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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.
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' 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.
However, John Wheat explains that Owens was lucky if he managed to break even on expenses. Wheat is the curator who put together the UT exhibit of Owens' recordings.
"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, whether 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."