Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jack Owens: Jammin' on the Box Keeps Him Happy

Sunday magazine of The Yazoo Daily Herald, June 11, 1978,
By Lisa Nicholas

He puts on a hat to play. Usually it's a cowboy hat, propped up on his grey head, but this time, it's a brown straw fancy-hat, with a brown band. He likes to drink that 'medicine' while he plays, to oil his fingers, and he likes to see people dance while he plays. He doesn't dance much himself anymore. He's Jack Owens, and he plays Bentonia Blues.

Anybody can drive out to Bentonia to hear Jack play. Just jammin' on the 'box' and a little talking in bet-ween songs will keep him happy. Blues is the only music he knows. He didn't learn to play; no one can learn the blues. A singer has to be born into it, has to feel it as naturally as sitting down. There's a mystery to knowing exactly where to put those subtle pauses, those twangy, twitchy notes that catch the listener off guard, right in the middle of the back. Few people can resist the urge to jump into some dance.

Jack's eyes are just starting to blue around the edges. They look kind of fuzzy and muddy, and are just about the only way to guess at his age. He says his uncle thinks he must be about 67, but the welfare people say he must be 75. Jack just doesn't know.

His guitar is old, too. It's a dusty Yamaha, fingerworn and as soft as his singing. The strings are old, and the ends of them hang limply from the tuning heads, until he starts to play, and then they dance and jiggle as if they knew how good he can make them sound. He's been playing this box for awhile, but he doesn't remember when he got it. He used to have a national steel string, but somehow it was swapped off for the guitar he sings to now.

All the old folks in his family, on both sides, sang the blues. Listening to the blues as a child, Jack loved it and fooled around with it until he could play. He dragged his guitar around with him, playing for birthdays, schools, follies, anything else until people started to hire him. He would play joints in the area, sometimes with a guy everyone calls Bud Spires, even though Jack claims that's not really his name. With Bud on harmonica and Jack caressing his guitar, many roadside clubs could swing up into the night.

Jack thinks electric blues are alright. Before his daddy died in Chicago, he gave Jack an electric box—one that sat on the floor with a long cord. Jack couldn't quit his old wooden guitar, though; electric was just too much trouble.

Jack says he has never written a song in his life, but he can boast that he has made up more than he remembers. All it takes is a little hittin' on the ole box, until the music comes, and then, before he knows it, he has got a pretty good song.

He just starts picking those strings. He wears a pick on his thumb and silver picks on three fingers. The listener eases back into a rocker, and slides into the beat—slow and mellow. Jack doesn't sing loudly, but with just enough volume to tell his story. He sings songs like "Love My Cherry Bowl," "Please Give Me Your Money," "Hard Times Where I Go," and "Nothing But The Devil Can Change That Woman of Mine."

B. B. King and Lightning Hopkins are two of his favorites to listen to, but it's unclear how much of an influence the big-time blues singers have had on Jack Owens. He has got a style that's so delicate that his songs are plainly labeled as his.

Sometimes Jack must think about getting old. He says he tried to write a letter once, but found out he'd forgotten how to write. But even if he slacks off his guitar for a while, he doesn't forget how to play. His music is too much of a feeling, a state of mind, too much of his life to forget.

There used to be a lot of blues singers in Mississippi, but Jack says most of those old boys are gone. Maybe they went up North, maybe they died. Jack doesn't play around in the area much anymore, because people are too wild to be trusted. Even though he's scared to go out to play all night like he used to, people-still come to listen to him. A woman from England once interviewed him while she sought out blues singers, and somebody from California came to record him. Jack just barely remembers this.

People in Bentonia know that all they have to do to get Jack to sit and play in the living room of his house for hours on end is to just show up there. Jack will run into another room and pull out the electric fan, if it's hot, and plug it up.

He'll leave his guests sitting, listening to the goats climb all over that old beat up pickup with the rusty bedsprings on it while he hunts down his picks. He'll put on his hat and sit down in front of the wood-burning stove. His untied shoes will slap down on the tile floor—a medley of worn colors.

Those gold front teeth will show under his broad grin, and his world will begin.


He might not remember his visitors' names when they leave, but he'll be there to sing for them again. His living room always has the sound of tapping feet and slapped knees in it, out in Bentonia, under a tin roof.