What he loved most was making music. He took it seriously. He studied it. He played it. He ate the food and drank the drinks his legends did, trying to get in their heads and understand their souls. Once, he lived on RC Cola and Moon Pies for a month because one of his songwriting heroes had done the same. His commitment was total once he discovered his calling as a songwriter. He learned from every person he could, each conversation in which he engaged adding to his worldview, every experience adding new terrain to his mental landscape. Once he found his talent for it, the craft of songwriting became his field of study.
Greatness doesn’t spring from an empty reservoir. It takes work and time, and Owen put both into his art. Spend any amount of time with him, and he’d share that knowledge with you, especially when it came to classic country music. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of it and was quick and eloquent when it came to bequeathing that knowledge to others. This story about Steve Earle could easily apply to Owen on a road trip: On an eight-hour drive with some music industry heavyweights, Earle took over the ride, during which Steve “played every song he’d ever liked, told us who wrote it and what year it was recorded—just minute details—and where they came from and what they were doing when they wrote the song. And then he’d talk about their influences and he’d go off at another tangent!”
That was the Owen you got on road trips or late night around a campfire. Long conversations punctuated with quick-witted observations and drawn-out explanations of the actions of his country music heroes—the motivations behind those actions—and the experiences behind those motivations. And in his own songwriting, he had the drive and the ability to take all of that and churn it into songs like “Keep The Jackals At Bay,” “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down,” and “I Hate The Sun For Shining.” They are deep, dark songs—sad bastard music at it’s best.
He was a big man in a lot of ways, having been The Mastodon during his wrestling days, but the true measure of his size was that heart. Once called “the beating heart of classic country music,” he was quick to use his size to stand up for the underdog. Yet, once you crossed him, you were out the door and he was not a good enemy to make. Usually quick with his tongue backed up by razor sharp wit, his physical strength was equally impressive. Once, in Chicago, an older married man was carrying on with an inebriated 20-something girl. Most weren’t sure what to do about it, both of them being adults. Owen never had a doubt. He told the guy to get out and when the not-too-smart fellow didn’t do so and actually came at Owen, he found himself gripped by the throat and held against the wall, his feet dangling off the ground. Far from a bully, Owen knew where his morals lay and wasn’t afraid to apply them to the real world, whether in song or by force. His convictions were well thought out, fully formed, and put into action whenever he felt it necessary. Nearly always, those convictions and attendant actions bore scrutiny into the future.
In an age when so many are afraid to stand up for what they believe, Owen did so effortlessly, with surety, and at times forcefully. He didn’t seek confrontation. He much preferred congenial conversation, good bourbon, slow-cooked BBQ, interesting friends, and a pretty woman. He wasn’t a slave to his wants and needs. He embraced those things to the fullest, but he also knew privation and hunger and disappointment. He never waved in the face of those things, situations most avoid at all costs. After he and another band he was touring with made it about halfway to California, they hit a rough patch and the other band headed home. Instead of quitting the tour, Owen finished the tour via Greyhound and hitchhiking. At one point, he ended up under a freeway overpass in Louisville, Kentucky, during a storm. Eventually, a devout fan found out about it and brought him in from the cold—literally—and he just kept on trucking. While most would rather be caught dead than make long distances on a Greyhound, Owen had already written and published “The Greyhound Song,” had a Greyhound tattoo, and finished the tour—having adventures all along the way.
That’s why he’s The Legendary One. He stood up to things that would have left most completely demoralized, and turned them into killer stories—and art. He inherited his musical talent and dogged persistence from his Welsh ancestors, then made the most of it. As a musician, his timing wasn’t always spot on and his band had to be on their toes at all times, but his songwriting was original and on point. He got more and more comfortable on stage over time, whether he was at a bar with a few people listening, or at a big venue on a big stage in Chicago, on the Wood Stage at Muddy Roots Music Festival in Tennessee, or hanging out in Hollywood with one of his biggest supporters, Shooter Jennings. And he was just getting started…
We lost a lot when we lost Owen. Country music lost out. His fans lost out. The people who to this day haven’t heard his music but will one of these days, they lost out, too. But, goddamn did he make use of every minute he was on this earth. He left a hole in our hearts, but his music is there to fill it up and help us keep going on…without the Legendary One here in physical form, but he’s always with us and will forever be a legend in our hearts, minds and souls. A friend said it best: “While we all stand around crying and missing Owen, he’s laughing at us from above with a great big smile, surrounded by all the country music greats he loved so much, making music with the angels."
So be sad, it’s part of life. Listen to Owen’s music, it IS life. And just keep on riding your own kinda Greyhound and never stop, never give up, and keep spreading the word because Mr. Owen Mays would do the same for you.
Written by Jody Robbins