Part 5- Every Picture Tells a Story
by Ed Turner
As ever, Will was unable to leave music alone.
Shortly after the distribution deal with Giant blew up in his face in 2001, he began shopping labels, as well as writing songs for a proposed second album. For much of the ensuing year- when time allowed - he booked work as a session guitarist for, among others, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Bob Gatewood, Faith Hill, Rodney Crowell, Charlotte Church, Graham Colton and James Ingram.
When Gatewood, an Ohio-based singer/songwriter, recalls Will's majestic playing on his 2001 release, Finally Home, he begins with the words, "other-worldly." Seventeen years later, Gatewood's memory of those sessions remains undimmed as he revisits one of Will's particularly inspired moments in the studio. "Nobody told him to do it, "he begins."He just came up with it. He played a harmonic at the 12th fret that, for non-musicians, sounds like the opening of "Roundabout" by Yes. He set one pickup on his (Gibson ES) 335 on full and the other to 'off.' He then toggled back and forth to turn on and off that 12th harmonic fret, an old Pete Townshend trick... then with one foot, he opened up a wah-wah pedal and the other slowly brought up a volume pedal. All normal tools, but a spectacularly original outcome."
Will, Rebecca and Walker (the couple's first child, a boy, born 1998), would relocate to Franklin, TN in 2001. The studio he'd built in Green Hills would be dismantled, carted over and reinstalled in the basement of the Owsley's new home.
That same year, Will was tapped to cover "Band on The Run" for Listen to What The Man Said, a Paul McCartney tribute album. All Music Guide would later praise Will's contribution for remaining "vital while staying relentlessly faithful to McCartney's vision - not an easy feat."
Eventually, with a backlog of over thirty songs to choose from, Will would settle on ten - those he felt showed the most commercial promise - and begin recording his follow up to Owsley in 2002. Entitled The Hard Way, the album was released on February 24, 2004 through Lakeview Entertainment, the company which handled all of Owsley's advertising and promotion.
Opinion on The Hard Way was divided. Ron Wynn, writing for Nashville City Paper, reckoned "fans who enjoyed Will Owsley's Grammy -nominated album on Giant records... might be surprised by the musical direction he takes and the energy he displays on his new release, The Hard Way."Wynn's article was headlined, "Nashville's Will Owsley Set for Solo Superstardom."
PopMatters' David Medsker, however, was pulling no punches: "Owsley has released his sophomore album, The Hard Way. It sounds much like his debut album, but there's this unshakable sense of compromise, which is ironic given that he's no longer under the guidance of a clueless major label. Is Owsley actually selling out, of his own accord?" Medsker finished off his review with "it's great to see Owsley make another album, but it would have been better to see him not make this album." Billboard was kinder, perhaps, but ultimately registered disappointment with Will's new direction: "while The Hard Way rolls along competently, the mid-tempo guitar hooks and straight ahead vocals lack the necessary punch to reach mainstream consciousness."
Released as a single, "Be With You," the album's opening track, managed rotation on a number of Triple-A ( Adult Album Alternative ) radio stations. Just as it seemed to be catching on, though, the single began losing its hold. Despite an encouraging start, airplay eventually dried up and "Be With You" was dropped from radio playlists. Like that, it was over. Forgotten.
Will took the critical backlash to The Hard Way bitterly to heart. Compounded by the album's lack of commercial success, he found himself in the grip of unyielding despair. At the same time, family responsibilities had to be met (in 2001, Will had become a father for the second time, to a boy the couple named Liam), bills had to be paid. Pulling himself together somewhat shakily, Will would eventually find work as a producer and recording engineer for other artists - most notably, Kevin Max, a former member of the Christian pop group, DC Talk, and
finalist Chris Sligh. Occasionally, he supplemented his bank account backing Disney stars Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, The Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez. Still, it must have been a humiliating comedown - given the heights he had once achieved - to find himself playing second to these disposable celebrities, manufactured and sold by Disney to a target audience of fickle teenagers.
In 2004, Will signed with UMe Digital (a subsidiary of Universal Music Group), one of the first of the major labels to distribute music via digital download. The following year, UMe released Owsley's "Psycho" b/w "Upside Down," as an internet-only single. While a typically fine effort from the musician, it went largely unheard. That same year, Will contributed a scorching cover of "Got A Lot on My Head" to The Cars' tribute album, Substitution Mass Confusion. With the exception of a 2009 lo-fi recording of a song he'd co-written with Amy Grant, entitled "When Lonely Comes Around," these would be the last official recordings Will Owsley would release during his lifetime.
In the years that followed, Will, by now a Born-again Christian, found his faith severely tested when his marriage to Rebecca ended in divorce. Dismayed by the ugly reality of the split, dealing with messy issues involving custody and visitation rights, Will hit rock bottom. Though he was awarded the family residence in the divorce, in time that would become more a cell than a sanctuary. Alone in the house he had once shared with his wife and children, Will would spend much of his time wondering how it could have come to this.
It was about to get worse, though. Soon after the divorce, Lakeview Entertainment - with a sense of timing that seemed especially ruthless, given the circumstances - dropped Owsley from the label. With no strategy for moving forward, Will found himself adrift, cut loose from a future that once seemed so limitless with possibility.
Nashville's Will Owsley Set For Solo Superstardom? That was just another headline that belonged to yesterday.
See Part 1 of the Will Owsley article and Parts 2 + 3 and Part 4 and Part 6
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