Life was not pleasant. His dad was drunk again and that meant trouble.
“You’re six years old and you’re hiding under the bed,” said Jim Owen, song writer, country singer, comedian, Emmy Award-winning actor. “You want to protect your mother and your little brother and there’s no where else to hide. You know you’ll be found because you’ve been found before. There no place to go.”
What was he supposed to do? Yet Jim survived and his life became “amazing.”
The oldest of four boys, Jim started performing for his grandmother at three years old — playing all the characters in his “plays.” Finding strength from his tough mom, he also saw how humor worked miracles.
“Mom was as funny as a rubber crutch,” Jim said. “I’m serious. Mom laughed and I learned if you could make people laugh, they wouldn’t hurt you. I always had a sense of humor. I think that was my protection.”
He also found laughter seemed to heal his dad — if only for a short time.
“When he’d listen to Amos and Andy he wasn’t that mean person like when he was drunk,” Jim said. “So, it was fun to sit in the room and be safe and hear everybody laugh.”
Even though he didn’t particularly like school taking him from his beloved baseball and basketball, he was a good student. As creative as he was, Jim became a teacher favorite.
Writing was his forte. Fantasies, westerns, detective stories with kid detectives, dreaming up baseball teams — he wrote it all.
“I researched Lincoln’s assassination, reading everything I could find on it and wrote about it as an 8th grader,” Jim said.
All he found were more questions.
“Why did they never solve the crime? John Wilkes Booth was killed two days after the crime in a granary in Virginia. Why was he seen in England 20 years later? Who did they kill? He was 5 foot 9 inches tall. Why was the body that burned in the barn 5 foot 7 inches?” asked Jim, still remembering his questions.
Around 12 years old, Jim saw his first play — taking his creative side to a new height.
“This sister and brother put on the show,” he said. “I sat there mesmerized. The brother was a fabulous dancer, leaping into the air, looking as if he would never come down. I wanted to use those traits. It peaked my interest. ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I said.”
However a few months later Jim found himself watching a live performance by the relative newcomer, Hank Williams. He knew he had found a home.
“That’s what I want to do,” he said, with conviction. From that day on he never veered from that path.
“When I was 12, I hitchhiked 10 miles every day to Henderson, Ky., where a man and his band played live country music for a radio station. My parents worked and didn’t know about it,” said Jim. “When he came out of the studio I would tell him I wanted to be on his radio show. I didn’t get much response at first but finally the man said, ‘Who are you and why are you driving me nuts?’ I said, ‘I’m James Lee Owen and I want to be on your radio show.’ He said, ‘Do you sing?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He got his guitar. So I sang and on Monday I was on his radio show.”
Singing wasn’t his only talent. Writing songs became one of his gifts early in his life.
“I was writing little risque ditties when I was 13 or 14,” he said, laughing. “My mother heard one and rearranged my head. I stopped doing that and started writing other lyrics.”
It must have been the right thing to do because Jim has written winning songs for such artists as Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Mel Tillis, Jerry Reed, Crystal Gayle, Charlie Pride and Waylon Jennings. Currently Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley have re-recorded “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.”
“If it’s a hit for them, and I think it will be,” said Jim, “I will be the writer of the number one selling record in the history of recorded music.”
Jim stays humble as he talks and remembers he didn’t do it alone.
After attending college — as his backup plan — majoring in psychology and minoring in history, he married Yvette. He’d been aware of her for a while but when he finally got to know her he found he really did like her and the relationship blossomed. Yvette stood by her man.
“You go to Nashville and you do what you have to do and I’ll make a living until you get to where you want to go,” said Yvette, a willing cheerleader for Jim.
Finding a job as a sports editor at a newspaper — (“I wrote the best article on Sonny Liston there’s ever been written,”) — he would go every Monday to Nashville searching for his break.
“Finally through some weeny meeny circumstances, Mel Tillis listened to my songs and hired me as a songwriter,” he said, with a grin. “Then I had an income of $50 a week and he let me live in his office, sleeping on his floor.”
There have been many ups and downs since then but Jim followed his dream and his bucket list can’t be that long.
Winning an Emmy for playing his hero, Hank Williams, working in 12 movies with stars such as Claude Akins and Sonny Bono, traveling around the world doing the work he loves, Jim hit it big. He even attained his goal of playing the Grand Ole Opry and has been honored in five Halls of Fame.
“I have been to the top of the world,” he said. “I’ve had a dream life.”
Five years ago the Branson, Mo. star faced a battle he wouldn’t win. His precious Yvette faced a deadly cancer and lost the battle.
Today, Jim is dealing with Meniere’s Disease, a virus which attacks the inner ear, the cochlear and destroys them, also destroying his equilibrium. But he’s still laughing and today he has Susan to support him, even performing duets with him.
He has fun playing for the Winter Texans, enjoying the shows he does. Keeping the audiences laughing, he also sings the tunes that made him famous.
There are times he is contemplative, however, thinking of the ending coming his way.
“I laugh about getting old and make jokes about it. But if my family history has anything to do with it I’ll be around a long time. My grandmother Owen lived 2 days short of 100 and that’s not a joke. My granddad, on the other side, died in his sleep when he was 96. That’s the way I would like to leave this world — sound asleep. I don’t want to go out of here hollering and screaming and kicking and clawing like all those other people in the car with Granddad when he went over the cliff,” Jim told his fans, chortling at the laughter in their eyes when they realize, one more time, Jim was just pulling their leg!
Yes, Jim Owen still has a surprise or two up his sleeve. Keep your eyes wide open and keep a close watch because it’s a fact — he’s still got IT after all these years.