Though Owston, 61, had been playing most of his life across an almost whiplash-inducing range of styles, his music had rarely been heard on the radio. He sent KFFA five songs.
Today, responding to a classified ad in the back of a magazine seems romantically anachronistic. After all, it was a newspaper notice that brought Jimmie Rodgers out of the mountains to Bristol, Tenn., to record for Victor talent scout Ralph Peer in 1927 -- sessions that also included the Carter Family and are considered the birth of modern country music.
But it worked for Owston: Not long after sending his CD, he called up Payne and learned that two of his songs were already being played and requested on KFFA. On Feb. 4 -- about nine months after answering the ad -- Owston performed live at KFFA, squeezing in three originals, a cover of John D. Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road" and some cheery banter.
Owston had been thinking of making a trip south to record at the famous Sun Studios, where Sam Phillips made the first recordings of Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others. Aside from being a Memphis tourist draw, Owston says Sun also offers surprisingly inexpensive studio time. "[Payne] said, â€˜If you're gonna be that close, come by,'" Owston relates.
"To me, it's like Divine Providence -- the fact that I even saw the ad and actually followed it up," Owston says. Besides the CD Owston submitted to Payne, he brought a second EP along and presented it at the show.
At Sun, Owston met his friend Garron Sarvis, a harmonica player, and flung down 14 more tracks in just a few hours. Shortly thereafter, Owston had his beloved 1973 Mercury Monterey on the road to be back home in time for Sunday services, which he leads for the Bryn Mawr Church of Christ in White Oak.
Welcome to the singular and sometimes lucky world of Chuck Owston: instrumentalist, singer, writer, actor, painter and preacher. Owston's energy knows few bounds, nor does his exuberant musical sensibility. If you didn't see what Howlin' Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" has in common with the ancient British ballad "Mattie Groves" -- well, you may not see it after you hear Owston sing them either. But when Owston throws his guts into such wildly different songs, that's what they have in common.
Owston writes songs confidently and therefore almost instantly. Of "Crossbones On My Door," a spooky blues tale of love gone missing, Owston told Payne on the King Biscuit broadcast, "Every time I stopped at a traffic light I'd write another line, and by the time I got home I had the whole thing written. I can get ideas just out of anywhere, and the next thing you know I've got a song."
Nor has he stopped with just songwriting: He's tackled everything from a McKeesport-set detective novel to a six-year run of an elaborate, semi-gothic Celtic Harvest medieval festival, held annually at his Bryn Mawr church, in which he played Owl-Stone the Minstrel.
No matter what music or project Owston takes on, he seeks out whatever dark side it may have, which he pursues with paradoxical good cheer. Growing up with "all the old horror movies, Hammer films, Dracula," Owston says, "I've always loved ghost stories. Blues had the hoodoo man. I'm fascinated with the scary stuff. I've always liked to scare myself.
"It all ties in," he concludes matter-of-factly.
In the midst of watching scary '50s TV camp, he managed to catch a PBS documentary on the traditional murder ballad "Pretty Polly" -- an experience Owston recounts in Murder, Betrayal and Death, his entertaining self-published book on traditional ballads. Old and new aren't so far apart, Owston suggests: "I played Johnny Scarecrow during the Renaissance festivals, he's the guy who was hung and his ghost exacts revenge: Imagine a Clint Eastwood movie set in the 1700s! Now, most of what they call the gothic scene, it isn't really that dark, not as dark as these ballads."
When this year's and last year's four new recordings are added to Owston's total catalogue, some on small labels and much of it self-produced, Owston will have built a discography of three dozen recordings. He's the Agatha Christie of local Americana -- and yet, mysteriously, few people around here know of him.
