I only met Owen Mays in person one time. We had struck up a friendship on a now-defunct stoner rock discussion board, based almost exclusively on our love of old country music, and when he visited New York in 2008 he paid Asia and me a visit at our home. We discussed country music, food and guns. It was awesome.
When he left, it didn’t occur to me that I would never see him again, that his life would be over in seven years’ time. I guess you never think that way. Everyone is just going to be here forever and you’ve got all the time in the world to pursue the friendship. Until you don’t, and then the finality of it seems impossible.
Yesterday I found out that Owen died in his sleep the night before. I don’t know any of the circumstances, but he was 32 years old and had a lot more to say and do. In the 13 years since I was that age, I’ve become a father and a professional writer, and my life has shifted to something very different from what it was then. It saddens me to think that now he can never have the things that I’ve been lucky enough to have in the last bunch of years, like children, a career and a fixed address. But in his defense, he never seemed interested in any of that stuff anyway. He lived the life of a dirt-poor, touring and recording musician. That’s a life that I was too timid to live when it came down to it, but he was anything but timid, and he didn’t see poverty as anything but an inconvenient nuisance that he just put up with while he lived his dream.
Owen and I were both big fans of Townes Van Zandt, who said that when he made the decision to commit to music full time, it meant “blowing off” a lot of things, such as family, money, security and happiness. I couldn’t bring myself to turn my back on those things, so I never fully committed to being a full-time musician. Owen had no such problem. He blew all of those things off with the glee of a trucker mowing down traffic pylons. The only thing he didn’t blow off was happiness. I believe that in the last few years as a full-time musician, he was having the time of his life, and I always envied his ability to take the path that I couldn’t bring myself to take.
Owen had actually covered a song by my old band, Slow Horse, and did it in a Ray Price shuffle that worked really well. He was one of the most consistent people encouraging me to get back to playing music again, and one of the last times we talked, he did it again.
“Have you ever considered doing any sort of acoustic/country type of project? The songs that you wrote were pretty brilliant, and I think they would translate beautifully into that style,” he said. “I hope you give it a go someday. I’d be willing to lend my skills on a Telecaster or Upright Bass to it if you did.”
It was nice to hear that from someone I considered an expert. Everyone who commits to a full-time life of touring and recording is an expert, in my opinion, because it’s really not for everyone.
Owen was much too young to die, but he put everything he had into those 32 years and he lived the life that he wanted to live. He touched a lot of people, and a lot of people are grieving today. But you can hear two things in their grief – genuine affection for him, and a little bit of jealousy that he went out there and did it, no excuses.