and twisted mind rationalized that he didn't really need that guitar. Gibson would give him another one, to replace it, right? I was real sick, so full of hate and self-loathing."

After he got caught, Owens spent the next seven weeks in jail in the East Texas town of Anderson. The sheriff left him alone in his cell to kick his heroin habit cold turkey. It was "absolute horror," filled with hallucinations and seizures, Owens remembers. "It's a miracle I didn't die."

When the worst was over, Lipscomb visited him at jail. One day he brought Owens a guitar and left it behind.

"That saved my life, getting arrested," he says as we breeze toward Fredericksburg. And yet it really didn't change him. After receiving probation, Owens moved to Houston, got a job with KPFT radio and The Space City News and then began to abuse again. As Joplin's death did not jolt him, neither did seven weeks in an Anderson j ail.

To hear Tary Owens recall the 1970s is to receive an exhaustive recitation of personal disaster. Is that shame in his voice? Or sadness? Either way, there's a survivor's numbness in the delivery. While he doesn't remember much detail, he can recite the drugs of choice, the dates of the failed rehab attempts, the names of the jails and the mental hospitals.

The man in my passenger seat says he staged rock 'n' roll shows for the George McGovern presidential campaign in Texas in 1972 and that his boss was a man named Bill Clinton. Then Owens apologizes, saying that he was "in such a drug fog" that he can't remember a thing about the man who is now president.

Owens bounced around, a lot, usually busting probation in the process. Houston. Austin. Lake Tahoe. Denton. New Orleans. Wichita Falls. Tahoe was particularly bad. When Owens overdosed in a hotel room, friends threw him in thea hotel bathtub and turned on the water to keep him from passing out. What they were too frantic or stoned to comprehend was that the water was hot. Owens suffered third-degree burns on his feet and was hospitalized for six months.

"I'd be all right for a whileawhile, and then I'd start to use again," he says. "It was just one bad scene after another."

By the time he got back to Austin in the 1980s, Owens considered himself a hopeless case. The state hospital wouldn't take him into its treatment programs unless he signed himself over to protective custody.

"There was a long time that I didn't care if I lived or died," he says softly, as we drift closer toward Fredericksburg and the prospect of papaya enzyme at the Wal-Mart pharmacy. "I think I would have even welcomed death. It meant the end, the end of pain. But something finally came to me that I didn't want to die like that. I didn't want to drown in a Dumpster."

And so it was, in 1983, that Tary Owens finally got clean though it took at least four years for him to feel comfortable with himself. His role model was a recovering alcoholic named John Stratton, a crusty, retired carpenter who befriended him in recovery and taught him how to catch catfish in the process.

Stratton is dead now. But it's no coincidence that Owens' record label is called "Catfish," or that Stratton's old fishing boat rests in the water behind Owens' house.

By mid afternoon, we're bumping along a country road south of Fredericksburg, looking for the site of the wedding party. It's a pretty spring day, in winter. We cross water. A white stone lodge with a slanted silver roofline looms ahead .

"I'm not feeling good," Owens had said, moments ago and we'd talked about turning around. But there would be no going back .

At the lodge, the reception is a study in pastel: cheerful, youthful, all about beginnings. Price's country swing band is playing "Streets of Laredo" and "Milk Cow Blues" from a second-floor terrace as the guests dance below. Outside, in the shadows, on a stone patio, Owens talks of a new life beyond drugs. Occasionally, he sips from a bottle of Big Red a leftover from lunch on the road.

"I wanted to be a counselor, but I had to wait until my recovery was on solid ground," he says. "I was to have nothing to do with the music business, whatsoever, for five years."

To make ends meet, he worked a series of small jobs cooking happy hour snacks at a Mexican restaurant, hawking storm windows while returning to school and earning a counselor's license. In 1986, he got a job as an outreach supervisor with the Travis County MHMR, where he spent the next four years helping implement its AIDS prevention program. He met Maryann Price in 1991, when both were working to promote a needle exchange program for addicts. In time, he started his own counseling practice.

Owens' return to music was inspired by a visit to a Texas blues exhibit at UT's Barker History Center in 1987. There, in the display case, was an old phonograph record by Grey Ghost, the barrelhouse piano player Owens had met and recorded in Austin as part of his 1960s folklore project.

The exhibit suggested that Ghost was dead. But Owens wasn't so sure. He found 84-year-old Ghost living in the same East Austin neighborhood. But the old musician was skeptical about Owens' renewed interest after 22 years' absence.

In time, Owens persuaded Ghost to see the blues exhibit and encouraged him to perform, again, for the sake of history. To Owens' amazement, the old man could still play with fire. Until Ghost's death in 1996, Owens championed his new friend, booked him in clubs, even produced a new studio album. Along the way, he enhanced his credibility as an advocate for the forgotten "roots" musician. The late T.D. Bell and Erbie Bowser, Long John Hunter, Snuff Johnson, Ervin Charles: None are household names. But Owens helped them put CDs on the market and money in their pockets.

"I did some damage to a man who was my mentor, Mance Lipscomb," says Owens. "I still feel a lot of pain, and guilt, and shame, from that. And I don't know if I'll ever be able to let go of that.

"But part of my work with Grey Ghost and others over the last several years has been about making amends. About making things right by them, and giving back what I've taken. I had to do it. I couldn't have lived with myself otherwise."

As the wedding party swirls about us, Owens grows increasingly reflective taking stock of the blessing of music and the blessings of recovery. In another life, Owens would thank friends for their hospitality by stealing their TV sets in the morning. Today, it is Owens and his wife who open their house to those who suffer from addiction.

"You know, I hated the word God. Didn't use the term. And still don't," he says. There is piano in the wind. " 'God is love.' That's what works for me. Or 'Love is God.' We all seek love and acceptance in this world, and that's what I found in recovery a community of people where love is constant."

At twilight, Owens and I stand alone in the parking lot outside the lodge. The air is filled with the sweet sound of a fiddle. It's time to say goodbye.

"If I stay on the herbs, and do all the things I'm supposed to do and other things don't deteriorate I can go on, probably, for a long time," he says when I ask about his health. "But other things are throwing a curve into the mix. This edema and the ammonia levels in my blood are causing confusion. If I can't remember to take my medications, I'm in big trouble."

Owens kicks at the ground with his shoe. He shouldn't have come today, he says. He should have rested, stayed at home. "But there are other things that are more important. I've got to live." And here, his voice is barely a whisper. "If I can't do the things that are important to me, it's not worth it. And they're getting narrowed down. . . ."

"You know, I used to enjoy getting with Maryann and playing music together at nursing homes. I did it last week in Houston, for my mother, in her nursing home. And what happens? I space out and get confused right in the middle of a concert for people with Alzheimer's disease."

Together, we look back at the hills beyond the lodge and the creamy twilight.

The solitary violin is sweet and sad and lonely. I ask him if he knows the song.

"Sure, sure," he says, humming ahead of the tune, until he finds the refrain. "It's called the 'Westfalia Waltz,' by Cotton Collins."

In the end, there is always a song. At the last light of day, Tary Owens takes a swig of Big Red and walks back to the party, back to the music, one more time.

This article on the Austin American Statesman website