R.I.P. Bill Owens, Uncle and Musical Mentor of Dolly Parton Dead at 85

Parton credits him with jump-starting her career when she was an aspiring singer-songwriter

Bill Owens Dolly Parton uncle dead musician death music, photo via the artist
Bill Owens and Dolly Parton, photo via the artist

Country songwriter Bill Owens, the uncle and longtime musical mentor to Dolly Parton, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 85. Parton confirmed his death with a heartfelt tribute on her website.

“I’ve lost my beloved Uncle Bill Owens. I knew my heart would break when he passed, and it did,” wrote Parton. “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.”

Owens was a reputable country artist in the local area and took to helping Parton as soon as she expressed interest in music. He encouraged her to keep practicing guitar, drove her to local shows where she could perform, and even helped her arrange her first radio performance at age 10 on the “Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour” radio show in Knoxville, Tennessee.

By the time Parton was 13 years old, the two would were writing songs together somewhat regularly, including Parton’s debut single, “Puppy Love”, which came out in 1959. Owens recognized that Parton had the talent, drive, and creativity to pursue music full time. Soon after, he started driving her into Nashville so that she could pitch her songs to record labels and publishing companies.

Eventually, Owens and Parton were signed as songwriters by legendary country producer Fred Foster to his company Combine Music. Foster also signed Parton to his label Monument Records in 1965. Owens and Parton worked just as well together as they did apart. As a duo, they wrote songs like “The Company You Keep” and “Put It Off Until Tomorrow”. The latter became a top 10 hit by country singer Bill Phillips featuring backing vocals by Parton and was named the BMI Song of the Year in 1966 — their “first big award” as a team.

Throughout his career, Owens penned over 800 tracks and went on to write songs for some of the biggest stars in country music, including Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Ricky Skaggs, and Porter Wagoner. He regularly joined artists as a touring musician, including backing up his own niece Parton during her early years in Nashville. Later on, he worked at Parton’s theme park Dollywood as a performer and planted over 70,000 native chestnut trees across the property, a passion project he worked on throughout his life.

“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,” wrote Parton in her eulogy. “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.”