Owston settles into the "ladies' parlor," a pressboard-paneled room in the basement directly below Bryn Mawr's altar filled with mismatched armchairs and doilies. It's the only room easy to warm without heating the whole building. Owston pulls out his guitar. He launches into a straightforward blues piece, without a second's worth of preliminaries, tapping the beat with his whole leg. It's "Highway 61," serenading the famous route once again, this time with a bit of autobiography about Owston's recent trip south. His resonator guitar is loud and clear and so is his voice. Next is the rockabilly "Romp and Stomp." Then, he does a modal tuning for "Mattie Graves." One song is about good times, the other grimly recounts a lord's vengeful slaying of his wife and her lover. Yet Owston's approach to each song has something similar, an earnest forward-motion intensity.
Why is Owston unknown? "I never got into it for the money," he says. "I don't like to self-promote." At 61, Owston isn't much interested in fooling around with bandmates or hauling heavy equipment. Unlike a lot of young players, he's also been around long enough to expect to be paid, thank you. Despite his recent frenetic recording streak, Owston isn't sure whether he'll play out anytime soon.
But his obscurity might be the result of more than steering clear of the see-and-be-seen. Maybe it's that Owston doesn't realize what could be most interesting about him: that he spends his ministerial days making wholesome nursing-home visits and then turns around and sings with relish about a gory 16th-century dismemberment. Imagine you ran an obscurist hipster indie label and you hear of: a Westinghouse Valley kid who played eastern 'burbs sock-hops as a teen. A rustbelt minister who first learned traditional mountain music and rockabilly at a Bible college in eastern Kentucky. A self-taught student and performer of medieval theater and murder ballads. A 61-year-old sci-fi and mystery fan who's at least once donned a black cloak to attend a Pittsburgh goth-rock event. And, of course, an unpretentious slide guitarist who happens to end up on King Biscuit Time. You couldn't invent a guy like this.
His rare 1970s vinyl releases are coveted by obsessive Japanese and European collectors. One of his original rockabilly recordings (reviewed in 1980 in Gold Mine magazine by Cub Koda, whose liner-note byline later became popular) "sold well everywhere but here," Owston says. "It sold really well in Sweden -- in fact, I was talking to a guy online who was interested in folk music. He said, â€˜I have a friend down the street who's a rockabilly fanatic. I'll be right back.' So he leaves, and comes back and says, â€˜I'm holding both of your records in my hand.'"
Just a few months ago, Owston got an e-mail inquiry from Japan about his first secular record, Nite Owl Blues. Currently, his brother is remastering it from the original 11 reel-to-reel tapes, which were put down when Owston lived in Bolivar, Pa., a tiny mountain town near Ligonier. "I lived in a trailer then, and was a caretaker for my neighbor's trailer," Owston recalls. "They were only there three weeks out of the year. They said, â€˜You can set your recording equipment in there.'"
He shrugs. "I haven't seen a copy since 1977. Once you put something out there, you never know what's going to happen."
Yet he is convinced that this extraordinary biography -- especially his ministerial life -- is not relevant to his musical endeavors: After one publication tagged him the "rockabilly reverend," he's afraid people won't take him seriously, or that religion itself will be a turnoff. "I don't want to be a novelty act. I don't use my music to preach to people," he says. He imagines the dismissive remarks: "â€˜Oh, here's this gospel guy who thinks he can play blues.'" But what could be more connected to traditional music than religion?
"I think of Johnny Cash as one of the best Christians," Owston says. "He showed his demons but he also showed his faith." When Cash was first making his name, Sun Studio's Sam Phillips wouldn't let him record gospel because Phillips thought it wasn't sexy enough to sell. But now even superficial Cash fans view the singer's imperfect spirituality as a seal of quality.
When irony's everywhere, sincerity has to be labeled something new to find its niche. Sometimes it's called "authentic." Yet Owston's is an authenticity so genuine it doesn't know how to, would never think to, and really doesn't need to, name itself. It's hard to imagine Owston being self-conscious enough to let his back-story help peddle his back catalog.
"I just had this amazing drive to play, to perform for anybody'd that listen," he says. "I'd take my guitar to a party. If they wanted to listen to records, I quit. My mother always told me, â€˜Let people hear you but leave them wanting more.'"
