In April of this year, Richie Owens moved his music shop, The Old Time Pickin’ Parlor, from Marathon Village to the small retail space at 307 N. 16th St. in Lockeland Springs; he was hardly a Johnny-come-lately looking to cash in on some East Nashville cool.
“I first moved here in 1978 and lived here until 1984,” Owens says. “There were a bunch of us that were living here then because we loved the old houses, and we could get them cheap. Musicians and artists have always migrated to this side of town.”
In fact, you’re standing on pretty shaky ground if you accuse Owens of being a trend-follower in any aspect of his life or career. Looking back over the last five decades of Nashville’s music history, Owens keeps turning up: his cousin Dolly Parton babysitting him shortly after his family moved to Nashville in 1964; his first TV appearance on the Ralph Emery Show; leading a bluegrass band at the age of 15; his rock bands The Resistors and The Movement, each an integral part of Nashville’s alternative rock scene in the 1980s; and the current incarnation of his genre-fusing band, Richie Owens and the Farm Bureau. Owens’ ancestry, life, and career are intertwined with Music City history.
Music was a deeply ingrained part of Owens’ heritage, too. His greatgreat- great grandfather, Henry Grooms, was the inspiration for the murdered fiddler in the historical novel and film Cold Mountain. Owens’ grandfather, the Rev. Jake Owens, was a prominent preacher, songwriter and the basis for the 1970 Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton hit, “Daddy Was an Old Time Preacher Man.” Louis Owens, Richie’s father, was a musician, manager, publisher, songwriter and producer. Although Richie was born in Knoxville, his mother and father relocated their family to Nashville when Richie was 4 years old. “Basically, I’m from here,” Owens says. “I grew up playing that Eastern Tennessee three-finger picking style. By the time I was 8 years old, I was singing on the radio.”
Drawn to playing the lap-style resonator guitar, Owens was leading his own bluegrass band as a teenager and soon secured a part-time job crafting guitars at the Sho-Bud Guitar Company. “I got to work around a lot of great players,” Owens says. “I worked with a guy named Charlie Collins who played with Roy Acuff, and he would take me down to the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor all the time where I could see all these great musicians play and play myself. It was a wonderful time.”
Randy Wood’s Old Time Pickin’ Parlor on 2nd Avenue North was a meeting place and unofficial clubhouse for Nashville’s acoustic music scene in the 1970s. Established in 1971 by Randy Wood, Grant Boatwright, and Tut Taylor as a music shop, the retail business soon became secondary to its main focus. “The bottom level was a music venue,” Owens says. “Everybody hung out there – Vassar Clements, Roy Huskey, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, John Hartford, Butch Robins, and guys like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and others would show up when they were in town.”
Soaking up those varied influences in his formative years led to a wide-ranging musical career for Owens. Grabbing on to punk’s spirit in the late ’70s, Owens was one of the founding fathers of Nashville’s rock scene. He also worked as a songwriter, backup musician, bandleader, session man, engineer and producer, helming Dolly Parton’s acclaimed 1998 album, Hungry Again. Drawing on his early experience in building guitars, he became deeply involved with instrument design and manufacturing during the ’90s and oversaw the manufacture of his own line of Owens resonator guitars from 1999 to 2003. He also gained a reputation as an accomplished resonator steel player and bottleneck-style guitar player.
“I consider myself very blessed,” Owens says. “This is such a hard business, I like to think I’m a survivor because I’ve been able to pull it off on one level or another. I’ve always been connected with music, whether it’s working with instrument manufacturing, in the studio, or going out and playing.”
Recently Owens has been concentrating on his own music through Richie Owens and the Farm Bureau, a group that has gone through several incarnations since it was first formed in 1992, and one through which Owens has been able to combine the varied threads of his influences. Their most recent album, Tennessee, features 10 songs inspired by his home state and Owens’ family history. Joining him in the current version of the Farm Bureau are longtime friends and veterans of the Nashville rock scene of the ’80s, Brian O’Hanlon and John Reed. “I’ve played with these guys longer than any other lineup,” Owens says, “and I don’t think that’s going to change. I’ve finally found that brotherhood.”
In 2011, Owens reopened the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor. He had been involved in a previous incarnation of the shop/venue in 2000 and purchased the rights to the name after it closed in 2002. “I’m still designing instruments. I’ve done two signature model resonator guitars, a mandolin and an autoharp for Washburn. So I needed a place to do this stuff and rather than an office, why not have a store where I can showcase what I’m doing?”
But the reasons for reviving the welcoming setting of the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor run deeper than mere utility, as Owens explains. “I had such wonderful memories from when I was a teenager. I wanted to have those opportunities for other kids. I wanted it to be where a professional guy could come in and try stuff out, but some kid that’s just trying to figure it out could be in a good environment that’s conducive to learning. Instead of it indoctrinating people into buying an instrument, it indoctrinates them into the love of an instrument. I wanted that no-pressure setting of just sitting down and playing. That’s important to me, and it’s an important part of Nashville. That’s why everyone still comes here, even the latest wave of people. It’s to be a part of that circle that remains unbroken.”