Wavy gray hair and translucent-rimmed glasses restore the aura of an archivist to Tary Owens. His soft, raspy voice and deliberate words temporarily hush as he closes his eyes to catch the music, the vision of that first prison experience:
It is again the summer of 1963. Owens turns his car down rural lanes past mounted, rifle-toting guards overseeing the inmates working the endless rows of cotton and crops that made the Texas prison system self-supporting.
In an earlier time these prison farms might have been called plantations. And indeed, the black men working those fields often sang the same songs as the slaves who came before them.
Owens has come to the prison units to harvest that musical heritage of the past. His tools are a bulky Roberts reel-to-reel tape recorder, microphone and mike stand. Owens runs the security gauntlet of puzzled guards with a letter from then-governor John Connally, giving him carte blanche to access the inmates.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UConn Huskies College Football
TicketsThu., Sep. 29, 11:00am
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
After uncrating his equipment in sterile prison offices, he waits while guards escort in the so-called broke dick inmates clad in crisp white correctional uniforms. They are the ones too aged or crippled to pull their shifts in the fields. But they still find their voices for this 21-year-old stranger.
In the stark surroundings, prisoners entertain him with their "toasts," rhyming boasts that are the forerunners of modern rap. They give their haunting renditions of the same songs done by slaves more than a century earlier. "Death Is Slow But Death Is Sure," they sing. The revolving tape reels collect harmonies that, on the low end, resonate eerily as if they were bagpipes. On the hottest August days Owens would feel chills from the profane and poignant lyrics.
At the end of that summer, the young folklore archivist for the University of Texas filed away more than 60 hours of tapes. When that work was rediscovered in recent years, Owens gained acclaim for preserving early music history for the state.
But this is no story of decades of academic devotion or even a career of scholarly sacrifice. Owens shuts his eyes again to sense his other image of music and prison -- of his own making.
Owens was instrumental in saving the musical heritage of Texas. He even rescued some of the state's greatest music legends from obscurity. However, the man who captured the painful ballads of inmates was himself imprisoned to heroin, and inflicted intense pain on himself and others for almost 20 years. To get one fix, he even stole the guitar of friend and mentor Mance Lipscomb, the great bluesman.
In the end, Owens would save this music -- and rescue himself in the process.
Tary Owens awoke early in life to the rare musical heritage of the state. It was not long after his parents moved from Toledo, Ohio, to the thriving swamp-pop and rhythm-and-blues scene of Beaumont-Port Arthur of the '50s.
"When I was 11 or 12 years old, I heard Chuck Berry do 'Maybellene' [on the radio]," says Owens, "and it was like a bolt of lightning. It touched me deep in my soul. It moved me."
That music crossed racial lines and moved his circle of friends, including one talented but troubled high school friend named Janis Joplin.
They developed a strong interest in the blues and folk roots music of fellow Texans Huddie William Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, Sam "Lightnin'" Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. In 1962 Owens moved to Austin, not long after Joplin had relocated there.
"We all wanted to be beatniks," says Owens. He describes his relationship with Joplin as sort of "brother-sister," although he does recall "necking" with her once in the backseat of a car.
After Owens married and had a child, Joplin occasionally handled baby-sitting duties. The highlight of the week was usually the Wednesday-night trip to Kenneth Threadgill's icehouse on North Lamar, for its burgeoning jam sessions.
Guitar pickers such as the Waller Creek Boys and country bluesman Bill Neely would take their turns at the single microphone passed around the circular table in the middle of the bar. Over the din of clanking beer bottles, participants would belt out renditions ranging from Appalachian ballads to the blues of Bessie Smith.
Highlighting the evening would be Threadgill's performance. He'd step out from behind the bar and entertain the crowd with the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman.
"It was just an incredible scene," Owens says.
While he developed his own skills as a musician, Owens delved deeper and deeper into the roots of this Texas heritage.
He enrolled at the University of Texas to study folklore under Dr. Americo Paredes. The professor was the first director of UT's Mexican-American Studies program and founder of the Center for International Studies of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Owens credits Paredes, who died last year, and Mance Lipscomb as changing the course of his life.
"They taught me a willingness to take chances," says Owens. The main risk he took was abandoning the security of a middle-class existence to follow his heart and his musical interests.
Paredes helped him with that goal, getting a $500 Lomax grant for the student in 1963. Owens used the funding to record the so-called river songs of black Texas prison inmates, songs that had been handed down from the time of slavery. He bought the Roberts tape recorder and an AKG microphone and obtained the letter from the governor allowing him access to the prisoners.
Owens spent his weekends taping the words and songs of black inmates at the Walls, Wynn and Ramsey units of what was then the Texas Department of Corrections.
