Jack Owens was born in Bentonia, Mississippi in November 1904. Although an integral part of the Mississippi blues scene all his life, Owens was almost completely unknown outside of his local area until he was "discovered" by blues historian David Evans in 1966. Owens legal name was L. F. Nelson, although this was not widely known until after he died. His father, who's last name was Nelson, ran off when he was five or six years of age and he was raised by his mother's family, headed by his grandfather Samuel Owens. He learned to play the fife as a child, and early on picked up a few chords on the guitar from his uncle. He also learned a bit of piano and fiddle at some point, although the guitar was to become his main instrument.
He spent most of his life working as a sharecropper and farmer in Bentonia, and at weekends he would run a juke joint in the front parlour of his small house where he'd sell food and homemade whiskey. Parties would run all weekend and would feature Owens and local blues players like Henry Stuckey and Skip James. Except for the occasional fight, which Owens would sort out, he led a relatively quiet life. He was never tempted to leave his native Bentonia, unlike neighbour Skip James who travelled and lived throughout the South. Consequently Owens never had the opportunity to be discovered by a talent scout such as H. C. Spier, whose audition of James led to a lucrative recording session.
This oversight was eventually redressed in 1966 when musicologist David Evans discovered Owens whilst on a visit to Bentonia. Evans found that Owens' playing recalled that of Skip James, but with a rough edge not found in James' more delicate style. Owens was also a more forceful singer who didn't employ so much of the falsetto that James favoured. Evans began a series of recordings that would extensively document Owens' music. A handful of these recordings appeared on various compilation albums, but it wasn't until 1971 that a full album of Owens' music (with Bud Spires on harmonica) was released on the Testament label. Owens went on to perform at numerous folk and blues festivals and appeared in the Alan Lomax documentary, 'The Land Where The Blues Began'. Jack Owens died in 1997, one of the last surviving links to the roots of Black American music.
Cherry Ball Blues
This information is derived from an article by Rob Hutten, "Remembering Jack Owens" that appeared in Rhythm & Blues Magazine, (Issue 120). The full article can be read at www.hutten.org/rob/