For a 24-year-old singer/songwriter who’s still relatively unknown and trying to eke out a living in music, Abby Owens is remarkably self-assured, smart and tough. Six months ago, she gave up her bartending gig and put all her eggs in one basket. For any other twenty-something in her position, that might be cause for alarm. But not for her.
Owens doesn’t expect things to be cushy. She spent her childhood years in Indiantown, Fla., which, for the record, is not the tropical Florida paradise you see on postcards. As she explains, “It’s farm land and sugarcane and cows and oranges and packing houses and irrigation, and it looks really flat and everything, because all the trees are short.”
She was quite literally born and raised in a trailer tucked way back in her family’s orange grove. “I mean, there’s pictures of it and [mom’s] smoking a cigarette while she’s giving birth,” Owens says, with a mixture of incredulity, amusement and admiration. “Crazy. Just my dad, her best friend and the preacher came over—that was it. No pain meds, no nothing. The lady’s crazy. I don’t know how she did it, but she did it.” Owens does not come from fainthearted stock.
She’s been holding her own in the rock ’n’ roll “boys club” since she was 13, when her family moved to Waycross, Ga., and she found herself singing in a classic rock cover band with a bunch of guys twice her age. It was the most natural thing in the world, to hear her tell it.
“It just so happened that the band down the street found out that I was the new kid in town,” is how she tells it. “And, of course, they’re all in their thirties and they wanted to hear me sing and found out that I could pretty much do a rock gig, you know, if they taught me all these songs. … I gave it a shot and I just kind of fell in love with the idea of getting to go to clubs, even though I had to lie about my age and designate myself to the pool table between sets, and not at the bar. I thought it was a great idea.”
These days the musical company Owens keeps includes the vanguard of southern-steeped country and rock: Drive-By Truckers producer David Barbe (he produced her first album, ’Fore the Light Comes); DBT pedal steel player John Neff (he played on it); singer, songwriter, guitarist and DBT expat Jason Isbell (he produced her second release, Indiantown); and Victor Stanley, who books those sorts of acts into his downtown Macon club, the Hummingbird (he’s also her lead guitarist and boyfriend).
“I was always a huge fan of Jason Isbell and Drive-By Truckers and all that,” Owens says. “When I started dating Victor, all those guys came through and played the bar. And they’re on a first-name basis with him. I mean, he knows everybody. It’s crazy who he can call up at any given time and they’ll answer the phone. …I just really got lucky. And it just so happened that they liked [the music], so they wanted to do it.”
There’s a reason for that, the same reason why Owens landed that early cover band gig—she has a voice. First, there’s the instrument itself: full-bodied, lusty, supple, even a little gritty when she bears down hard on a note. Then there’s how she uses it. On ’Fore the Light Comes alone she shows a feel for fluid pop (“Call Tonight”), punchy rock (“It’s Already Changed”) and drawled country phrasing (“Can’t Cry Anymore”). And she can summon Emmylou Harris’ graceful lilt when she wants to, which comes in handy for harmony-singing at Waycross’ annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival.
It wasn’t just bar bands where Owens developed her vocal muscles. “I did French Classical voice and I placed third in state in Georgia my senior year,” she explains. Then there was her DIY pop diva training: “I was always really good at mimicking. …I mean, really, when I was in elementary school I was in love with Mariah Carey; I was in love with Celine Dion. I’m talking, like, these huge ballad singers. I studied everything. I know every note. I can sing it today. People think I’m crazy, because the stuff I write and the way I sing and what I like, you know, on a day to day basis is not that.”
The price of integrity
That’s another thing: Owens also is an assured songwriter. She wrote all the songs on her albums. Several of them are romantic pleas and promises, but one in particular, “Indiantown,” reminisces about where she comes from—including that part about being born at home.
The singing and the writing were once in competition. “When I started writing my own songs, it took me a while to settle down and notice that just because I can do all these gymnastics, doesn’t mean I should,” Owens admits. “You don’t have to tell a story and do a run the size of Texas. Nobody’s gonna hear what you just said because of it. …Somebody had to really sit me down one day and be like ‘You don’t have to do all that.’”
So far, besides writing and recording her projects, gigging primarily around Georgia and singing on some studio sessions, Owens has showcased a few times for labels in New York and Los Angeles. And Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger flew her out to Vancouver to explore the idea of working together.
“I’ve had these great opportunities and … I’m not willing to do the Britney Spears thing,” says Owens. “And maybe I’ve been too picky, because I might have made some money by now. I’m really broke.” She laughs heartily, signaling she can’t possibly feel that much regret. “I just want to write songs. You know, whatever Jason [Isbell’s] doing right now, that’d be fine with me.”