Tary Kelly Owens, music historian/archivist, musician, and producer, was born in Toledo, Ohio, on November 6, 1942. He was the son of Louis Owens and Mary Kelly Owens. The family moved to Grand Tower, Illinois, in 1951. While his parents loved music, neither of them played instruments, but both of Tary’s grandfathers were accomplished musicians. His Texas grandfather played piano, organ, mandocello, fiddle, and a variety of other stringed instruments. The Illinois grandfather had been a band drummer on boats that still sailed up and down the Mississippi River in the early 1900s.
In 1956 the family moved to Texas, first to Beaumont and one year later to Port Arthur. Like other young people growing up in the 1950s, Owens discovered rock-and-roll and the music of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and Roy Orbison. The move to Texas was a fortunate family decision for a young man with a growing interest and passion for music because of the state’s diverse and colorful musical heritage. The area of Texas known as the Golden Triangle, formed by the cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange, has been fertile ground for important developments in blues, country, Cajun, zydeco, rock-and-roll, and other music genres.
Owens heard disc jockey J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on Beaumont’s radio KTRM and became friends with Edgar and Johnny Winter who hosted a radio program with their band on Saturday afternoons. He also attended touring concerts for some of the big name performers such as Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. When Owens started high school in Port Arthur in 1957, he became friends with Janis Joplin, “the best white blues singer in American history” and “the greatest female singer in the history of rock ‘n’ roll” according to many music historians. Joplin’s meteoric rise to superstardom in the 1960s separated her from many of her Texas friends, but she and Owens stayed in contact until her death in California in 1970.
After attending Lamar Tech in Beaumont for two years, Owens moved to Austin in 1962 and by 1963 enrolled at the University of Texas. He was intent on majoring in English with a focus on music as folklore—ethnomusicology. Owens chose classes taught by Ameríco Paredes and Roger Abrahams, two English professors with expertise in folklore studies. Meanwhile Owens and Joplin, who also came to Austin, participated with other UT students at the folksings in the Student Union Building. Owens, who started learning to play guitar in earnest while at UT, and Joplin became regulars for the Wednesday night music at a bar on North Lamar called Threadgill’s.
In 1963, with the help of his UT folklore professors, Owens applied for and received a Lomax Foundation grant to research and record roots folk musicians in Central Texas, similar to the study done by John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s. The field recordings Owens compiled as part of this project formed the foundation of the archival and recording work he did for the rest of his life. Armed with a Roberts reel-to-reel tape recorder, microphone, and stand, Owens roamed around Texas in search of roots music. He interviewed people in town halls, grocery stores, and other gathering spots in rural communities in his search for the folk musicians. Just as the Lomaxes had done, Owens also visited prison units and work camps to record “toasts,” the songs of the inmates, some call the “roots of rap.” On the road trips Owens made throughout Texas, he located and recorded some of the same musicians as the Lomaxes, but he also “discovered” many other players, most notably an Austin blues fiddler, Teodor Jackson (pronounced Teole), who had never played for a white audience. In Texas many of the early black blues musicians were probably fiddlers. The fathers of Texas blues legends Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins were both fiddlers, and Gatemouth Brown played fiddle and guitar. Owens recorded three of the last black Texas fiddlers—Tommy Wright from Luling, Teodar Jackson, and, from Cameron, Oscar Nelson with his brother Newton on guitar. Through the recordings he did, Owens met Mance Lipscomb, Robert Shaw, and Roosevelt Williams, known as the Grey Ghost. Owens also recorded Austin guitarist and songwriter, Bill Neely, who played regularly at Threadgill’s and helped Owens with his guitar playing. This project brought Owens into contact with many now legendary musicians some of whom Owens would commercially record years later. The completed field recordings from this project are archived at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas as part of the special music collections.
