Owsley was born William Reese Owsley III on March 6,
1966 in Anniston, Alabama. He was raised in a musical household; his
mother was a singer and stage actress, his father the drum major for the marching
band of University of Alabama, his sister a classically trained pianist and his
brother a rock guitarist.
Owsley was an avid guitarist from the early age of 9, learning basic chords and
then eagerly practicing the licks note-for-note along to some of his favorite rock musicians. In
high school he played in his school's jazz band as well as top-40 cover
bands. He spent a majority of his
childhood working as an unpaid roadie for his brother's rock band and playing
guitar along with the radio to such bands as Wings, KISS, and The Cars.
In 1986, a 20 year old Owsley made the move to Nashville,
Tennessee where he continued to work as a rock guitarist. While touring the southeast with different
cover bands, Owsley was introduced to funk-pop pioneer Judson Spence with whom
he played around the world, both literally and virtually, by appearing on MTV
in Spence's videos. Owsley then met another talented artist by the name of Ben
Folds, who introduced him to bassist Millard Powers. In the early 90’s, Millard and Owsley formed
a band called the Semantics, later adding drummer Zak Starkey. The band put together some demo songs, and
were signed by Geffen Records. In 1993
the Semantics recorded the album “Powerbill” for the label, however Geffen
never released the album in the United States, calling it “too pop for
alternative, and too alternative for pop”.
With the record stalled the band dissolved, with each band member
musically going their own way. (“Powerbill”
was later released in only in Japan, where it was well received.)
During this time, musician Amy Grant had heard the recordings of The
Semantics, and approached Owsley to offer him a job. Jaded by the break up of his band,
and disillusioned with the notion of fronting a band, Owsley opted to relax a
little and accepted an offer to play guitar in Amy Grant's touring band. Owsley next crossed paths with his musical hero and
legendary producer Mutt Lange, who hired him to play guitar and sing duets with
Lange's wife Shania Twain on several nationally broadcast television shows such
as the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and the
American Country Music Awards. He also worked with the likes of
Vince Gill, Michael W. Smith, Chris Rodriguez, and the Neville Brothers, among
the money Owsley earned in Nashville, he bought a house and built a recording
studio in the home. There he began
writing and recording what would eventually become his debut solo album. After
two long years of recording, Owsley emerged with the record that he wanted to
make: Recalls Owsley, "I had heard the story of Tom Scholz of the band
Boston recording his first album and taking it to the record company, where he
told them that it was finished and they could take it or leave it. And I
thought, 'What a cool idea!' I didn't want anyone else coming between me and
what I was trying to accomplish." Completing the tracks in late 1997,
Owsley next did what came naturally, he went on the road.
Assembling a new band
under his own name, he toured widely, with well-received stop overs in New
Orleans, Los Angeles, New York City, and South by Southwest. In the mean-time, he
shopped his album with a “take it or leave it” mandate, and after many meetings
with a variety of companies, Owsley landed a contract with Giant Records. Owsley then worked with producer Tom
Lord-Alge re-mixing several tracks on the record, and in 1999 Giant released
first single off the album was “Coming Up Roses”, which reached some
alternative airwaves but did not hit the ground running. The second single, “I’m Alright” was met with
great enthusiasm, receiving widespread radio play and climbing up to number 33
on R&R’s Modern Rock/Alternative chart.
Throughout 1999 and 2000 Owsley toured the country in support of his
record, opening for acts such as Fountains of Wayne and Guster, as well as
headlining his own shows. His work on
“Owsley” also earned him a Grammy Award nomination for best engineered album in
Then came the hard part: Giant fell victim to corporate mergers and boarded
up the windows within a year of “Owsley” hitting shelves, and was absorbed by the
larger Warner Brother’s Music. With
Owsley’s contract transferred, he went back into his home studio to begin work
on his next record. Over the course of
the next few years Owsley worked tirelessly in his home studio and various
studios in and around Franklin, Tennessee, creating enough music to fill
several albums. The record label,
however, chose to keep his work on the back burner. After a great deal of hard work and
negotiation, Owsley bought back the rights to his music, and was finally able
to put together a new album. In 2004
Owsley partnered with indie music label Lakeview Entertainment, and together
they released the aptly named album “The Hard Way”. They chose “Be With You” – the record’s first
song – as the first single, and though it received air play on triple-A radio,
it was unable to reach a wider audience.
In 2005, Owsley signed with Universal Music Enterprises to begin
releasing music digitally through iTunes.
His double-sided single, “Psycho / Upside Down” was made available
through iTunes on July 12, 2005.
In between creating his solo career projects, Owsley continued his session
work as a guitarist, backing vocalist, songwriter and producer. He worked with many artists, including
Charlotte Church, Kenny Loggins, Amy Grant, Michael McDonald and Rodney
Crowell. He also wrote and produced for
many Disney stars – among them Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato, and the Jonas Brothers
– and went back on the road as a guitarist for Amy Grant’s touring band. He once described himself as having moved
“not up or down in the music industry, but sideways”, due to spending half his
time in Los Angeles for his work.
Owsley passed away on April 30th, 2010 at
the young age of 44. He is survived by his two sons from his previous marriage,
his parents, brother, sister, friends and fans.
He is gone from our lives, but alive in our hearts
and in his music.