Bentonia, Mississippi is a small town, 36 miles north of Jackson, on the fringe of the delta. It’s a landmark on the Mississippi blues trail. Home to a small group of musicians known for open minor tunings. Extraordinary fingerpicking, and supernatural chords. When you hear someone say Bentonia Blues, the word “haunting” is never far behind.
The Bentonia school includes icons and unknowns. But if there is a heart of the Bentonia school it’s Jack Owens. A guitarist, and bootlegger, who never wanted to leave his hometown.
Content to run a juke joint out of his house, Jack Owens went unrecorded until 1966, when, the story goes, a fellow musician led white blues scholars to his doorstep. Even after that, Owens still didn’t perform outside of Mississippi until 1988. He died ten years later—but in the last decade of his life, Jack packed in all the travel he’d missed as a young man. With his friend Bud Spires on harmonica, he performed all over Europe and North America.
Jack’s got a rougher sound than the town is known for. The stomp of his boot could drown out any other Bentonian’s guitar. Less raw pain, more grit. But something holds together, and you’ll hear the same haunted chords, the same spectral tuning that makes the style so powerful.
Here’s a song first recorded by legendary Bentonia bluesman Skip James. This is Jack Owens on vocals and guitar, Bud Spires on harmonica. Cherry Ball Blues.
Jack Owens was born November 17, 1904 in Bentonia, Mississippi. Jack spent the majority of his life in Bentonia, about 20 miles north of Jackson, bootlegging, sharecropping, and running a weekend juke joint out of his home. While his contemporary and neighbor Skip James left home to seek fame as a recording artist, Jack was content to stay home and farm. He wasn’t recorded until musicologists like David Evans and Alan Lomax made pilgrimages to Bentonia in the 1960’s. Even so Jack remained at home until the mid-eighties, when he began to tour the blues festival circuit in Europe and North America with his friend and accompanist Bud Spires.
Jack was known for his falsetto growl and usage of the famous Bentonia “cross-note” guitar tuning—in which the strings of the guitar are tuned to an open minor chord, most often D minor or E minor. He also conjured up his own strange tunings, which lends a particularly chilling quality to his music.
Jack Owens died in 1997 in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Jack Owens legacy is kept alive by his students, men like Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, proprietor of the legendary Blue Front Café in Bentonia, where Jack was a fixture.