So far, he's followed his mother's advice. Though he may not swaddle himself in sellable narrative, Chuck Owston could be something close to the real deal living here among us, racking up the miles and cell-phone minutes on tangled Mon Valley byways. His voice is there -- either as eerily clear as the abandoned McKeesport sky or as rough as the black snow crusted along the curbs -- over guitar-playing that bolts ahead like his beloved Mercury's 400-cubic-inch engine.
"Pass the biscuits, 'cause it's King Biscuit Time on KFFA radio!" crows Sonny Payne, who's deejayed the show -- now the country's longest-running daily radio broadcast -- on AM 1360 in Helena almost since its beginning. KFFA remains a quaint hometown station, where Helena's birthdays and community meetings are announced -- but, of course, now on its Web site. Episode 14,411 was Chuck Owston's debut.
Payne announces, "A wonderful surprise guest we're gonna be talking to from the coal country, that's spelled c-o-a-l and c-o-l-d country...Chuck Owwwwwston!"
Owston has written a song especially for the occasion: his own Highway 61 song, for the celebrated federal route that runs from Minnesota to the Delta, never too far from the Mississippi River. Then Owston launches assuredly into a blues number called "Cats Prowl at Night." At first the lyrics sounds like Owston's been bewitched by Southern fauna:
"Bats fly at dusk and the cats prowl at night
"Bats fly at dusk and the cats prowl at night
"My good gal left me you know that just ain't right.
"Crows can't count and the owls they do not blink â€¦"
These folksy lines sound like they come straight from a briar patch. Nope: It's a string of titles from Erle Stanley Gardner -- the California pulp/noir novelist whose creations included Perry Mason.
Finally, in addition to a version of "Tobacco Road," Owston plays his original KFFA hit, "Crossbones On My Door." In the song, a man comes home to find...well, crossbones on his door -- and his woman is gone. He lies down and there's more bad luck: "green-eyed tomcat jumped up on my chest." He takes off in his car -- "'73 Mercury!" Owston ad libs, naming his trusty steed -- and "There's strangers in the rain, they're looking back at me, I think I'm gonna head out of Tennessee."
Owston says a real family story inspired this song -- a story that, if true, is better than the fiction. After learning that blues singer Johnny Shines had a song called "Skull and Crossbones Blues" -- which Owston had never heard -- he recalled the old story of his maternal grandparents, who once lived near Dravosburg. "In a flash, I remembered that when my grandmother first married my grandfather, they'd had this long wonderful courtship but when they moved into this house they started fighting, all the time, constant bickering." His grandmother told her troubles to the neighbor lady: "She says, â€˜Alvy' -- John Alva was his name -- â€˜and I aren't getting along.'" The neighbor told her that another woman had her eye on Alvy before his marriage, and that she'd cursed the house, hoping to make the union a short one. The newlyweds decided to move, and, according to family legend, lived harmoniously ever after.
"I used to ask if he knew everybody in McKeesport," he says of his maternal grandfather. "They'd say, â€˜Hey Alvy!' He'd stop and talk to everybody. My Grandfather Owston, he died when my father was 11. He used to play guitar, fiddle with the gypsies. They used to meet over here in the Olympia Park area, before Olympia [amusement] park was there. My dad would say, â€˜You had be good to play with the gypsies.'"
But, Owston says, "A lot of songs aren't really about me. I fictionalize."
On his Vale of Tears record, for instance, the song "Owl Creek Hollow" is based on a real hollow in Westmoreland County, near a coal-patch town beside the Pittsburgh Coal Company's Guffey Mine. "When I was in high school, it was kinda considered a wild area, so I set a murder there before the Civil War," Owston explains. In the song, a man's wife has left him for a lover, and he catches the pair at Robbins Station -- a real railroad station in nearby Coulter -- and guns them down. But the name "Owl Creek Hollow," he says, "just seemed to sound good to me."
