Smokestack Lightnin' Home Page -- The Blues Profile Page
Born L. F. Nelson, Jack Owens' mother was Celia Owens, but his father, who bore the Owens surname, abandoned his family when Jack was 5-6 years old. After that time, he was raised by the Owens family, with his maternal grandfather the patriarch of 8 children according to the 1910 Census, and of them, two other children officially shared the Nelson name. (This does not account for two more children born after the census.) While very young, Owens learned some chords on the guitar from his father, and an uncle, and learned to play the fife, the fiddle, and piano while still a child, but his chosen instrument remained the guitar.
As he matured, Owens didn't seek to become a professional recording artist, but he farmed, bootlegged and ran a weekend juke joint in Bentonia for most of his life. His peer, Skip James, had left home and traveled until he found a talent agent and a record label to sign him, but Owens had preferred to remain at home, selling pot and liquor and performing only on his front porch. He was not recorded until the blues revival of the 1960s, being rediscovered by a musicologist, David Evans, in 1966, who had been taken to meet Owens by either Skip James or Cornelius Bright. Evans noted that while James and Owens had many elements in common, and a sound peculiar to that region, referred to as "Bentonia School", there were also strong differences in Owens' delivery. Both James, Owens, and others from the area, (including Bukka White), shared a particular guitar style and repertoire utilizing open D-minor tuning (DADFAD). Owens, though, had experimented with several other tunings which appear to be Owens' own. He played guitar and sang, utilizing the stomp of his boots for rhythm in the manner of some other players in the Mississippi delta, such as John Lee Hooker. James employed the use of falsetto, and, by this time, was accustomed to singing quietly for recording sessions, while Owens still sang roughly in his usual singing voice loudly enough for people at a party to hear while dancing. Evans, excited to find a piece of history in Jack Owens, made recordings of him singing, which eventually showed up on Owen's first record album Goin' Up the Country that same year and It Must Have Been the Devil (with Bud Spires) in 1970. He made other recordings (some by Alan Lomax) in the 1960s and 1970s.
Owens travelled the music festival circuit in the United States and Europe throughout the final decades of his life, often accompanied on harmonica by his friend Bud Spires, until his death in 1997. He was frequently billed in the company of other noteworthy blues musicians that maintained a higher profile than Owens, who nonetheless were longtime associates. One such performance was with Spires in an All-star Chess Records tribute in 1994 at the Long Beach Blues Festival, alongside acts that included Jeff Healey, Hubert Sumlin, Buddy Guy, the Staple Singers and Robert Cray's band, among many others, in Long Beach, California.
Jack Owens died, at the age of 92 in Yazoo City, Mississippi, in 1997.