One of the groups of singers was led by an inmate by the name of Joseph Johnson, nicknamed "Chinaman" because of his slanted eyes and the light color of his skin. But Dave Tippen, a wiry white-haired man, touched Owens even more.
"Tippen's songs were so personal and so direct," says Owens. "You can hear the sincerity in his voice. You hear him catching his breath and making a note out of that."
The recording sessions took Owens back a century, with slavery-tinged songs such as "Stewball":
All you children, if you want to see some fun
Bet your nickels, dimes and quarters, just to see that white horse run.
It was trouble on the racetrack, all night long, long, long.
It was trouble on the racetrack all night long.
Says old Missus, she told master, "You be saving, oh while I'm gone.
Don't you feed them niggers no biscuits.
You just feed them that yellow corn."
Owens, in his work, discovered the inner conflicts bedeviling these classic blues artisans. Lead Belly, for example, did prison terms for crimes ranging from assault to murder. But Tippen despised him and called him a "white man's nigger." Lead Belly managed to win his freedom each time he was incarcerated. Owens points out that Tippen, who had been convicted of only assaults, stayed in prison until his death.
The young college researcher also mined more hidden lodes of cultural lore during his prison visits, when inmates introduced him to toasts.
"They used to be told not only in prison -- prison is where they got preserved -- but there was a time on every street corner, wherever black men gathered, they toast," he says.
One toast was "The Signifying Monkey," a twist on the old Brer Rabbit tale in which a monkey tricks a lion into giving him his freedom. "Titantic" was a balladlike toast to a black man who jumps off the sinking ship and swims around the world to safety in 30 minutes flat.
Owens says "Titantic" reportedly evolved over the years after Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champion, was denied passage on the luxury cruiser's catastrophic maiden voyage:
Captain, captain, don't you know,
This big motherfucker is about to overflow.
So he jumped overboard and begin to swim
And there was a quite a few people looking at him.
The rich man's daughter jumped up on the top deck
With her drawers on the floor and dress around her neck.
She said, "Come back, Shine, and save poor me,
I'll make you as rich as a shine can be."
Shine said, "White folks, you must think I'm blind.
"First I got to save my black behind."
Owens also ventured into rural central Texas where he recorded regional sounds from black fiddle players such as Teodar Jackson to bluegrass to early Tejano music. When he was finished, he cataloged his 60 hours of recordings and archived them and other tapes into the university vaults.
Owens spent three years as an archivist. He compares his collections to the carp, a fish not widely appreciated by most Americans, but valued in other parts of the world.
"Much of the music I've recorded is like that," he says. "It's not going to make the Top 40. But it's music that is real and true, and speaks to the human heart."
After his role as archivist, Owens's own heart spoke to him, he says. It told him to go west.
In 1967 the San Francisco music scene was going full tilt. Owens wanted to be a part of it. He loaded up his young wife and baby and a 20-year-old blues singer named Angeli Strehli. They put together a band, The Southern Flyers, and headed for the wide-open vistas of northern California.
Strehli, who evolved into a standout blues artist, remembers stopping in Lubbock to get her parents' permission for the trip. She believes the only reason they said yes is because they were too shocked to say no.
Strehli initially wanted to be a bass and harmonica player. She says the goals didn't matter much because the band spent a lot of time rehearsing, but landed very few gigs. The experience was worth the gamble, Strehli says.
"I mean, who wouldn't have wanted to go out there then," says the singer. Strehli, who now lives in San Francisco, lasted only a couple of months on her first trip, before returning to Austin to finish her degree in sociology. "But without Tary, I may never have gotten serious about music."
Owens stayed five years in California before some friends shipped him back home to Texas. By then he was a full-blown heroin addict. His old high school pal Joplin, herself a junkie, was appalled when she caught him shooting up. She urged him to quit. He didn't listen.
Back in Texas, Owens's drug problem only increased. He turned to his old mentor and grandfather figure, Mance Lipscomb. Owens stayed in the old man's home in Navasota, northwest of Houston, but soon found that his only allegiance was to his heroin habit. Needing $300 to make a score, he stole Lipscomb's guitar. Police charged Owens with theft and managed to retrieve the guitar.
While open and frank about his past, Owens has difficulty finding words to explain his betrayal. "He was a man who trusted me. He eventually forgave me, and I got the guitar back to him." (Lipscomb, who died in 1976, is unable to speak for himself on the subject of forgiveness.)
Owens received probation and moved in with his parents in Houston, discovering a dynamic early-'70s music scene in the area. The Old Quarter club served as home base for legends such as Townes Van Zandt and Lightnin' Hopkins. (Hopkins and Van Zandt are also now dead, as is the Old Quarter.) Owens did a music show called Waltz Across Texas on the noncommercial radio station KPFT, which had recently gone on the air. He also wrote for the alternative paper Space City News.