After his graduation in 1967, Owens, his wife Madeleine, and their young son, Willie, headed to San Francisco, California, where some of their Texas friends, including Janis Joplin, were already living. They arrived in time to experience one of the now emblematic high points of the growing hippie counterculture movement, the “Summer of Love,” and lived in the area called Haight-Ashbury, a focal point of that hippie movement. The dynamic music scene in and around San Francisco during the 1960s owed much to the creative vision and talent of producer and promoter Chet Helms, a friend of the Owens family. Helms had attended the University of Texas but dropped out in 1962 and moved back to his native California. He owned the Avalon Ballroom located in Haight-Ashbury, and this performance venue hosted many of the bands that became big during the 1960s, including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish, as well as Big Brother and the Holding Company. Because of their friendship with Helms, the Owenses were able to get into many Avalon concerts for free.
Over the next several decades, Owens moved back and forth from Texas to California and made some money playing guitar with his own bands or working in other groups. During this time, he and Madeleine divorced. Living in Houston for a time in the 1970s, he played clubs such as the Old Quarter and Jesters and became friends with Texas singer–songwriters Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Owens also lived in Denton for awhile and worked in his brother’s restaurant, but by the 1980s Owens moved back to Austin and finally entered rehabilitation for addictions that had crippled his life and music career. Successfully completing that program, he later became a certified drug and alcohol abuse counselor and set about helping others to beat their addictions, work he pursued for a number of years.
Having been away from any active involvement with music for some years, in 1987 Owens went to see the exhibit, “From Lemon to Lightnin’: An Exhibit of Texas Blues” at the Barker Texas History Center (now Dolph Briscoe Center for American History) on the UT campus. His field recordings from the 1960s were prominently displayed, including the barrelhouse blues pianist the Grey Ghost, who the curators listed as deceased. Owens knew the Ghost was still among the living. Determined to take him to see the exhibit, Owens made repeated visits to the Ghost’s East Austin residence before the eighty-four-year-old finally agreed to the trip. Owens drove him to view the exhibit, and Williams was overwhelmed, not believing that anything would come of those recordings. The Grey Ghost and Owens both embarked on new phases of their respective music careers starting that day.
Owens convinced the Ghost to start playing again, helped him get bookings at a variety of venues, including a steady gig at Austin’s Continental Club, and produced several albums for the Ghost on Owens’s new record label, Catfish Records. Over time Owens tracked down a number of other blues musicians he met in the 1960s and recorded CDs for them, including T.D. Bell, Ervin Charles, and Snuff Johnson. He also produced the special recording, Texas Piano Professors, with the Ghost, Lavada “Dr. Hepcat” Durst, and Erbie Bowser. Owens sought out recording deals for the performers, arranged personal appearances, and accompanied many Austin area musicians to blues festivals around the United States and overseas. Along the way he also produced CDs of his own songs, assembling a group of local performers, including his wife vocalist Maryann Price. Owens dedicated himself to resurrecting the “roots music” he loved and had recorded so many years past as a student, and he promoted the musicians who played that music, helping put more money in their pockets than many of these musicians had ever received for their work. Over the years, Owens developed a special relationship with the Grey Ghost and managed his personal affairs until the Ghost’s death in 1996.
Because of his close ties to Janis Joplin and his participation in the evolving Austin music scene of the 1960s, journalists and film producers frequently sought out Owens for his firsthand perspective on that era. Such was the case when two of his friends, Martha Hertzog and Paul Congo, asked Owens to be a consultant on documentary films they were producing about the Austin blues scene. Owens eventually became their partner and co-producer on three documentary films. One hour-long film, A Tribute to Robert Shaw, was produced in 1986 for the Black Arts Alliance of Austin. Another film documented the 1989 “Texas Blues Reunion” gathering at the Victory Grill, a historic blues venue in East Austin. Owens had produced that reunion. The third documentary focused on Grey Ghost telling his life story, but only a rough copy of the video was ever completed.
The years Owens had spent addicted to alcohol and drugs took a toll on his professional career and his personal life and resulted in failed marriages and relationships. All that began to change in the late 1980s, as Owens conquered his addictions and started a successful career in the music business. His life took another positive turn in the early 1990s when a mutual friend introduced Owens to Maryann Price, a Rhode Island-born singer and musician who moved to Austin in 1988. They married on May 7, 1997.
