Part 4- Play On
by Ed Turner
For a first album, Owsley met with modest commercial success. Lead single, “Coming Up Roses," broke through to respectable airplay on alternative rock stations that Spring, and Nautica Jeans cherry-picked propulsive rocker "I'm Alright" for one of their ad campaigns. In all, not a bad start. But it didn't end there.
Though Sheryl Crow would take home the Grammy that year for Best Engineered Album, Owsley was among those nominated - and win or lose, a Grammy nomination meant industry exposure, the kind of thing that launches careers.
Still, nothing it seemed quite tallied with Will's lofty expectations for the album; there was always the nagging feeling that something, somehow, was missing. What, then? Had he expected the album to make him a star? Perhaps.
Then again, if Will's interview with Nashville Scene is any indication, he seemed to view the prospect of looming stardom with a certain ambivalence: "Being famous has been a pain in the ass for every star I've ever talked to,“ he told McCall. “But I want to get my music to the people. To me, that's what it's all about. It's about spreading the love."
Pitched somewhere between steely self-resolve (“I want to get my music to the people“) and a nose-to-the -grindstone work ethic, Will - now trading professionally as Owsley - put together a backing band and burned up the roads promoting his album. And once word of this hard- gigging band got around, it wasn't long before HBO came calling.
At the time, the cable network had one of the highest-rated weekly music programs on television, a show called Reverb. During its four- year run (1997- 2001), Reverb provided a live showcase for emerging and underground bands.
Bookended between sets by Wilco and Super Furry Animals, Owsley made their network debut on Reverb (Episode 9, Season 3) in November of 1999, playing before a live audience at the Galaxy Theater, Santa Ana, CA. Existing footage of the performance spotlights just how tight the band had become. Night after grueling night on the club circuit had sharpened their musical attack, and when Owsley - third on the bill - took the stage, they worked the crowd like they were the evening's headliners.
Capping off a year of career triumphs, Will and co. played their final show of ‘99 at Japan's legendary Shibuya Club Quattro, the landmark music venue on the top floor of Tokyo's historic Book Off store. For now, all seemed well.
But back in the States, record company hassles awaited the band when they returned from Japan. Before the end of the year, Will would discover that the A&R rep who'd signed him to Giant Records was gone. “Someone who didn't even know me took me over," Will recalled in interview with The Birmingham News in 2004. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Behind the scenes at Giant, years of backroom politics and corporate power struggles were beginning to take their toll, and - as in any war- there would be casualties.
Launched in 1990 as a joint venture between entertainment mogul Irving Azoff and Warner Bros. Music, Giant Records would go on to sign name acts such as Steely Dan, Brian Wilson, Chicago, Warren Zevon, Kenny Rogers, and Deep Purple. Problems arose in ‘93 when Azoff and Warner Bros. had an ugly confrontation over questions about overseas distribution rights . The matter was never resolved, and tensions between Azoff and Warners would continue to fester for years afterwards.
Finally, in December of 1999, things came to a head, and Warner Bros. ended the stalemate by replacing most of Giant's staff. As co-founder, Azoff remained with the label, but his days at Giant Records were now numbered. In 2001, Warners purchased all of Giant's remaining shares and closed the label, while Azoff moved on to concert promotion and artist management. But where did that leave Will?
Looking for a record label. Again.
See Part 1 of the Will Owsley article and Parts 2 + 3 and Parts 4 and Part 5
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