Owston's father led the nomad life very briefly, hoboing during the Great Depression. Later, when Owston was growing up in North Versailles, his father was a Westinghouse foreman. "He played boogie-woogie piano. Every night, the house, which was wooden floors, would literally move." His mother, a homemaker, sang and played piano, too.
Though his father played the raucous stride style, he sent his young son for proper lessons in the classical mode. "I hated it. It was boring and I couldn't relate to it," Owston says.
While at one of the big teen dances locally, Owston heard the band play "Hey Bo Diddley." "I went home and got my dad's guitar out of the closet and had it learned before I went to sleep," he says. Next on the list were Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy," and Link Wray's "Rumble."
From that experience arose Owston's first band, the Tempests, and his first gig: a 1960 show in a church basement, known as the Teen Canteen. After graduating from East McKeesport High School, Owston had a brief, unsuccessful stint at Penn State trying aeronautical engineering. On the advice of his minister, he enrolled in Kentucky Christian College in Grayson to study ministry. "And when I went there, there were real folk singers, not commercial folk singers. Most people think of folk music, they think of the Kingston Trio. But these were mountain people and they'd sung the songs for generations, handed down. And there were some real gruesome songs!"
Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta are familiar stage sets for songs supposedly born of hard times and heartbreak. If that's what it takes, McKeesport's history over the last 30 years ought to make it a contender, too. "When I left here [in the early 1960s], it was an industrial boomtown," Owston recalls. "People were still moving here. When I came back in '76, it was practically a ghost town. It just all went so fast."
For five years, Owston worked with the McKeesport Neighborhood Ministry when the mills were closing. "We were rescuing people off the streets with no place to stay," he says. Now, things are "worse, worse, worse, worse since the beginning of Reagonomics, which closed down our ministry and so many things. People say all the time, â€˜You want to help the poor; they should help themselves.' I knew the people we helped. We didn't help the rip-off artists. This sits in my mind: two kids 10 and about 6, kids wearing T-shirts, [sent with] notes saying â€˜Send food.' [The mother] is there at home, needle sticking out of her arm, no heat. Those kind of things, there's nobody to do that now. There's so few compared to what there were -- we had many, many people in the trenches and they're just gone." When the Neighborhood Ministry had to end its work, the pastorship became available at his childhood church, the Bryn Mawr Church of Christ in White Oak. The congregation asked him to accept the post.
The church is independent and nondenominational, and thus self-sustaining. "The churches can't do it," Owston says of the Mon Valley's social needs. "We don't have the money. We're barely keeping our doors open" taking care of necessities like the heating bill, he says.
Some -- but not a lot -- of that experience enters Owston's songs. "It's just like being a fiction writer, except not for 60,000 words, just in five verses," he insists. Maybe there's comfort in setting a song in distant Tennessee. Or maybe, as Owston suggests, they're all just songs -- just fiction.
"I've got about four minutes; I have to pick up my daughter," Owston says matter-of-factly. He spends a lot of time dropping people off, picking them up, and making his pastoral visits to the sick and elderly from his daughter's home in Irwin, where he lives. Last year, his mechanic found him a sweet 1973 Mercury Monterey with only about 30,000 miles on it; in a year, he's put on almost that many. "I don't know where I go," he says. "I've only taken two [long] trips."
"I just got a call from someone who needed a ride to the Laundromat," he says. "Had to explain why I couldn't. I said, â€˜I can get you there, but you might be stuck there for hours.' So we arranged it for tomorrow." But to spend time dwelling on this part of Owston's life would be "boring," he says.
At Bryn Mawr, a traditional, well-maintained brick church that seats about 200, Owston buzzes in to scratch out the hymn numbers and Bible passages for the coming week's service. He leafs expertly through the hymnal. This week, he says, is one of a series of sermons on "Conspiracies and Intrigue in the Bible," such as the assassination plot against the apostle Paul. Another, "Hanging Him High," is about the attempted execution of Esther's uncle Mordecai (the story Jews celebrate as Purim). "There was a guy named Haman," Owston explains. "He was the villain, he didn't like [Mordecai]...it was a political rivalry. He built a 65-foot gallows to hang Mordecai, but it was Haman who ironically ended up hanging from it!" Owston concludes with a hint of relish.
