Bill Owens: Dolly Parton’s & Country Music’s Cool Uncle

A recurring theme in the origin stories of many of country music’s greatest stars and contributors are the unheralded behind-the-scenes characters who inspired them to pursue music as a career, kept them on the straight and narrow, bestowed them their first big break, or gave them some sage advice at a critical juncture.

If it weren’t for the support of drummers Paul English and Richie Albright, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings may have never become as legendary as they were. If it wasn’t for Ralph Stanley hearing Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs singing in a bar in West Virginia, they may have never been discovered.

Bill Owens is the man who is responsible for the auspicious inspiration that resulted in Dolly Parton choosing to pursue country music as a profession, and helped shepherd her career early on. Of course you usually say nice things upon someone’s passing. But when Dolly Parton said, “I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t been there” as she eulogized Uncle Bill after his passing on Wednesday, April 7th at the age of 85, you known it’s the honest truth.

Bill Owens was that cool uncle that we all had or wish we did, who turned us onto cool music, encouraged us when everyone else saw our dreams as foolish, and supported us when nobody else would.

“He was there to take me around to all of the local shows, got me my first job on the ‘Cas Walker Show,'” Dolly says. “He took me back-&-forth to Nashville through the years, walked up-&-down the streets with me, knocking on doors to get me signed up to labels or publishing companies. ⁣It’s really hard to say or to know for sure what all you owe somebody for your success. But I can tell you for sure that I owe Uncle Billy an awful lot.⁣”

Which means we all owe Uncle Bill a lot, because imagine a world without Dolly Parton?

While Dolly was growing up in extremely poor conditions, Uncle Bill was the guy who showed Dolly that music could be a career. A performer and songwriter in his own right, Bill saw the promise in young Dolly and emphasized the importance of songwriting from the beginning. Though Dolly officially made her first guitar, it was Uncle Bill who bought her the first store bought guitar Dolly ever owned after hearing her sing while she was washing dishes, and saw her potential as a performer.

Uncle Bill drove Dolly to her first ever professional gig on the Cas Walker Show at age 10. The two wrote Dolly Parton’s fist song together called “Puppy Love” when she was just 11. Dolly would record the song in 1959 at the age of 13, and it would be come her first single. The pair also wrote “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” which became the BMI Song of the Year in 1966 after it was recorded by Bill Phillips.

But Uncle Bill didn’t need to rely on his future famous niece to be known. He also wrote songs for Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Porter Wagoner, and even Kris Kristofferson, while also working as a guitar player, backing up Dolly early in her career, as well as playing for others. Owens was signed to producer Fred Foster’s Combine Music publishing company, and later Foster would go on to sign Dolly first as a songwriter, and later to her first serious record deal for Monument Records.

Later in life Bill Owens was a fixture at Dollywood, and worked at the park and beyond as a preservationist and environmentalist in the area, helping to protect native flora and fauna, planting some 70,000 trees throughout the park, and partnering with organizations such as The American Chestnut Foundation and The American Eagle Foundation to bring the native Chestnut tree back to the area.

“I bet a lot of our own relatives don’t even know all of the great things that Uncle Bill did behind the scenes through his life,” Dolly Parton says. “But the greatest thing he ever did for me was to help me see my dreams come true and for that I will be forever grateful.”

And so will we all.

© 2021 Saving Country Music
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