Tonight Seattleâ€™s Club Motor is the place to be if youâ€™re in the mood for some real country and roots-rock music with Wisconsinite Owen Mays headlining a five-act bill featuring the Northwestâ€™s own DogBite Harris, James Hunnicutt, JD Hobson and Brian â€œUncle Buckâ€ Ellard.
Shawn Skager from the Northwest Music Scene and the Hooligan Honky Tonk Radio Hour had a chance to sit down with Mays at Shakabrah Java in Tacoma the last time the country troubadour swung through the Pacific Northwest.
Northwest Music Scene: So where are you from in Wisconsin Owen?
Owen Mays: Letâ€™s see, how should I explain this. I donâ€™t live in Madison, I live in the country outside of Madison. Madison area, I guess. Itâ€™s just a little small town, Cambria.
Born and raised there?
For the most part, I grew up there. I moved around, lived in a couple of other places for a couple years, but Iâ€™m back there now.
When did you first pick up the guitar, when did you first start playing?
I first started playing when I was about 16 or 17. But it wasnâ€™t any roots music or country, or anything like that. It was all metal and punk rock.
Do you remember the first song you learned?
Yeah, it was â€œParanoidâ€ by Black Sabbath.
So what was that like growing up in a small town, did you have other people to play music with there?
I had one friend who played guitar and that was about it.
Where did you go to see shows? Did you go into Milwaukee?
Madison or Milwaukee. Or even Chicago. Youâ€™d have to go there to see shows. I never really played many shows myself until last year.
A lot of people have a moment with music where they know itâ€™s what they want to do for the rest of their life. Did you have that moment
I had that moment from the time I was a kid, but being where I was from it was hard to go anywhere and play. For one thing nobody out there really listened to metal or punk rock. It was impossible to put a band together. There was just a lack of musicians and a lack of interest in what you were doing
Did you grow up with a lot of the old country music around the house?
Yeah, my dad listened to all the outlaw era stuff. It was what was kind of big at the time
Did you listen to that stuff while you were into metal?
I was always huge into Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, then Waylon (Jennings) and David Allan Coe. Merle Haggard, Willie (Nelson) all those boys. And Johnny Cash.
When did the roots country start coming out in your playing?
I actually heard a band, I was at a friends place staying on his couch in Stevenâ€™s Point, Wisconsin in 2007 and I heard J.B. Beverley and the Wayward Drifters on YouTube. That day I went and traded in, I had a Les Paul, and traded that for an acoustic at a guitar shop and started that day
Is it the same one you play now?
No, that one has been beaten into the ground. I put a lot of miles on it and it died.
So what was it like switching gears, from what you were playing?
It was difficult. Playing heavy music, or anything like that, itâ€™s just power chords and pentatonic scales. I never even learned a first position chord or any of the cowboy chords until about three or four years ago. It was a big change. But after you do for a bit you realize that itâ€™s all pretty interchangeable
How about singing, you have a great voice, whereâ€™d you find that?
I just got lucky. It just came out. I started singing and it sounded like that.
When did you play your first show?
My first show was actually playing for JB Beverley. Prior to that Iâ€™d play on the street and busk and that kind of thing. I opened for the Wayward Drifters about two years ago
So what was that like, getting up on stage playing before the guy who got you into this kind of music?
It was pretty intimidating, but by that point Iâ€™d gotten to know him pretty good and we were good friends, so it wasnâ€™t that bad. But luckily I had about a half a bottle of gin in me to make it that much easier.
How was that first time, it must have been difficult knowing itâ€™s just you, your guitar and your voice?
That is the biggest thing, especially the first few times you do it, especially compared to being able to have a wall of distortion and being able to have so much to hide behind. But when itâ€™s just you and an acoustic, pouring your guts out through a song, itâ€™s a pretty intimidating environment the first couple of times you do it. It goes away pretty quick, but itâ€™s rough at first.
So how was the reaction after that first show? What did people come and tell you after?
People got behind it, but I think they were just being nice. It was not the best performance Iâ€™ve ever given.
Iâ€™ve heard a few of your songs and theyâ€™re all pretty personal and kind of bares your soul a little bit, whatâ€™s that like writing those? Whatâ€™s the process like, what is your mindset like?
It comes when it wants to. Basically when I get in that mood, it has to be done. Itâ€™s at the point. Itâ€™s pretty therapeutic, actually.
So itâ€™s just a matter of you working on a chord progression and going from there?
The way I write, usually.
The first song you wrote (â€œI Hate the Sun For Shiningâ€), tell me a little about that.
