The Dead And The Living

Today I’m just jotting down a couple of quick mentions about two really great musicians whom I think would be worthy of your ear attentions. Sadly one of them, Will Owsley, is dead. Luckily, the other, Sam Phillips, is still very much alive. First the bad news…

WILL OWSLEY (1965-2010)

Will Owsley (left) with Amy Grant.

Born in Anniston, Alabama, in 1965 – the year that the Beatles released Rubber Soul Will Owsley was probably better known to the mainstream music world as one of the great “studio rats” and sidemen in Nashville and Los Angeles, but I first heard him in the late 90’s when a friend who worked at Sony in Nashville hipped me to the “Nash Vegas” power pop scene there. That scene had spawned a lot of great alternative music (which in Nashville meant not country) from the likes of Millard Powers, who had worked with Owsley and Ben Folds in The Semantics. I have, since, heard the story about how they got signed to Geffen but that the label dropped them before it ever got to the stores. Then, my friend had sent me a CD called Nashpop: A Nashville Pop Compilation (released in 1998 by the NotLame Recording Company) One of the songs on there, “Sonny Boy”, was credited simply to Owsley, and it was classic pop…

CLICK TO HEAR “SONNY BOY” (hosted by Popdose)

I didn’t hear much until the following year, when Giant Records (a major label subsidiary of MCA/Universal, if I recall correctly) released his first solo album, Owsley. Working with Millard Powers, and aware of the breakthrough of their peer Ben Folds, it seemed that Will Owsley was on the fast track to being that rare exception, a power pop cult artist who crosses over to wider commercial acclaim (the great irony of the pop world being its inherent lack of mainstream commerciality). It rocked as good as Cheap Trick, it gave good ballad, and even echoed Folds in its more wistful moments, and really should have done better than it did.

CLICK TO HEAR “COMING UP ROSES” (hosted by Popdose)

Read between the lines, though, in this blurb from Amazon’s Steven Stolder:

“It seems that the only thing foreseen more frequently than a big pop revival is the death of Beatlesque rock & roll. Neither prediction ever quite comes true. As sure as you can count on a Crowded House coming along every few years to serve as a new messiah for pure pop, you know you’ll soon be scratching your head and pondering, What ever happened to Jellyfish?  But they just keep coming. Will Owsley is the latest Great Hope to step forward.”

Certainly, something like “Oh No The Radio” had some of the manic hooks of an XTC or Jason Falkner…

Radio? Oh no, it never really happened that way.  I mean, whatever did happen to Jellyfish? Know what I mean? (I know by the way) Owsley’s second album, The Hard Way (2004) made even less of an impact beyond the fans (like me) who got power pop. Susanne Ault of Billboard moaned that “while The Hard Way rolls along competently, the mid-tempo guitar hooks and straight ahead vocals lack the necessary punch to reach mainstream consciousness”

There wasn’t a growth market on Owsley’s own music, and like so many talents before him (and after him) he couldn’t waste his gifts sitting around waiting for his own songs to catch on, so he went into the sideman business, where he thrived. He spent over 16 years as a sideman to Amy Grant – he also did work with Shania Twain – and had recently been a Disney Music hired gun working on everything from Demi Lovato to the Jonas Brothers. He made enough money from the higher profile gigs to build himself quite a nice home studio.

I wonder if it ever made him crazy, playing a side role to the fame that could have, should have, been his. Maybe that’s why, if the initial reports are to be believed (and forgive us all if they are not) he chose to take his own life last week. He left behind two kids, and lord knows how many people who may have tried to save him, if that was possible. But maybe he wasn’t bummed about being a successful sideman at all (my friend Steven Page told me that he recently hired Owsley to play pedal steel on his own record, and spoke highly of him). Maybe self-pity as a motive, then, is simply too romantic, too cliché. Perhaps, like so many sad souls in the world, Will Owsley merely suffered the ravaging effects of common, although not trivial, depression and for a brief flickering moment, couldn’t see how he could possibly live another second. It’s just sad, that’s all it is. Rest in Peace, then, Will Owsley, some of us got it while you were here.

Here, Owsley pays tribute to one of the architects of power pop, Paul McCartney

On to the living then…


I’ve been slow to the game but I am pleased to see that Sam Phillips is now doing an online subscription thing called The Long Play. I’ve been a fan of Sam Phillips for years now. I remember getting a copy of her first album The Indescribable Wow in a used bin at Flip City Records on Queen St West in Toronto way back in 1990, and then picking up her next one Cruel Inventions, a year after that. She was with T-Bone Burnett in those days and had heavy cats like him, and Elvis Costello and Van Dyke Parks, backing her. Her reed thin voice had a similar attack to that of Marianne Faithfull, yet somehow softer, more sanded down. I knew she’d come from the world of contemporary Christian rock (where she recorded as Leslie Phillips) but the fact that she threw off the commercialization of that world to walk among the secular (her faith no doubt intact) made me respect her all the more. What really mattered was the songs. By way of giving you an audio sample, here’s a YouTube clip of “Where The Colors Don’t Go” from Cruel Inventions, featuring a static still photo of Sam.

