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Monday, February 21, 2011

Tary Owens, the power of museums, and forgiveness

I had always heard about some guy who stole Mance Lipscomb’s guitar. Recently at Blues Alley we acquired an electric guitar that was supposed to have belonged to Mance, and in researching it, Dr Michael Birnbaum reminded me about Tary Owens.

The story goes that Owens, a close friend of Janis Joplin’s, and Mance’s… who had devolved into a sad, drug-addicted musician who needed some dough, stole Mance’s brand new Gibson acoustic guitar. The handsome American icon had been given to him by the Gibson guitar company. When Mance saw that it was stolen, he turned Tary in, and friend or no friend, he was arrested and put in the Grimes County Jail.

Owens was one of few persons to know whatever happened to that coveted instrument, which was probably sold for drugs. Then, in true Mance Lipscomb style, while Owens was boiling in his own stew, the gentle old soul took another guitar to his friend in jail. To show that there were no hard feelings, I guess.

Now that’s Christian forgiveness.

The rest was worked out but the guitar was gone, and Tary finally bottomed out years later, got out of drugs, and music, and just tried to learn to enjoy life as a sober, responsible, decent individual. Tary Owens had been a friend and advocate of some of the biggest names in Texas music. He had been there when the whole Texas Music phenomenon had started in Austin. He had hung out in San Francisco with all the hippies and music legends, and if he had kept a Rolodex, it would have sported the most impressive list of 60’s and 70’s musicians in America.

And even though he was burning his candle at both ends, and burning most bridges with his friends as a consequence of his addiction, he managed to help numerous Texas musicians to get gigs and recording contracts. He especially loved the blues, and probably for a reason. His friendships, his marriage and his self respect were in shambles. There was a trail of casualties in his wake, including him.

One day he discovered an exhibit about Texas blues at an Austin museum. There were pictures and songs by the very people he had helped to get established. Somebody had noticed his life’s work. He discovered in the exhibit that it was believed these blues men were dead, but Owens knew better. He went and found Roosevelt Williams, known to blues lovers as the “Grey Ghost,” still alive and spry, and ironically, living almost across the freeway from the museum that featured his music. After several visits and some begging, the Ghost agreed to go see the museum.

Seeing the pictures, hearing the music, the old man seemed to come back to life. Eventually he and Owens agreed to do some more business. For the first time in his life, Owens would be an agent, drug free, pushing an artist… to really help him, and maybe himself, to try and work out some old demons.

Owens started Catfish Records with his son, and they began to produce blues. Roosevelt was brought back into the limelight in the twilight of his life. And the Owens began to find and capture other obscure artists that deserved a venue. He even came and performed at our own Bluesfest when it was just beginning. Mance had to be smiling down on that.

Anyway this whole story sat in my little blues museum at Blues Alley for almost a year. You see another blues enthusiast, Jack Ortmann, had dropped off a recent copy of Texas Music History Magazine… and it had a picture of Mance on the cover, and when I saw it was not actually an article about Mance, but some Austin music promoter, I just let it lie there. It was the story of Tary Owens.

Now I know Tary, or at least his memory, was trying to make contact.

But it did not happen until a local antique picker cleaned out his barn and found an old Harmony electric guitar he had acquired ten years ago... from the Lipscomb family,and he thought nobody would care until now... and one thing led to another.

And I did not read the article about Owens until after Dr. Birnbaum recently reminded me of the whole affair. The article went to great lengths to establish the image of the Tary Owens who had the strong finish in life. The memory of the old scoundrel who stole from his friends was superceded by a man who successfully reinvented himself. He is now deceased, but he had done a lot of good, in the end. And it is a strong finish that counts, right?


So I’m hunting on ebay as I often do, looking for something about Texas blues that I don’t have… and I find an album I have never heard of, never had seen. Some wanna-be named… give me a break, Frank Robinson. This is one blues guy that should have changed his name… but wait, THREE songs on the album are about something to do with NAVASOTA. Who made this thing?

Catfish Records.

About this time, I am not just forgiving Tary, I’m talking to him. You son of a___!

And then I realize I already had another of his albums, the one he produced called the Milagro Redemption something or other… it has songs by one of our favorites at the Navasota Bluesfest, Orange Jefferson.

Hello Tary, its nice to meet you... you son of a… I’m gonna’ hug you real hard when I meet you in heaven.

Thanks for not giving up on yourself.

Now, if you could just lead us to that Gibson….


Anonymous said...

I was Tary's girlfriend around this time and although we loved music, we loved our habits more and we all suffered. Tary and I went to Navsota and sat on Mance's porch and listened and Tary played with Mance. Mance was one of his heroes and they went inside for a while and shortly thereafter we left. Instead of stopping, he drove straight through to Austin. Tary dropped me off and during the trip he told me had stolen Mance's guitar. I was shocked, but we both understood that everything was insane at that time and we were out of control. He went down to where a lot of the musicians hung out and sold the guitar, scored and came back. He never discussed much more than he felt really terrible about the whole desperate move. Whoever he sold it to must have told someone who called the police and it was confiscated and Tary went off to jail. I stayed at his parents' house in Houston for a short time and got a job and moved out. They were not happy about the whole mess and eliminated any future contact between us. Houston was a big town. Hope this helps!

sir loins said...

The Grey Ghost was Roosevelt T. Williams, not Roosvelt Sykes.