Owston's also done a series of sermons on "Murders of the Bible." "And people turned out because people are fascinated. It's the great dichotomy. We all have the capacity for good and evil and we make the choice," he says. He notes that the brooding Australian singer Nick Cave wrote an introduction to the Gospel of Mark. "Think of the Brontes, and Bram Stoker. He was very dark and very religious. It all ties in." As he jokes later, "Goths wouldn't have anything to wear if it weren't for Christians!
"'Course I believe the Bible, and what it says for spiritual growth," he adds. "But the stories! People heard these stories as kids, and they're watered down. But it's not a kids' book, it's by adults for adults."
Sermons are "a little bit different," he says. "They're things that I'd like to hear.
"Oh, I get emotional, I get into it," Owston explains. "But it's not like Fundamentalism. I don't want to make people feel bad; I want to make them feel good." In the sanctuary, a guitar's propped in its stand near the pulpit. The pews are arranged in rows of semicircles. "We have a worship band, but it's not like a charismatic church," he emphasizes.
If he's afraid secular audiences will dismiss him for being a clergyman, Owston also gets grief from the other side: "A minister said, â€˜How can you play that music? That's evil.'
"Blind Willie Johnson sang what I'd call the holy blues and [so did] Rev. Pearly Brown. Then on the other hand, you have what you want to call the devil's music, very explicit in its language. That's also in the minority [among blues songs]. The vast area deals with loneliness, heartache, unrequited love, trains -- it's neither sacred nor profane."
Owston says he's been spending a lot of time at the library lately. He prefers to go to Oakland, but goes wherever he can dock his enormous Mercury. "I love to study but I don't want to go to school," says Owston -- a true autodidactic.
In his time as minister at Bryn Mawr, he's hosted medieval-style "Celtic Harvest" celebrations there, staged a play called Final Armageddon â€“ "like Mad Max meets the book of Revelations" -- and another play based on the allegorical plot of a science-fiction novel. Church members have even done a production of the medieval play Everyman. He's also written two novels and paints when he finds time.
More than any other endeavor, Owston's musical output has been prodigious in these years. "I'd have to sit down and figure it out," he says when asked how many records he's made -- there are at least three dozen. When Owston was attending Kentucky Christian College, he made two gospel records, followed by Nite Owl Blues in 1975, rockabilly singles with Carnegie's Ray Bishop, a Swedish rockabilly LP, 16 cassettes of self-produced blues throughout the 1980s and '90s and more than 20 CDs on his own do-it-yourself labels, Nite Owl and The Dreaded Folk Rock. You can hear his "Home Fried Blues" on Rick Sebak's Pennsylvania Diners and Other Roadside Restaurants special for WQED-TV. One troubadour turn was his Live at the Buy & Fly, recorded on a mini-disc and stereo recorder with White Oak band Last Blue Harvest in the middle of the day at a convenience store. "Here's motorcycles going by, cars pulling in, gassing up! That's pretty rockabilly," he says.
In 1999, Owston was surprised to learn that he had been "discovered." Unknown to him, he had been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, an ever-expanding Web site (www.rockabillyhall.com) run by Bob Timmers in Tennessee. Owston was given the honor for his work in Memphis Leather, a band he formed in 1979 which created a local one-band rockabilly revival that anticipated -- but did not enjoy -- the fame that came to the Stray Cats a few years later.
"So I said, â€˜Well, do we have any kind of induction ceremony?'" Owston relates. "They said â€˜We can set that up.'" -- a celebration show at Rosebud with punk band Jack Black of New York and local rockabilly band The Tremblers. "As I like to say, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and $1.25 gets you a cup of coffee at Denny's," he cracks. "It sounds more impressive than it really is, but people are impressed by it.
"It sounds like an honor, and to me it is."