There were a lot of rough things going down in Wisconsin, I was pretty unhappy, going through a lot of stuff there. I was just going to hit the road and leave and a friend of mine was not behind the idea of me going around hitchhiking around. So he send me on a Greyhound out to New Mexico. At that time I was playing on the street, and Iâ€™d play a lot of Hank Williams songs, stuff like that. Just playing for tips and getting by doing that. I was staying at a friendâ€™s basement and playing music on the street every day to make money. I was just there in the basement and it hit me and I started playing and went from there.
When did you first start doing the longer tours?
This is my first one. This is my first time out. Iâ€™ve done a couple days here and there with other people, but this is the first time out on my own like this.
Kind of intimidating starting that?
It was and it wasnâ€™t. It something Iâ€™ve always wanted to do so I was looking forward to getting out and doing it. But on the other hand, everybody I know who does this for a living was telling me that your first tour you lose your ass and everything goes terrible. It hasnâ€™t yet, though, everything has gone great. But it has me deathly afraid that a complete clusterfuck is going to be coming. I have this feeling of impending doom that it has to get bad sooner or later
What kind of support do you get from people that are into this kind of music?
Everybody that is into this music is extremely supportive. All the other musicians, everybody kind of watches everybody elseâ€™s back for the most part. The fans, there isnâ€™t a massive fan base for it, but the fan base that there is rabid. Theyâ€™ll do anything they possibly can to help any of us out. They come to the shows and are extremely supportive. If theyâ€™re a fan of you, they know all your songs, they know all there is to know about you pretty much. Itâ€™s a real cool thing.
What is it about this music that draws you in and makes you want to play it. And what do you think makes the fans so into it?
I think the kind songwriting involved, itâ€™s shit everybody can relate to. Everybody has been down and everybody likes to have a good time. Thatâ€™s usually the two different directions the songs go for everybody doing this. Everybody can relate to it. A favorite quote of mine about country music is from Harlan Howard, heâ€™s a songwriter who wrote â€œPick Me Up On Your Way Downâ€ which was a big hit for Charlie Walker (in 1961). He referred to what we do as â€˜three chords and the truth.â€™
Which kind of brings in the relationship to punk music.
Exactly. The Ramones â€“ thatâ€™s the same thing.
So you have one EP out?
I have one EP (Red Wine & White Lines available at Maysâ€™ Web site at www.owenmays.com or at Farmageddon Records at www.newrootsorder.com) out that is pretty rough recording, just six songs. And we just finished tracking on my full-length record as well. JB Beverly produced it
Whatâ€™s the name of the album?
How did you hook up with Farmageddon?
What happened is one of the bandâ€™s on Farmageddon, The Goddamn Gallows, got into trouble in Connecticut. They ended up hooking up with the wrong girl and she turned around and claimed some stuff after (drummer Uriah Baker and merch guy Quentin Price were accused of rape in July. All charges were dropped. Story here. ). They put out an album for their legal defense fund, called â€œYâ€™All Motherfuckers Need Justice.â€ I was working at a factory on night shift and I got home and heard that online and called Darren, the guy who runs Farmageddon â€“ we knew each a little before that â€“ and asked if I could donate a song for that. He said I could but he needed it by the end of the night. So I sat down and wrote a song out and recorded it in 45 minutes and send it to him, not thinking it was going to be anything big or special. And he loved it and from there decided they were going to put out my record when I got done with it. Iâ€™ve gotten a huge reaction from it, Iâ€™ve heard about it from all over the planet, basically. Itâ€™s called â€œKeep the Jackals At Bay.â€ It was the quickest song I ever wrote and was just a real lo-fi, shitty recording. I did it on my laptop with the microphone I had and people just loved it.
So if you could play with any artist who would you pick to be on stage with?
Dead or alive, itâ€™d be Hank Williams. Alive there is a big festival coming up Labor Day weekend in Tennessee called â€˜Muddy Roots Music Festivalâ€™ (Sept. 3-4 in Cookeville, Tenn.) My lineup for my band there â€“ if I could pick anyone I could play with â€“ itâ€™d be them. Iâ€™ve got James Hunnicutt playing guitar for me, Liz Sloan from Bob Wayneâ€™s band on fiddle, Banjo Dan from the Wayward Drifters on banjo and Dobro. Ando Elhers is playing accordion. Iâ€™ve had a couple of bass players, but Iâ€™m currently looking for one to play. Iâ€™ve got a few people in mind. But thatâ€™s basically a dream line-up.
Currently Mays is on a U.S. tour with DogBite Harris. The Club Motor show tonight features Mays, DogBite Harris, James Hunnicutt, JD Hobson and Brian â€œUncle Buckâ€ Ellard at 1950 First Ave. S. in Seattle. For more information visit www.clubmotorseattle.com or call 206.623.3230
Owen Mays â€œI Hate The Sun For Shining” with the 80 Proof Boys