Their East Austin home became a gathering place for an annual party of Owens’s old friends from his early life in Port Arthur and his college days at the University of Texas, along with musicians and other Austin friends the couple had met over the years. Owens and Price also opened their home to many musicians and artists seeking assistance and counseling for addictions. They continued to pursue their separate musical careers, but they also sometimes performed together, billed as “Tary and Mary.” Ultimately, based on each of their careers in music, they were inducted into the Austin Chronicle’s Texas Music Hall of Fame.
Throughout the 1990s Owens produced some thirty to forty CDs of all kinds of blues and other Texas music. One such record was the critically-acclaimed 1999 release, Lone Star Shootout, showcasing the talents of Long John Hunter, Phillip Walker, Lonnie Brooks, and Ervin Charles. Another 1999 release, Catfish, Carp & Diamonds: 35 Years of Texas Blues, contained a sampler collection of some of the best of Owens’s 1960s field recordings. Yet another historical compilation album, Ruff Stuff: The Roots of Texas Blues Guitar, featured, among other artists, the music of Owens’s guitar mentors Mance Lipscomb and Bill Neely. Through all of the recordings Owens produced, he not only documented the music of these artists, but also helped revive their performing careers by helping them get booked at concerts and festivals across North America and Europe.
By the late 1990s, Owens had been diagnosed with a combination of ailments, including diabetes, hepatitis C, and Parkinson’s disease. In order to help defray the costs of treatment, a group of leading Austin and Texas musicians played a benefit concert, “Texas Music for Tary,” at Antone’s nightclub in December 1999. Longtime friends and musicians, including Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Vaughan, Joe Ely, Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, W. C. Clark, Paul Ray, and Toni Price came out to raise money.
Relying on a combination of Western medicine and Eastern herbal remedies, Owens slowly regained his strength and felt himself on the road to recovery. He wanted to get back to recording and performing and served on the board of the Texas Music Office, headed by Casey Monahan, a longtime friend. In 2001 Owens completed a project of importance to the preservation of Texas music history. He took his field recordings from the 1960s and transferred all the old tapes to digital audio tape (DAT). In 2002 Owens produced several CDs, including the first recording of his own music with his band, the Texas Redemptors. The aptly titled release, Milagros (Miracles), celebrated Owens’s near miraculous recovery. In addition to Maryann Price on vocals, a variety of other prominent Austin musicians contributed to the album, including W.C. Clark, Orange Jefferson, Pepi Plowman, Angela Strehli, Nick Connolly, Kaz Kazanoff, Slim Richey, Francie “Meaux Jeaux” White, Sarah Brown, and Ed Vizard. In June 2002 Owens played at the Navasota Blues Festival, an annual event founded in 1996 to honor local blues great Mance Lipscomb and to raise money for a college scholarship.
In November 2002 Owens was diagnosed with cancer. On August 25, 2003, Austin disc jockey Larry Monroe dedicated his KUT Blue Monday radio program in honor of Owens, a man who had done so much to preserve the music and history of Texas blues artists. Owens died in a hospice care facility in Houston on September 21, 2003, two months short of his sixty-first birthday.
In keeping with Owens’s wishes, no formal funeral was conducted and his remains were cremated. The Owens family held a memorial gathering, “A Celebration of Tary Owens’s Life,” on October 11, 2003, at Owens’s Austin home. On behalf of the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University-San Marcos (now Texas State University), Gary Hartman presented Maryann Price a plaque honoring Tary Owens for his important role in shaping Texas music history. The city of Austin bestowed another honor to Owens on March 30, 2008, when he was included as one of the first ten inductees in the Austin Music Memorial. The memorial recognizes individuals who have made important contributions to the development of music in Austin. An engraved plaque to all of those recognized each year can be viewed on the second floor City Terrace at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, overlooking the Austin skyline and Lady Bird Lake.