But Owens lingered in a drug haze. While hitchhiking at the corner of Westheimer and Montrose in 1972, he was busted for possession of pot and methadone.
A judge gave him probation and advised him to get out of town. So he headed back to Austin, where he says he worked producing fund-raising concerts for the George McGovern presidential campaign with a young Democratic Party operative named Bill Clinton. (Owens says he never saw Clinton inhale but admits the whole period is just one big blur now.)
After the election, his pace quickened. There was a stint in California with a band called the Paradise Specials. He got off heroin -- and onto a speed addiction. In 1976 he returned to Texas and briefly worked with his two brothers running their Mexican food restaurants in Denton.
For seven years Owens drifted in and out of clinical depression and suicidal tendencies, drug rehab centers and renewed addiction. He had founded the Austin chapter of Narcotics Anonymous but in 1982 found himself staying with members of that group -- and stealing their belongings for more drug money.
By late 1983 Owens knew he was out of chances. He managed to be readmitted to the Austin State Hospital. This time, rehabilitation worked.
He sold water treatment equipment and rolled up five years of sobriety, making him confident enough to return to school and get certified as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor.
Owens took a job with the Austin Recovery Center and then founded The Care Program, an AIDS-prevention prototype for the Austin-Travis County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Association. He also ran an AIDS program for street addicts and counseled addicts with AIDS. Joe Nick Patoski, who has covered the music scene extensively as a Texas Monthly senior editor, says Owens's efforts rescued many addicts from death.
"He cleaned up and helped others clean their act up at a really crucial time in the late 1980s when a lot of folks were out there killing themselves," says Patoski. "As one who had been there, and probably had been worse than most of those people he was helping it gave him a lot of validity, and he was able to influence a lot of people."
Owens began his own counseling practice and worked for the Betty Ford Clinic. He also taught abuse counseling at Austin Community College. He finally suffered from sheer burnout and health problems -- first diabetes, and then depression.
His inspiration arrived in an unexpected way. On an idle day in 1987 Owens stopped in at UT-Austin's Center for American History. It was featuring an exhibit of Texas blues history, "From Lemon to Lightnin'."
Owens took a closer look. On display were recordings -- the tapes made by a 21-year-old archivist decades earlier, before addictions and a long downward spiral.
"I had heard of the exhibit, but I had no idea that my tapes were on display, let alone so prominently," says Owens. "It had a really profound impact on me. It reopened a part of my life. It was really the turning point."
In that moment of rediscovering himself, Owens says, he decided that his recovery from drug abuse was solid enough to allow him to return to the music scene without fear of relapse.
Owens peered at the exhibit section highlighting recordings of Roosevelt Thomas Williams, the Grey Ghost. The magnificent old barrelhouse blues pianist moved from town to town by hopping freight trains. His music had first been captured by an earlier UT researcher, William A. Owens (no relation to Tary) in the 1940s.
Tary Owens had recorded him in the '60s, and he was intrigued that the curator had mistakenly assumed that the Grey Ghost was dead.
Owens knew he had recently seen the Ghost walking down the streets of east Austin. He went back to the former home of the musician. He wasn't there, but the hunch was still good. The elusive Grey Ghost, it turned out, was living next door.
"For someone who used to move around as much as he did," says Owens, "it was incredible that he was still there."
At 84 years of age, the Grey Ghost was a retired Austin school bus driver who did not remember the archivist. But for the next month Owens stopped by daily to visit the old man and try to convince him to go see the UT exhibit. "I became obsessed with the idea," says Owens. "Finally, to get rid of me, he agreed to come with me. And I drove him over there. And he saw this exhibit, and he was just totally overwhelmed. He couldn't believe it."
Owens says the Ghost had never believed that anything would ever come of the early recordings. The exhibit changed his life, just as it had inspired Owens.
He convinced the Ghost to start playing again and helped him get bookings at places such as Austin's Continental Club. He produced an album of some of the Ghost's old material. Once the old piano master got his keyboard and vocal chops back, Owens arranged for him to make another CD at the age of 89.
It was a new beginning for Owens as well. He tracked down other blues players such as T.D. Bell, Long John Hunter and Ervin Charles. He got them back in front of audiences and into the studio.
Charles, who for years had seen his career stuck in the limited music scene of the Golden Triangle area, remembers meeting Owens at a blues festival in Beaumont in 1996.
"During the intermission, we started trading words," says Charles, now 67. "He said there was a man he knew who produces a blues festival in Holland, and would I like to go? And I said that I'd love to. So he got me hooked up."
