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Billy Owens, the “Okie/Arkie”: Bill’s Life in Music

Last week’s Billy Owens story began with our first meeting on Friday nights at the Floodgate Store bar down near Navarro.  Time for the rest of that story.  My wife Anna’s providing the instrument for what I later called the Friday evening “karaoke” sessions catalyzed a memorable weekly musical event.  Anna’s guitar motivated Bill to start recollecting and singing his “country” musical memories.  And hesitantly some of the woods crew and even this hapless harmonizer began to contribute to the singing.

And there are some songs so compelling that I have to try them.  “The Wreck of old 97,” for instance:  “They gave him his orders at Monroe Virginia/sayin steam, boy, you’re way behind time…  it’s 8:38/and you gotta put her into Danville on time.”   Others in Floodgate those nights felt the same way.  The more accomplished two or three voices would join Bill, then piecemeal the rest of us would give it a shot softly trying to follow the leaders.  Sometimes the whole store was filled with voices wrestling with a great country song.  And Bill would cover our aural flaws with his heroically powerful yodeling.

Over the weeks word got around The Valley about this great cultural event, Karaoke Night at Floodgate, and the whole store might be filled wall to wall and back among the canned goods shelves with participants, some silent, some not.  And that’s where the problem started.

One afternoon a year into the Karaoke Nights I went into Floodgate for an early beer.  Before I even sat down at the bar, Sam Avery ruefully picked up the guitar from the back bar and handed it to me.  “Sorry, Brad, he apologetically said, we can’t do that music anymore.”  What had happened?  Events downstream of Floodgate bar had been occurring.  More specifically, after our show, usually about an hour, maybe a little more, the “crummies” had departed and gone on to Janie’s Place, the Philo restaurant and bar, for a few more beers and maybe some singing.  Then after an hour or so, next stop was the “Boonville Lodge” bar up the road. 

And Shuster Logging boss, Charlie Shuster, got wind of this new pre-weekend use of the company crummy, transporting a bunch  of beer drinkers around the Valley for hours every Friday afternoon.  He didn’t think it the best use of his logging operation equipment and asked Sam Avery to shut down the Karaoke show.  Shuster was an important customer at Sam’s sawshop sales and service operation part of the Floodgate Store, and Sam thought Shuster’s request not unreasonable, as did I.  I wouldn’t have wanted to feel responsible for any accidents drunk driving provoked due to the entertainment my wife and I had produced at Floodgate Bar, and so took the guitar bac home. 

Back in Oklahoma Bill Owens grew up in a musical family.  His mother played organ in local Pentecostal churches back there.  His dad played a bunch of stringed instruments, though not that well.  When the family played together his three older sisters Cleo, Ruby and Virginia formed a graciously voiced trio, and Bill started his career by simply experimentally picking various stringed instruments around the edges of the singers.  The first song he remembers intimately was the family’s version of the Carter family’s “Wildwood Flower,” a lovely elegy that sounds like Gospel to me.  And Bill taught himself over the years on guitar, banjo and the lovely rare mandolin.  He also saved his money and bought himself a quality Gibson and a Martin guitar.

Once settled in Anderson Valley, Bill formed a working band, its name he’s forgotten.  The quartet included Harold Fryman on lead guitar, Bill Smith on pedal steel guitar, and  occasionally Fred Maddux on bass.  Bill played rhythm guitar.  

Fred Maddox we know was from the pioneering “rock-a-billy” band The Maddox Brothers and Rose who pioneered in late afternoon fifteen minute broadcast music on McClatchy Radio up and down the San Joaquin/Sacramento Valley in the 1930s.  Fred was the one who cackled at Rose’s adolescent jokes like a drunk rooster.  The band broke up after World War II, and Fred moved to Sacramento from Tulare.  He would join Bill’s group occasionally when they  had paying gigs.   (Wes Smoot told me last week that the Maddox Brothers played at the Apple Fair in Boonville one year in the late forties.)

Bill and the Band.  Ukiah jail?

Billy’s band got gigs in two Valley bars, the Valley Inn and the Track Inn in Boonville.  They also landed gigs in Calpella at the local restaurant and bar, and in Ukiah at the Cotton Club on State Street across from and a block north of the County Court House.  I think the Cotton Club’s sign still hangs from a steel pole above the front door, though the bar has been closed for years.  The band also played once in Bakersfield at Buck Owens’s restaurant/bar/dance hall, the Crystal Palace, and another time at a gig in Eureka. 

By time I met Bill at Floodgate fifty years ago, the band had dispersed, but his tenor voice and powerful yodel were as agile as any one I had heard out of Nashville going back to Jimmy Rogers, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams.  His songbook had begun to fade though.  And I had to try singing a few  words from a couple of my favorites, to help him get back into his memory warehouse, lines like…”All around the water tank, waitin’ for a train…” 

I can still hear him down there at Floodgate blasting out “Cannonball Yodel,” or whispering “Irene, Goodnight.”  And Bill also knew the two saddest country songs I know, both railroad elegies, he sung them with remarkable feeling.  “Hobo Bill” is about a railroad bum knowing he is dying of pneumonia all alone in a boxcar he has hopped trying to get home to his family.  The other is about the death of the whole industry, Lefty Frizzell’s “City of New Orleans,”  two engines, eight passenger cars out of Chicago in 1948 and only nine passengers, all lonely travelling salesmen.

To end our interview last week Bill Owens, reclining comfortably on his living room couch, yodeled me out the front door with a vigorous avalanche of sound Elton Britt would have envied.

Next Story: Later this month, My Travels with Wes Smoot, a revisit along Highway 128 of the landmark buildings up and down Highway 128 in his recent book with Steve Sparks.

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