Exile on Music Row
Part 2 and 3 by Ed Turner
Part 2. Band On The Run
As unlikely as it may seem, this would not be the last Will would hear from Amy Grant. If anything, she would - in time - figure even more prominently in Will's career than she might have had he become her touring guitarist when the offer was initially made. That Will could have guessed as much at the time - while doubtful - we'll never know. But that's getting ahead of the story.
For now, Will.
While touring with Judson Spence, Will performed alongside Spence's younger brother - the band's drummer - Jody. Just as Will had once served an apprenticeship in his older brother's band, so too Jody - the kind of shared experience which would form the basis of a unique, if largely unspoken, bond between the two. Indeed, not long after Will's departure from Spence, Jody soon followed, and by the early '90's Will and Jody had effectively teamed up as songwriting partners.
Enter Scott Simian.
A respected Nashville entertainment attorney and talent manager, Simian, who made his name working in Country & Western - Charlie Daniels, Brooks & Dunn, The Dixie Chicks, Deanna Carter - now turned his attention to non-traditional, left-of-the-dial acts like the Spence brothers, Ben Folds, Owsley, and future Counting Crows bassist Millard Powers.
Originally, Folds and Powers were performing together in a band called Majosha, when, in 1991, Simian attended one of their concerts in the musicians' home state of North Carolina. Simian was impressed by what he heard that night, and encouraged Folds to come to Nashville with him. Invitation extended, Folds pulled up stakes and followed Simian, with Powers in tow.
Simian provided Powers and Folds with a recording studio to hammer out new material ; the same studio, as it happened, where Will and Jody could often be found toiling away on their own demos. Sharing the same recording space, across many late- night sessions, Folds got to know Will and Jody, and eventually introduced them to his friend Millard Powers.
No sooner had Will and Jody met Powers - who shared with the others an affinity for off-kilter, XTC-inspired pop- than the three were off and writing songs together - so many, in fact, that within a month they had an album's worth of demos recorded. Calling themselves Spence, Powers & Owsley, the trio began gigging around Nashville, road-testing their Southern-fried brand of power pop.
Eventually, Spence, Powers & Owsley, in a bid for indie credibility, changed their name to the edgier-sounding, The Semantics.
In 1992, after they were spotted playing an artists showcase in Nashville, The Semantics were signed to Geffen Records. With the backing of a major label - and eager to record an album - the band's attention now turned to finding a producer.
Oddly, it was during the initial rush of excitement that followed the signing to Geffen that Jody Spence would leave the band. While the reasons for Spence's departure remain murky, in truth it could not have come at a better time; his replacement behind the drum kit was one Zak Starkey, the son of legendary former Beatle Ringo Starr.
Of course, being the offspring of Rock Royalty, Starkey wasted little time working his father's music industry connections, a network that led to the arrival of Peter Asher as the band's producer. Formerly one half of '60's duo Peter and Gordon - whose biggest chart success, 1964's "A World Without Love," was penned by Lennon and McCartney - Asher went on to even greater success producing mega-hit albums for artists such as James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt during their chart-topping '70's heyday.
With Asher behind the console, what could possibly go wrong?
Nothing. The album Asher delivered to the label, Powerbill, was a seamless collection of smartly crafted, radio -friendly pop rock. The year was 1993. Industry buzz was by now swirling around the band, and Geffen readied Powerbill for release.
This is where the story takes a darker turn.
In 1990, Geffen created a subsidiary label, DGC Records. The best-selling album in DGC's catalogue - to date - is Nevermind, the 1991 grunge classic by Nirvana. In 1992, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson's Dangerous from its No. 1 spot on the Billboard HOT 100. Unseating Dangerous was a clarion call, the sound of grunge's flannel-shirted youth brigade storming the palace gates and overthrowing the Old Guard. By the time Nirvana were poised to release a follow up to the iconic, multi-platinum Nevermind- 1993's In Utero- the alternative music scene had cash registers ringing. In the halls of Geffen Records, there was a growing feeling, eventually voiced, that The Semantics were "too pop for alternative, and too alternative for pop." While the precise meaning of that phrase is open to interpretation, the consequences of Geffen's position - in practical terms - is not : Powerbill was indefinitely shelved, and The Semantics were dropped by the label. Cut. Fade to black.
