Longtime Branson entertainer, singer, songwriter, storyteller and Emmy award winner Jim Owen died Saturday, March 7, at the age of 78. Owen performed “The Jim Owen Show” in Branson for nearly 30 years.
“He touched so many people’s lives, and as entertainers, that’s what we’re supposed to do,” said Branson mainstay Doug Gabriel, who hosted Owen at his theatre during the latter’s final years in Branson. “He was a great storyteller, and one of the best comedians ever. He always delivered a great show, and people just loved him.”
Originally from Robards, Kentucky, Owen was only 8 years old when he saw Hank Williams sing, and from that time on, “he became completely fascinated by the star and his music.” Once his education was done, Owen held many jobs, including as a journalist and a golf coach. That all changed in 1969 when his friend Mel Tillis helped him relocate to Nashville, Tennessee, to write songs.
Once he got to Nashville, it didn’t take him long to start churning out the hits, with Tillis recording “Too Lonely Too Long” and “One More Drink,” followed by “Little Boy’s Prayer” from Porter Wagoner, as well as hits by June Stearns, Jim Ed Brown and Jerry Reed. In 1972, Owen teamed with songwriter Becki Bluefield to pen the massive hit “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” which was recorded by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
The song was released in May 1973 and became the third No. 1 hit for the duo of “Conway and Loretta.” “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” spent a total of 13 weeks on the country chart, occupying No. 1 for one week, and remains a country music standard to this day.
Even though Owen was gaining success as a songwriter, he never lost his fascination with Hank Williams. He began talking with people who knew the late country music star, and began recreating Williams’ mannerisms and stage presentation. In 1976, he hosted a one-hour PBS special called “Hank.” The show took home the SECA award as the best show of the year.
He followed that up with a 90-minute one-man live stage show he produced called “An Evening With Hank Williams.” That show’s music featured backing tracks provided by the Drifting Cowboys, Hank’s band. “An Evening with Hank Williams” was performed extensively at venues all over the world, drawing thousands of folks.
Owen also recorded a version of “Lovesick Blues” with the Drifting Cowboys in 1978, which became a minor hit. He then starred in 1980 film “Hank Williams: The Man And His Music,” for which he received an Emmy nomination. He also saw more modest chart success in the 1980s with “Ten Anniversary Presents” and “Hell Yes, I Cheated.”
Hank Williams again took the forefront in Owen’s career in 1985 when he wrote and produced a 10-hour radio show tribute. The show aired on radio stations across the country on New Year’s Day 1985, 32 years after Williams died Jan. 1, 1953.
Owen eventually took his tribute to Williams to the “Legends In Concert” show at the Imperial Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada. He was also named “Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year” in 1985, as well as in 1987.
Owen also performed many times on the Grand Ole Opry, including a Jan. 1, 1993 show, which was the 40th anniversary of Williams’ death. His performance garnered a standing ovation from the Opry crowd.
The entertainer continued touring, and eventually found his way to Branson. According to his website, Owen was “the first headliner for the Branson Mall’s theater when it opened in the 1980s,” but he stayed for good in the early 1990s. His blend of comedy, music and the pedigree of writing one of the biggest country songs of all time, were perfect for the booming entertainment scene in Ozark Mountain Country.
Like many Branson mainstays, Owen performed in several venues throughout his time in the area, and called the theatre at the Branson Mall home for many of those years. In 2012, the venue was destroyed by the Leap Day Tornado, leading Gabriel to call his friend.
“I called and asked if he was in need of a venue, so he just came to my theater,” Gabriel said. “One of the things that meant the world to me is the great relationship he had with my kids. They called him ‘Uncle Jim,’ and they just loved him, and he loved them.
Owen also opened his own restaurant in the early 2000s, Jim Owen’s Classic Country Steakhouse.
In addition to all his Branson success, Owen’s accomplishments were not lost on the world of country music. According to his website, Owen is a member of the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, the Branson Entertainers Hall of Fame, the George D. Hay Country Music Foundation and Hall of Fame, the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and the Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame.
He also found time to pen several books, including “Country Music’s Jim Owen: An Amazing Life,” “Letters to Mommy” and “Boston O’Neill.”
Owen also had a collection of classic cars, and according to his website, he was an avid golfer. In fact, he won the Branson Putting Championship in 2002, defeating Buck Trent.
While Owen’s legacy as an entertainer is sure to be a lasting one, Gabriel said his legacy as a man was also quite important.
“He did so much stuff throughout his career and he has a huge musical legacy, I mean, you don’t write the second-biggest country music duet in history and not leave a lasting legacy, so musically, so I think he’ll go down as one of the greatest writers,” Gabriel said. “But for me, knowing the man, I think the part of his legacy that meant most to him was his relationship with his family, his granddaughter. He really loved his family, and I also know he knew the Lord, which makes me happy for him. He did everything he said he was going to do, he was a man of his word. He wouldn’t do anything he didn’t want to do either, (laughs), but he had a great way about him.
“He was one of my favorite people.”