Bill Owens, best known as the man who launched Dolly Parton’s career, died at age 85 on Wednesday (April 7).
He wrote more than 800 songs, including the country standard “Put If Off Until Tomorrow,” which he co-wrote with Dolly, his niece. Owens was an entertainer, an environmentalist and a bon vivant.
Born in 1935, he was the younger brother of Dolly’s mother, Avie Lee Owens Parton. He began performing in the 1950s in East Tennessee, initially billed as “Little Billy Earl with the Spit Curl.”
Noting that niece Dolly showed an interest in music, he began teaching the 8-year-old to play guitar and took her to his small-town gigs. They sang together at supermarket openings, rallies, fairs, talent contests and other local events.
When she was 10 years old in 1956, he took her to Knoxville to appear on the local radio show of supermarket entrepreneur Cas Walker. She became a regular on it. The Cas Walker Farm & Home Hour soon became a TV series and was Dolly’s first big break in show business.
In 1959, Dolly Parton recorded “Puppy Love” for the Louisiana label Goldband Records as her disc debut. She and Bill co-wrote the song, and “Little Billy Earl” recorded for the label, as well.
Uncle Bill Owens also began ferrying her back-and-forth between East Tennessee and Nashville. Using “Puppy love” as an entrée, he sought song-publishing and record-company opportunities for them both. He finagled an appearance for the youngster on the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1962, they co-wrote “It’s Sure Gonna Hurt,” which became a Dolly Parton single on Mercury Records. This was a result of Owens landing them a contract with Tree Publishing. Back home in East Tennessee, he formed a small band to be fronted by the two of them and arranged bookings at regional clubs and little honky tonks.
While Dolly finished high school, Uncle Bill Owens moved to Nashville and was hired as a touring guitarist by Carl & Pearl Butler and other stars. When she moved to Music City to board with him, they landed songwriting contracts at Combine Music, as well as a recording contract for Dolly with Monument, the company’s record-label affiliate. Dolly and Bill co-wrote several of her Monument recordings.
They also co-wrote songs for Kitty Wells (“More Love Than Sense”), Skeeter Davis (“Fuel to the Flame”), Bill Phillips (“The Company You Keep,” “I Only Regret”) and other artists. Phillips recorded their “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” which became a major hit in 1966 and earned Dolly and Bill a BMI Award.
Bill Owens and Dolly Parton formed Owepar Music to publish their songs in 1967. This was the commencement of Dolly owning her compositions, the foundation of her business empire.
They continued to write together after Dolly joined Porter Wagoner’s show and moved to RCA Records in 1967. Bill Owens contributed a half dozen songs that became Porter-and-Dolly duets.
Usually billed as Billy Earl Owens, he recorded for a number of independent labels in the 1970s and 1980s. His songs were recorded by Tammy Wynette, Bob Beckham, Red Sovine, Al Ferrier, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, The Kendalls, Porter Wagoner, Jeannie Seely, Ricky Skaggs, Brenda Lee, Willie Nelson, Johnny Dollar and other artists.
In addition to Dolly, Bill Owens was a mentor and producer for many other young acts. For Circle B Records, he produced Ralph Loveday, Jim Wyrick, Larry Cooke, Don Handy, Johnny Ringo and Tom Hackney, as well as his brother Henry, billed as “John Henry III.”
When Dollywood opened in 1986, he and Henry both became musical headliners at the park. He also starred at his own venues nearby. Bill Owens was noted for his ebullience, good humor, charm and enthusiasm as an entertainer.
He planted approximately 70,000 of the trees at Dollywood. In later years, he became passionate about reintroducing chestnut trees to Appalachia. Bill Owens planted thousands of saplings resistant to the blight which had nearly wiped out the chestnut.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
Dolly Parton wrote a eulogy for her mentor, which is published below.
I’ve lost my beloved Uncle Bill Owens. I knew my heart would break when he passed, and it did. I’ll start this eulogy by saying I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t been there. He was there… there in my young years to encourage me to keep playing my guitar, to keep writing my songs, to keep practicing my singing. And he was there to help build my confidence standing on stage where he was always standing behind me or close beside me with his big ol’ red Gretsch guitar.
He was there to take me around to all of the local shows, got me my first job on the “Cas Walker Show.” He took me back-&-forth to Nashville through the years, walked up-&-down the streets with me, knocking on doors to get me signed up to labels or publishing companies.
It’s really hard to say or to know for sure what all you owe somebody for your success. But I can tell you for sure that I owe Uncle Billy an awful lot.
Uncle Bill was so many things. He loved the music, loved to play, loved his guitar and loved to write and sing. He wrote great songs, at least 800 of them through the years. We wrote several songs together, the biggest one being “Put It Off Until Tomorrow.” We won our first big award on that one back in 1966. It was the BMI Song of the Year.
He wrote songs that were recorded by Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner, Ricky Skaggs, Kris Kristofferson and many others. He also traveled the road with many big artists playing his guitar, including playing on stage with me in my early years in Nashville.
Uncle Bill worked at Dollywood from the time we opened in the family show for many years. He was funny, friendly and generous. He always had a kind word for everybody and gave good advice to young people starting in the business. He joined forces with Dollywood, The American Chestnut Foundation, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and The American Eagle Foundation to bring back the endangered chestnut tree to the Great Smoky Mountain area. That was his passion. He also championed the cause of protecting the natural environment at Dollywood in 1986. During that time, he took it upon himself, with his wife Sandy, to plant 70,000 trees on the Park property.
I bet a lot of our own relatives don’t even know all of the great things that Uncle Bill did behind the scenes through his life. But the greatest thing he ever did for me was to help me see my dreams come true and for that I will be forever grateful. I’m sure that Uncle Bill’s friends, fans, his wife Sandy, his kids, grandkids and great-grandkids will join me when I say that we will always love you.
Rest in peace, Uncle Bill.
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