Dean Owens

TrackAlbum
Elvis Was My BrotherSouthern Wind
EvergreenInto The Sea
Raining In GlasgowWhisky Hearts
Solo (Valentine NYC)New York Hummingbird
No-one's A FailureNew York Hummingbird
Virginia StreetInto The Sea
Northern LightsMy Town
I'm AliveBuffalo Blood
RiverlineThe Desert Trilogy EPs Vol.1: The Burning Heart
The Last SongSouthern Wind

Dean Owens photo 1

 

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Dean Owens playlist

 

 

Contributor: Carl Parker

I wouldn’t be compiling a Dean Owens Toppermost were it not for two women; Rosanne Cash and my wife.

Rosanne plays her part because when she toured in 2015 Dean was the support. However, it wasn’t a random slice of luck that got him that slot. He had recorded an album called Cash Back: Songs I Learned From Johnny, made up for the most part of Johnny Cash covers. Rosanne had got to hear it and as a result reached out and invited Dean to tour in support, which he accepted.

My wife’s rôle in this is that she loved Dean’s set. I liked him well enough, but she was so impressed she bought the album he had just released, Into The Sea (and of course got it signed). It only took a couple of listens for me to realise she was right and Dean is a tremendously talented songwriter, with a very engaging personality to augment his stage show.

Dean’s career illustrates how hard it is to get a break in the music business. You can have talent in spades, but without that lucky break it’s such a hard slog just to get a decent level of recognition, never mind full blown stardom.

I thought I’d never heard of him before the Rosanne Cash gig, nor did I know of the band he used to be in, The Felsons. I’ve checked their 1998 album, Glad, on Spotify and it’s right up my street. Had I paid more attention it is possible that I may have heard them on Bob Harris’s late night weekend show as he played The Felsons a few times back in the late 90s, though that show was an occasional listen, rather than a fixture, so I can’t be sure. However, his Country Programme was a regular on Thursday nights in this house. Pasta, red wine and Bob Harris Country. Bob’s website shows he played Dean a couple of times before we saw him.

Since then, I’ve got to know Dean’s music well. We make a point of going to see him whenever he’s playing in the area, though from the size of the audience at many of his gigs he’s clearly a too-well kept secret.

He’s a Scotsman and clearly proud of his roots and Scotland reappears thematically in many of his songs, either related to family or friends and sometimes simply the place.

Though it’s easy to classify Dean simply as a singer songwriter, Irvine Welsh, in an encomium printed on the insert to the Whisky Hearts album sums him up thus: “You could spend all day picking through the folk, rock n roll, blues, country and punk influences, but I think of him as a white soul boy, because every time he sings a song … he means it and feels it with every fibre of his being.”

I’m opening with an upbeat song, lest anyone think Dean is a specialist in slow songs. Though he adopts the first person in the lyrics, Elvis Was My Brother is not about his life, but rather that of a friend of his (I’d point you to the song Kids (1979) for a very different tale of lost friends and broken lives which is on the Into The Sea album) and how Elvis inspired and gave meaning to his life. In the Southern Wind sleeve note Dean writes “After my sister died a few years back, a dear friend of mine wrote me a letter telling me how sorry he was, but also how envious he was of my relationship with my siblings … He said Elvis felt like the only male figure in his life. His friend, his brother. With no father to guide him Elvis, through a greatest hits collection felt like the only male figure in his life. Elvis wasn’t just his friend, but was also his brother.”

Dean is very strong on writing about his family. One of the notable songs played that first night was Dora. It’s a song about his great great grandparents, and the lion tamer who can be found up in the family tree. It’s a song that begs for selection, but being limited in the number of choices, the first in my 10 is another I was introduced to that night and it’s another family song. It’s titled Evergreen (no, not the Will Young song) and it’s dedicated to his sister, who (as noted above) had died of cancer not that long before he recorded it. It’s totally heartfelt. “I sat here in this old chair so many times before, but I never felt so lonely…” If it doesn’t move you, you don’t have a heart. It’s simply quite beautiful.

Dean spoke of touring in Australia in the baking heat and longing for a cool evening back here in the north. That longing led him to write a song that celebrates what we generally think of as bad weather. What he was dreaming of was a cold damp night back in Scotland, specifically in Glasgow. Raining In Glasgow is from his album Whisky Hearts. Irvine Welsh suggested that it “has to be the most beautiful song ever written about that city, haunting and evocative”. Have a listen and see what you think.

Anyone can imagine the feelings of alienation you might feel finding yourself alone in a big city on Valentine’s Day. Dean has covered this twice, after spending time in New York on that day. While thematically linked the two are completely different songs. I have gone for the more melancholic of the two, Solo (Valentine NYC), that appeared on his 2012 album New York Hummingbird.