Owens also reunited three other blues guitarists: Hunter, Lonnie Brooks and Phillip Walker, all in their sixties. When the foursome returned from Europe, they teamed up for the Lone Star Shootout album, a spicy slice of Gulf Coast rhythm and blues, on Alligator Records.
Hunter and Charles also played at the reopening of east Austin's historic Victory Grill, the only place in Austin where black soldiers could celebrate the end of World War II. The event was produced by Owens. Although none of the four bluesmen is a household name, the exposure engineered by Owens elevated their careers.
"Call it whatever you want to call it: a gift, charity work, community service," says Patoski. "Tary gave a lot of cats a reason to go play again. And he revived folklore studies. Not in an academic way, but in the streets, getting out there and making sure these guys were heard again."
Owens's resurrection of the careers of several legendary musicians allowed him to produce a few albums. Some even sold relatively well in the limited U.S. blues market.
"I think he did well by the performers he was working with," says Wheat. "I don't think he used their talents to make him money. And I think he also took care of their needs. I know he did that for Grey Ghost. He helped him find a decent place to live, and helped him when his health was failing."
While altruism is a virtue, it's hard to make a living by it. That's why Owens is hoping that some of his old recordings will soon find a viable commercial outlet. Last year Owens teamed up with Houstonians David Thompson and Randy Twaddle of ttweak, a production company that specializes in unusual audio, video and visual projects. With Austin sound engineer Stuart Sullivan, ttweak digitally remastered the river songs, toasts and other music taped by Owens in the 1960s. They hope to interest major recording labels or movie producers in the package.
"One of the reasons we started this company is to do stuff like this," says Thompson. "We feel that Tary's catalog, unlike a lot of traditional blues and indigenous music catalogs, is deserving of a different spin than the old Smithsonian and Folkways bullshit. The toasts in particular, being the precursor of modern rap, kind of take it in a direction that is a little heavier and more significant. More vital, hipper and cooler. Our minds are just bouncing off the walls about their possible applications, like for films. They are very rich and cool."
Owens says that Paredes, before his death, ensured that Owens would retain the commercial rights to the tapes. Owens explains that if the package sells, he plans to set up an escrow fund that would allow the heirs of the deceased performers to share in the profits.
With Owens promoting their works and appearances, many of the artisans enjoyed a final jolt of recognition and financial stability before their deaths. Others wonder, however, if Owens will be able to do the same.
It is late morning inside the cozy house on the north bank of the Colorado in Austin. Owens moves among the clutter of musical instruments and photographs of performers. He scrapes breakfast scraps into the food bowl of his mixed-breed dog, Maggie. It ends the pet's amusing but incessant begging. More important, it gives Owens a few moments to gather himself.
After a couple of hours of talking openly about his past, Owens is physically spent. His right arm shakes uncontrollably. He sweats profusely. Noon is approaching, and he's not much good after that.
"I suspect that I fried my central nervous system with all the drugs I did," Owens whispers matter-of-factly. "Most of the things that are wrong with me are a direct result of the self-destructive things I did to my body."
His diabetes and depression were followed by hepatitis C. And early last January he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and what his doctor termed "essential tremors," which have left him basically unable to work for the past year.
He is in a battle with his insurance company over whether he is entitled to disability benefits. There are continuing medical bills, the mortgage and other mounting debts.
Owens does have a family now to provide moral support. His wife, Maryann Price, was a member of Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks and Asleep at the Wheel. Her 34-year-old mentally retarded daughter, Cissy, lives in a nearby group home but is a frequent visitor to their house. She is, Owens says, an inspiration.
Recently Owens found out the full scope of his extended family, developed during his decades of failures and rebound. As his financial problems threatened to claim his home, friends rallied.
In November they ushered him into Antone's, the home of the Austin blues scene. Awaiting him were performers such as Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely, Jimmie Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball and Ervin Charles, the blues guitarist whose career Owens had rescued.
Freelance music writer Rob Patterson (a Houston Press contributing editor) organized the event hosted by Patoski and nightclub founder Clifford Antone. The music and a silent auction raised more than $20,000 for Owens.
"I think it helped buy Tary some time," says Patterson. "The outpouring of people wanting to give to this. To the musicians on stage, to the people working the auction. I think it did Tary's soul a lot of good."
"I can't say enough good words about him," says Charles, of Beaumont. "There's no better guy than Tary. He's a heck of a dude, man, and I love him."
Owens seemed somewhat embarrassed to the have been the focus of what he calls "an incredible outpouring of love." The man who helped preserve Texas music tradition just wishes it hadn't taken him so long to figure out how to free himself from his prison of addiction -- and rediscover the music that gave him new life.
"Sometimes I get angry with myself," he says. "But I'm grateful for every day I have. Every day is grace."
E-mail Steve McVicker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.