Then in 1994, I was pleased to hear that she had enlisted XTC’s Colin Moulding to join her and T-Bone on the Martinis & Bikinis album, which featured this single, “Baby, I Can’t Please You”:

Shortly after this, she turned up in an acting role, as a villain in a Bruce Willis movie, Die Hard With A Vengeance, but soon it was back to music. I interviewed her, in Toronto, shortly before the release of her album Omnipop (It’s Only A Flesh Wound Lambchop) her last album for Virgin, which also featured contributions from Jon Brion and other L.A. awesome-folk. We seemed to hit it off in the interview and I was delighted when I heard that she had asked Virgin to hire me to rewrite her official bio for the album. Apparently, I wasn’t the first or last person to be hired for that bio, so I don’t think Virgin ended up using it. It’s a funny footnote to me though, and I always smile when I hear songs from that album.

A lot of folks heard her when she contributed music and made cameo appearances on The Gilmore Girls, where instead of making Sam uncool by association with a TV show, she made the show seem hipper for associating with her..

Later on, Nonesuch released the album Fan Dance (2001) which many reviewers felt was her best ever. Here’s an odd little super 8 video with her song “Taking Pictures” and some West Coast tour dates (from 2008) superimposed over it.

Now, she’s signed a publishing deal with Notable Music and has gone direct to her fans via the now-viable model of fan subscription (something you’ll recall Todd Rundgren trying as far back as the late-nineties!!).  Here’s how Sam describes The Long Play on her site:

Long Play is a year of music. While digging for inspiration and journaling the process of writing and recording, I will release 5 EP’s and a full-length album through There is no record company involved — this is just between us.

As a subscriber, every two months you will automatically receive a high-quality digital EP made up of new songs, new versions of my old songs, seasonal songs, or previously unreleased songs.  (The first EP is entitled “Hypnotists in Paris”; a collaboration between myself and The Section Quartet.)

At the end of the Long Play, next fall, you will receive a full-length digital album.  This is the most music I’ve ever released in a one-year period. Essays, video, photos and audio logs will make the Long Play part music, book, magazine, laboratory, radio program and curiosity collection.

Will opening up some of the creative process affect the way I write and record the music? Will it affect how you hear it?  I have no idea, and there’s only one way to find out…please join me for the Long Play. 


A $52 subscription includes:

– 5 digital EP’s (high-quality MP3, FLAC and Apple Lossless formats); released every two months starting October 1, 2009

– 1 full-length digital album (high-quality MP3, FLAC and Apple Lossless formats); scheduled for release in the fall of 2010

– 1 Subscribers-only bonus track with each EP and album, plus additional bonus tracks throughout the year

– Bonus audio and video content throughout the year

– Long Project; may include live concert footage, rehearsal tapes, demos, behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, etc.

– Exclusive audio and visual oddities

Membership in the Long Play community with exclusive access to Sam’s journaling of her creative process as well as an exclusive social network of Sam’s fans.

Thanks to everyone for the support! It’s going to be a great year of Sam Phillips exclusive music & content!

Here’s a sampler for the Holiday album in the series,

Oh and by the way, Sam wrote the song “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” which was covered by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on Raising Sand, produced by T-Bone Burnett. But here’s Sam doing it on NPR:

Two weeks ago (April 20th) Sam released Magic For Everybody: Here’s an Amazon link for that.

Finally, here’s an LA Times review of a little show Sam Phillips did last week at the Hotel Cafe:




6 Responses to “The Dead And The Living”

  1. Thank you for posting this. What a wonderful photo of Will and Amy. It’s been a tough few days at the radio station. We’ve been spinning Will’s music since late Friday night and did a tribute on Saturday afternoon playing as much of his music as we possibly could into an afternoon radio show. His craft and talent was something to celebrate. We’ll be able to do that for years to come as his music will live. What he meant to his friends and family will stay with them forever in their hearts and that’s what means the most. He will be missed.

    Sam is another American musical treasure that I hope to see one day perform live. She has never failed to make an album that me smile.

  2. I haven’t heard Owsley, but I absolutely love what you’ve posted here. Thank you for introducing me to new music.

  3. TRouBLe Says:

    Paul, thanks for the story on Will, it was quite a shame to hear the news. Good story on Sam as well, I discovered her as Leslie, but was impressed when she became Sam. BTW you should find her album “The Turning”, her first with T Bone.

  4. Thanks for the update on Sam Phillips. Wish I could afford the subscription price; she is so wonderful and I do not understand why her fame is not more widespread.

  5. Leif Williams Says:

    I had no idea that Owsley had died; I’d dug his first release, esp. ‘Coming Up Roses’. What a shame, and I’m glad to have found out, though I wish it weren’t so. RIP Will.

  6. when i was younger, i always love the tune of alternative music compared to pop music ~`’

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