It was a mind-warping act of corporate ruthlessness that left Owsley badly shaken. In 1999, he recalled the hellish aftermath in an interview with Michael McCall of Nashville Scene: "Everybody disassociated themselves with us. We were left destitute and broke. We wept. It killed us. We had put four years of hard work into it, and all of a sudden there was nothing left. I really didn't know what I was going to do after that."
As it happened, Will's hesitation over what would come next would soon resolve itself - with the help of an old friend. For in an odd coincidence, Amy Grant had come into the possession of a tape of the unreleased Powerbill. A tape which she listened to while vacationing on a ski strip in Colorado. On her return, and though the two hadn't spoken for several years now, she managed to locate WIll to tell him how much she liked the album. As Owsley recalled for Nashville Scene: "She asked me what I was doing. I told her I was about to slit my wrists. So she asked me to come on the road with her as her guitarist."
This time, Amy Grant got her wish.
Part 3. Owsley
In many respects, Will's life was never quite the same after the ill-fated signing with Geffen Records. It was dirty business, and one need look no further than Will's desperate entreaty to Grant - I told her I was about to slit my wrists- to understand the terrible weight of disillusionment it brought down on his shoulders.
When Amy Grant found him, he seemed to be clawing his way out of some private circle of hell - so her offer, really, couldn't have come at a better time. That Will was wise enough to take it - where, only three years before, he'd declined - says much about the space he now found his head in. This was a career move, he reckoned; it was no longer solely about playing his music and leaving the rest of it to pin-striped"suits" like Scott Simian.
For a time, touring with Grant seemed to heal the wounds Will had been nursing since the blow up with Geffen. Grant was still wildly popular at the time, and Will found himself travelling to shows in a dizzying succession of luxury cars and limousines, his overnight accommodations between performances now four-star hotels.
After a year and a half on the road with Grant, Will took the money he made and bought a home in Green Hills, one of Nashville's toniest neighborhoods.
Soon, he began converting his basement into a recording studio. To offset the cost of the renovations and vintage recording gear he needed, Will took a high-profile gig playing guitar for Shania Twain, then on a circuit of television appearances to promote her recent No. 1 single, "No One Needs to Know."
By any yardstick of success, Will had come a long way since his arrival in Music City a decade earlier. And looking back, much had come his way in the ensuing years.
Now, with work on his basement studio soon to be finished, the twenty-seven year old guitarist made plans to record his first solo album.
Initial recording sessions for what would become Will's debut album, Owsley, got underway in October of 1995. In addition to laying down all of the vocal and guitar parts, Will displayed his mastery of bass, Wurlitzer piano, Mellotron, Hammond B-3 organ and Chamberlin across many of the album's eleven tracks.
Guest musicians included bassist Millard Powers, A-list Nashville session players, Chris McHugh (drums), and Spencer Campbell (bass) and a backing vocalist named Rebecca Walker, who, in the course of making the album, would become Will's wife.
Recording stretched out for another two-and-a-half years. Finally, in the Spring of 1998, Will - believing he had the album he wanted - began shopping the tapes to record companies.
Initially, Will went with Not Lame Recordings, a small Colorado label that released the tapes as Owsley in 1998.
The following year a New York record executive named Doug Morris, then Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, flew Will to Manhattan and made the musician a surprising offer. Owsley, in Morris's estimation, was a " really good" record. So, why not re-record the album on UMG's dime and "make something great"? Morris suggested. Because, Will told the label boss, he'd already "made something great." Cut. Print.
In his 1999 interview with Nashville Scene's Michael McCall, Will would downplay the exchange with Morris, noting, "I wasn't cocky; I was real sweet about it." In any event, Will and UMG would not end up doing business together.
Next in line was Giant Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Music. Like UMG, Giant was ready to strike a distribution deal. Once again, Will laid out his terms, refusing to budge from the "take or leave it" stance he'd taken with Doug Morris.
He found himself mildly shocked, then, when the label agreed to his demands.
On March 23, 1999, Owsley was released on Giant Records. As Will would later tell Michael McCall, this was the album "I'd sweated my life over.“
See Part 1 of the Will Owsley article and Part 4
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