Exile on Music Row
by Ed Turner
The music business eats its young. The road to the recording of The Hard Way, Owsley's second - and final - album, was a tortuous path, signposted by both success and bitter disappointment, one never seemingly far from the other and each exerting an almost gravitational pull in what became, for the artist, an emotionally brutal tug of-war.
In an industry where forward momentum is everything, these two career mile markers often co-existed in a way that left the young musician with a terrifying sense of dislocation, bereft of direction and increasingly wondering where to turn next.
The year was 2004, and things would not get better.
I. Do You Believe in Rock 'n' Roll ?
It had all started so brightly. On March 6, 1966. William "Will" Reese Owsley, III, the youngest of three, was born in Anniston, Alabama, a modest urban city with a generational backbone of the God-fearing and hardworking, 90 miles west of Atlanta along the southernmost ridge of the Appalachian Mountains.
He was the scion of a family with an unusually rich musical heritage- Owsley, Sr. a Drum Major in the University of Alabama's Million Dollar Marching Band; Mrs. a singer; brother an accomplished guitarist; sister a classical pianist. It would be tempting to assume that Will's life could have only gone one way. As it turned out, that was entirely correct.
By the age of nine, Will was playing guitar, and quickly developing a reputation as something of a prodigy on the instrument. A striking example of self-motivation and discipline, and something that doesn't necessarily - or always - obtain from a staunch upper-middle class upbringing. Put another way, and as cliched as it may sound to say so, music was Will Owsley's life.
For a teenager courting dreams of Rock Stardom, the mid-'70's was the crucible in which those visions took shape and were forged into ambition. Historically speaking, this was the era of The Motor City Madman (aka Ted Nugent) and The KISS Army. To gain an understanding of the cultural impact these icons had, picture a fourteen-year-old strumming his tennis racket in front of the bedroom mirror and catching a glimpse - somewhere beyond his own reflection - of KISS's silver-toned, storm-trooping lead guitarist Space Ace. I mean, come on. How cool is that?
This was adolescent fantasy raised to its quintessence, the impact as immediate and striking as KISS's lightning bolt logo.
And for a young Will Owsley, there was now only one destiny worth fulfilling. Occupation: Rock Musician. Given that music was more or less hardwired into his genetic code - a textbook example of DNA is destiny - perhaps you could say that his chosen path had chosen him. Whether or not that was such a good thing is more difficult to answer.
By the end of the '70's, Will was serving an apprenticeship of sorts on the back of his older brother's band, Stormfront, sitting in on occasion as second guitarist. Playing pedestrian gutbucket rock, Stormfront attracted a modest hometown following, managing to fill enough seats at the local high school auditorium for a semi-residency as the house band. True, their achievements may have seemed modest to some, but for Will, playing in Stormfront - on stage, making music - was nothing less than a dream come true. It was like pushing the door open on another world.
Flash forward. October, 1986. Twelve miles north of Anniston, on the campus of Jacksonville State University, one C. A. Abernathy, staff writer for student newspaper The Chanticleer, reviews a concert by "a favorite band in this area," Baghdad.
Headlined, Baghdad Storms Brother's Bar With Standing Room Only Crowd (Brother's, an off-campus watering hole for the JSU party kids and working-class locals), Baghdad's lead guitarist, twenty-year-old Will Owsley, takes up several column inches of Abernathy's review: "Owsley is very comfortable on stage. He did high jumps, swung his guitar completely around his neck, never missing a note, obvious that he loves playing music. While doing his solos, his facial expressions showed pure excitement." "The standing- room-only crowd" - plugging into Will's Rock Star wattage - "screamed and sang along to songs from The Rolling Stones, Kansas, The Cars, and Van Halen." The evening ended with the band jamming on Beatles songs.
After another year on the road with Baghdad, and beginning to tire of the ever-diminishing returns of the late-night club circuit, a restless Owsley, aghast at the thought of a future playing campus bars, called time on the band and relocated to Nashville.
Whatever was behind the move - and we may never fully know the reasons - it changed everything. Arriving in Nashville in '87, Will, as ferociously focused as ever, wasted little time getting down to business. An astute self-promoter who was savvy enough to let his guitar do most of the talking for him, Will was soon attracting the attention of a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist named Judson Spence, whose star was rising on Nashville's Music Row. Spence liked what he saw, and wasted no time deputizing Will - who recognized an opportunity when he saw one - as a guitarist in his touring band. For a while, it worked.
Spence had managed to score a top 40 hit in '88 with the song, "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah," filming an accompanying music video that landed in heavy rotation on MTV. Unfortunately, the video, whose production values, like the song itself, typify the worst of '80's gloss, find Will rocking out unconvincingly, unable to telegraph the on-stage energy which so electrified audiences in a live setting. Still, there was no denying the value in career exposure music videos offered. Beyond that, the occasional live TV performance didn't hurt, giving Will the chance to hew closer to the guitar-slinging persona he branded while playing in Baghdad.
Will would eventually lose his taste for Spence's slick pop confections and the two would split, but not before Judson introduced Will to a friend of his, a fellow musician and singer named Amy Grant.
In 1986, Grant, an established Contemporary Christian artist - coronated "Queen of Christian Pop" - entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 with "Next Time I Fall," a duet with former Chicago bassist/singer Peter Cetera. Grant's crossover success on the contemporary pop charts had tongues in Nashville wagging - but that was only the beginning, as Grant - remarkably - was able to duplicate the feat many times over in the coming years. If the old adage, It's not what you know, it's who you know, holds true for the music business - and surely it does- then Will could have done worse than meeting Amy Grant when he did.
When introductions were made, vis-a- vis former musical accomplice Spence, and the two got talking, Owsley was flattered to discover that Grant had already heard of him. On the spot, she made much the same offer Spence had the year before: join her on the road, and bring his guitar.
What happened next was the first in what would become many puzzling aspects to Will's story. For even amid the expected blind alleys and dead ends often encountered in the pursuit of a dream, the answers now seemed only to lead to more questions.
Will turned her down.
See Part 2 and 3 of the Will Owsley article and Part 4
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