Lost legends

Tary Owens helped rescue the early roots of Texas music. Then those songs saved Owens from himself.

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 Monthlysenior editor, says Owens' 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."

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