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Dean Owens: From Trainspotting to Tucson

How A Lad from Leith Came to Mix Celtic Soul and Western Twang

While Dean Owens might not yet be a household name, the Scottish singer songwriter has been steadily building up a reputation in America over the past years. He calls his style of song writing Celtic Americana and that’s a fair enough description when you consider that many of his songs are rooted in the fiercely working-class district of Leith–the ancient burgh which served as Edinburgh’s dockyards– and then delivered with more than a nod to classic American folk and country music.

From the beginning of his musical career Owens has been drawn to the States. He has recorded several albums in Nashville, ventured into the parched New Mexico desert on his collaborative Native American project Buffalo Blood and, most recently, worked with desert noir rockers Calexico in Tucson. The Calexico linkup resulted in the release of two albums, Sinner’s Shrine and El Taradito (along with a third, companion release, a collection of B sides and outtakes) which found Owens burrowing into the local legends and traditions of the South West borderlands as easily as he writes about the rolling hills which surround Edinburgh. Sinner’s Shrine was voted the best album of 2022 by the readers of the influential website Americana UK, who also placed Owens as artist of the year in the same poll.

Left: The cover of Sinner’s Shrine. Right: John Convertino (L) and Joey Burns (R) co-founders of the seminal desert noir band Calexico. 

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Dean Owens grew up in the same streets immortalized by Irvine Welsh in his novel (and subsequent movie) Trainspotting  and it follows that Welsh is a fan, writing in the linter notes for Owens’ Man from Leith album that Owens’ voice “soars to the exuberant highs and swoops to melancholic lows that I’ve witnessed break hearts far, far harder than mine.” Leith, like many other industrial areas of Scotland, was reeling from the loss of its historical trades as Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government waged war on the working classes, described by Thatcher at one point as “the enemy within.” The prospects for youngsters such as Owens were bleak as Edinburgh’s reputation changed from being the home of its famous festival to being called the heroin capital of Europe as drugs and AIDS ravaged its poorer communities.

Owens’ initial escape route, influenced by his first American idol Mohammed Ali, was to become a boxer in his early teens, when he would join a local amateur club and win junior awards, an episode in his life he sings about on his forthcoming album Pictures. Like most teens, however, he was also drawn to music and, at around 16, he decided to hang up his gloves and make a go at singing songs. Speaking to Hollywood.com Owens recalls that the spectacle of seeing some of his older club mates being knocked out unconscious in the ring led him to make a choice. “It was either melodies or punches,” he says.

The melodies won out.

Melodies or Punches

Starting off with a bunch of school friends in a teenage pop band, Owens’ musical horizons were broadened when listening to his older brother’s record collection — The Clash, Sex Pistols and such —  but he says that when he first heard Aztec Camera and The Waterboys it was like an epiphany, leading him into trying to write songs which captured some of the spirit of these pioneering acts. It was in pursuit of this writing goal that his then manager gave him a couple of albums, suggesting that he might get some songwriting tips from them. The very idea of country music was quite alien to Owens at the time but as he listened to the discs — Gram Parsons, Hank Williams and The Jayhawks — he became entranced and realized there was a wealth of talent which went well beyond what had passed for country music in Scotland up to then.

Fired up, Owens began to sing country songs in local bars, calling himself Eddie Felson (after Paul Newman’s character in The Hustler). Eventually he formed The Felsons, Scotland’s first alt country band, who released three acclaimed albums. It was via The Felsons that Owens first got to Nashville.

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26.01.2023 – Dean Owens & The Sinners and Kirsten Adamson performing at Oran Mor in Glasgow. Photographer: Gaelle Beri

The Felsons were supporting BR549, a popular Western Swing band, in Glasgow. In the audience was Paul Deakin, drummer of The Mavericks who were playing in Glasgow the following night. He bought a CD, invited Owens to The Mavericks show and they became fast friends. Deakin invited Owens to stay with him if he ever got to Nashville, and Owens took up the offer. With Deakin on hand to open doors, Owens was able to meet many of his heroes and play a few gigs, including one where J. D. Souther came up afterwards to congratulate him on his songs. The doors had begun to open.

Owens went on to record the majority of his albums in Nashville. The first one, Whiskey Hearts, features Deakin on drums and Al Perkins on pedal steel. Despite being recorded in Tennessee, it’s notable for cleaving close to home on several songs, including the anthemic ode to his father, “The Man From Leith,” along with one of Owens’ most enduring numbers, “Raining In Glasgow,” written about seeing Elvis Costello play a gig at Glasgow’s infamous Barrowlands.

Subsequent albums, Into The Sea and Southern Wind maintained this mix of home grown inspiration and Nashville talent, with Owens digging deeper into American culture while still finding time to write about friends and family. Whether singing about hearing the news of Mohammed Ali’s death, commemorating his late sister or simply singing about the joys of tramping around Edinburgh’s hills, Owens sings with a passion which leaps from the discs. The swampy title song of Southern Wind (co-written with Will Kimbrough, one of Owens’ most enduring collaborators) was awarded song of the year at the UK’s Americana Music Awards while another song, Dora, written about Owens’ grandmother who was a circus performer, inspired a local news reporter to locate the lost grave of her father, Ambrose, who emigrated from Italy to Scotland and who was a lion tamer by trade.

Asked about his ability to combine his local roots with that of the American hinterland Owens says, “Some people have asked why I have so much of an American influence in my songs but I’ve actually spent a lot of time in the States. Living in a trailer in Joshua Tree, driving long road trips, I’ve been doing it since around 1993 and it’s been a huge part of my life. I’ve devoured the landscapes, the literature, the music and I just ingest it all and then it comes back out, sometimes with more twang, sometimes with a more back home Celtic folk feel. The deserts have been a big part of my experience, from the Sonoran to the Mojave Desert and so I feel qualified to write about it because I have lived it. And recording with guys like Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough, they’re Southern guys and can bring that southern swamp sound to the recordings. But Will’s a huge fan of UK music, so if I say to him can we get this to sound like a Ronnie Lane song, or can you add some Richard Thompson-like guitar here, he knows what I mean and he knows how to do it.”

Below: Owens’ recent video for the powerful, melancholic “Mother Road” from his double-album El Tiradito (The Curse of Sinner’s Shrine).

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For all that, Owens immersed himself fully into American history and folklore on his collaborative project Buffalo Blood which was recorded live in situ in the New Mexico desert. The album delves into the infamous trail of tears suffered by indigenous Native Americans as they were cor