The later song, title Valentine’s Day In New York, is much more upbeat and embraces much that the city has to offer, making up for not being paired up with someone he loves. I have gone for the earlier song as it provides a better balance from Dean’s catalogue, as I’ve already made two selections from Into The Sea album. But you should check out Valentine’s Day In New York too.

That song is also from his album New York Hummingbird which is crammed with great songs. One of my favourites is one I don’t think he’s played live when we have been to see him. It’s another testament to friendship. No-one’s A Failure is a message of resilience, hope and connection and it has a great hook, while referencing Jimmy Stewart’s all-time cinematic classic It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a wonderful song.

With the emergence of Black Lives Matter in the last year, Virginia Street in Glasgow has gained a degree of notoriety as it linked back to the slave trade, being named after the Virginia Mansion which once stood on it, it in turn having been named after the American Colony where of course many tobacco plantations were located.

This provides a bitter contrast to Dean’s poignant reminiscences of times past – sitting by the fireplace listening to Kris and life was hard but life was sweet. We didn’t have much but made ends meet … A very different view of Virginia Street.

The next song was a difficult choice if only because I wanted to include video footage of Dean walking with his late dog Alfie (of whom he spoke so fondly in concert) in the video for Up On The Hill (see foot of post … ed.). Again, it came down to balance and I wanted to include something from his 2004 album My Town, and this is one of my favourites from that album.

Northern Lights considers life getting on top, life creeping up and passing by and the anticipation of travelling with his wife and child to go and see the Northern Lights. So, despite the travails of life there is the anticipation of seeing this naturally occurring, yet magical, light show.

Buffalo Blood is a side project of Dean’s and provides me with a useful opportunity to talk about his collaborators, not just for this project but his albums generally. Buffalo Blood (the band and the album) is a collaboration with Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman that is an exploration of “displacement, immigration, refugees and the power of the human spirit” inspired by “living and working in the place, with the heat, the dust, the stark, spectacular beauty of the canyons, red rocks and starry nights” and the stories of the native peoples who lived there.

Neilson Hubbard has been a longtime collaborator with Dean and has brought in musicians of the calibre of Will Kimbrough (who has worked with Rodney Crowell and Kim Richey among many) and Jen Gunderman (former keyboard player in The Jayhawks).

On I’m Alive, Dean shares vocals with Audrey in a song rooted in imagery of the arid West, familiar from a thousand western films, but I think avoiding the clichés to sketch a portrait of a world that is disappearing. Spirits of the past walk beside me, answers are easy to find … I’m alive, I’m alive …

A much more recent collaboration on Dean’s part has been with Calexico members Joey Burns and John Convertino. His album Sinner’s Shrine is due out later in 2021 and a spin-off from this is a trilogy of EPs. The first two have been released (at time of writing, May 2021). Collectively known as The Desert Trilogy, the first one The Burning Heart features this next song Riverline.

It opens with an acoustic guitar motif, is accompanied by a distant snare drum, after which Dean comes in whistling, which sounds very much like an hommage to Ennio Morricone, while the lyrics refer to the burning sun, the burning land and the burning heart. It’s so atmospheric and could almost be described as a soundscape rather than a song. It’s very different from anything Dean has previously produced and I love it.

With mischievous irony, Dean opened his Southern Wind album with a number called The Last Song. In it he recalls and salutes some of the artists and bands that have influenced his career. Live he extends the list of heroes. One of them is Ronnie Lane and the last time I saw him live he pulled in a chorus of Ooh La La and had us singing along with him. It was, more appropriately, the last song in the set and it was a great way to finish the evening. I’ll let it finish this Toppermost Ten too.

 

 

 

 

Dean Owens photo 2

Americana Festival, Hackney Empire Bar, January 2020

 

Dean Owens photo 3

The Betsey Trotwood, Clerkenwell – both photos Carl Parker

 

 

Dean Owens official website

Dean Owens bandcamp

The Man From Leith (The Best of Dean Owens – 2020)

The Scottish roots of Johnny Cash
Steven Brocklehurst (BBC Scotland 2020)

Buffalo Blood official website

Walking the Trail of Tears with Buffalo Blood
Paul Kerr (Americana UK – 2019)

The Felsons albums

Dean Owens biography (AllMusic)

Carl Parker originated in Chester but has lived in north London since 1981. He’s unusual in these times in not subscribing to any social media, but contributes to sites like The Afterword and used to contribute to No Depression before it turned into an elitist institution. He’s recently retired and enjoys a relaxed life, where listening to new music is a recurring pleasure.

TopperPost #960

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jun 9, 2021

    Great Toppermost on an excellent songwriter. Knew him slightly through Paul Kerr’s excellent website Blabber ‘n’ Smoke but this superb piece fills in the picture. Thanks again…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