No one likes to bid farewell to one of their favorite artists before their time, but it’s particularly painful when you’ve been waiting to hear something new from them. Although Will Owsley managed to keep making music ‘til the very end, it had been far too long since we’d actually gotten a new album with his name on the front…and, now, we’re forced to confront the reality that we never will.
Owsley, who died on Friday, April 30th, the victim of an apparent suicide, only released two full-length records under his own name: a self-titled album on Giant Records in 1999, and The Hard Way, a self-released effort which emerged four years later. While I briefly considered writing this as a standalone obituary, the more I thought about it, the more I felt confident in placing it under the “Hooks ‘N’ You” banner: the whole purpose of the column is to shine the spotlight on my favorite underrated and unheralded albums, and Owsley’s oeuvre certainly qualifies. I only wish that I’d gotten around to writing about them earlier, so that I could’ve gotten his comments on them. It would’ve been nice to talk to him…again.
Yep, I interviewed Will once. It was back in 2005, when he released what was at the time anticipated to be the first of many 2-track digital singles. You can still find the songs in question, “Psycho” and “Upside Down,” on iTunes. What you can’t find anywhere, however, is our conversation. We chatted for at least half an hour, possibly longer, about his albums, his work as a sideman, and music in general, and as my daughter was still a newborn at the time, Will – himself a father to two boys – was very understanding about my sluggishness as a result of limited sleep. Unfortunately, that lethargy resulted in a horrifying moment when I got off the phone: I’d set the recorder wrong, and when I went to play back our conversation, all that could be heard was my questions. It would’ve still been painful to think about it on April 29th, so you can imagine how it feels now.
Fortunately, I have another memory which helps serve as salve on that wound: getting to see Will perform at the Jewish Mother, in Virginia Beach, VA, when he was touring behind his debut album. I was already a huge fan of the record, but I also managed to corral my roommates at the time – Donnie Sadler and Joe Laughlin – into coming along with me. They walked away as fans…but, really, you’d have been hard pressed to do otherwise: the songs were great, the performance was solid, and the crowd was small enough for Will to easily interact with the fans. Seth Gordon, frontman for The Mockers, was also at the show, and upon learning of Will’s death, he posted the video for “Life Goes On,” a song by The Semantics (Will’s former band), and said…
I yelled out for it, and he was amazed that anyone knew it! He said he hadn’t played it in a long time, but lucky for us, he did a solo version of it. A great great show, and he was really cool guy, too.
(At the time, I didn’t know anything about the Semantics. It would be several years later before I discovered their lone album, Powerbill, but when I finally did, at least I could fall back on the excuse that it had only been issued in Japan.)
If you’ve never heard Owsley, Will’s self-titled album, you’re missing out on hearing one of the best albums of the late ’90s, even if it wasn’t heard by nearly enough ears. As my buddy John M. Borack wrote in Shake Some Action: The Ultimate Power Pop Guide, “Every now and again, a major label decides to take a chance on a power pop artist, signs ’em, releases one record which they fail to adequately promote, then drops ’em like a hot pop potato. Such was the saga of Owsley.” You can’t say Will wasn’t doing his part to get the word out, though, as you can see from this clip from HBO’s late, great series, “Reverb”:
Given that you can (sadly enough) pick up a copy Owsley for only a few bucks over at Amazon, I’m not going to offer up a plethora of MP3 from the record, but I will give you a trio of them. The first two are my favorite tracks from the record, while the final song provides ample proof as to how easy it would’ve been for Ben Folds Five fans to jump on the Owsley bandwagon if they’d only given him a chance.
It was way too long a wait between albums from Will, but given the guy was no longer on Giant Records and was having to fend for himself, we can excuse him a bit of that time. Unfortunately, when The Hard Way finally turned up…well, there’s no other way to say this, really: it wasn’t a bad album, but it also wasn’t the record we’d been waiting four years to hear, either. A lot of folks were disappointed at the time. To listen to it in retrospect, though, is to hear an album that is, in and of itself, a fine effort, as you can hear from this small sampling.
Unfortunately, The Hard Way has turned into both a sophomore effort and a swan song for Will. He turned up on a few tribute albums, but after the aforementioned digital single in 2004, one presumes that the limited economic opportunities of releasing his own music proved no match for the easy money of serving as guitarist for artists like Amy Grant (with whom he toured for 16 years) and Shania Twain (he played with her on various TV and concert appearances), as well as working behind the scenes on albums by teen popsters like the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato.
I don’t mean that as a bash in any way, shape, or form: I’m a husband and a father, and I don’t begrudge any man for supporting his family. But I do still wish that somewhere along the way Will would’ve found the time to sit down and pull together another album, because there were people out there who were still waiting for one…and not just me.
Owsley – “Last Goodbye” (LIVE)