For the latest episode of our podcast, Sarah Thompson caught up with Brian Owens at Blueberry Hill.
The soul singer-extraordinaire first gained national attention as a member of Sidewinder, while in the U.S. Air Force. The military band became a viral sensation and subsequently performed on shows like "Ellen" in 2011.
A year later, the Belleville, Ill. native and Ferguson, Mo. resident would release the first of his four studio albums. The latest, 2017's "Soul of Cash," which was issued on vinyl for the first time this year, focuses on the music of Johnny Cash. The LP has caught the attention of outlets like Rolling Stone and Paste Magazine. Owens got the idea while doing a series of tribute shows at Sheldon Concert Hall in 2014.
“Somehow, Johnny Cash found his way into the mix of Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye,” Owens said. “Johnny Cash -- he very much is a soul artist.”
“And there were a couple songs I knew I was going to struggle with,” he said, noting his voice is not as low as Cash’s.
So, Owens’ conclusion was to take a page from "CMT Crossroads," which pairs country artists with an artist of a different genre for a concert. (Shawn Mendes and Zac Brown Band recently appeared on the show together, for instance.) Owens imagined he was the non-country artist dueting with Cash.
“Every time I sang [“I Walk the Line”] as me, I just sang it an octave up.”
What started with a live show would eventually lead to the album, which is all Cash covers except for one song, "Soul in My Country," an original, which features acclaimed guitarist Robert Randolph.
“He’s phenomenal. It’s a whole ‘nother level of musicianship that he has."
The song also features vocalist Rissi Palmer, who grew up in Eureka, Mo., and she co-wrote the track with Owens.
“We wanted to write something that was kind of in that same vein, but that was also an exclamation of why we did the record," he said.
Owens’ growing list of notable collaborators is headlined by Ferguson, Mo. native, Michael McDonald. The pair dueted on Owens’ “For You,” from his previous album, “Soul of Ferguson.” McDonald invited Owens (along with Brian's father) to perform “A Change is Gonna Come” during his show at Stifel Theatre last year (then called Peabody Opera House), and the pair have toured together.
“It’s a blessing. It’s really dope to have a relationship with him,” Owens said.
Following the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Owens held a concert in the parking lot of his church. McDonald’s friends were in the crowd. Dana and Dan Duncan, who still live in the area, suggested Owens to open for McDonald’s St. Louis show the following year, which he did.
Owens has also worked with McDonald’s son, Dylan, describing the younger McDonald as a “really talented singer/songwriter.” Dylan added guest vocals on Owens’ recording of Cash’s “Long Black Veil.”
“He doesn’t sound anything like his dad,” Owens noted. “He said he sounds like his mom [Grammy-winning singer Amy Holland].”
Though his two most recent album titles begin with “Soul of," Owens said he’s “soul-ed out” and his next album, his fifth, will not follow the same theme.
“I’m doing pre-production for my next record now. I’m really, really excited about it.”
In the meantime, you can hear the St. Louisan during A Soulful Christmas with Brian Owens at Salem United Methodist Church. The concert takes place on Dec. 8.