His family knew it too, that’s why they asked “Threaten Me with Heaven” be performed at Owsley’s funeral. And now, less than two years after his death, the Anniston-born musician’s gifts as a songwriter are being recognized by his peers as “Threaten Me with Heaven,” a song he co-wrote with artists and close friends Vince Gill, Amy Grant and Dillon O’Brian, has been nominated for Best Country Song during the 54th annual Grammy Awards, which will air Sunday at 7 p.m. live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The presentation of the Best Country Song award likely will not be part of the television broadcast.
Walker Owsley, Will’s eldest son from his previous marriage to Rebecca Walker, will attend the Grammys in his father’s place, along with Vince Gill, Amy Grant, his mother and grandmother, Alice Walker.
It’s an exciting, if bittersweet, opportunity for the 13-year-old who appears to be following in his father’s musical footsteps. Walker plays a variety of instruments, including guitar, bass, piano, drums, ukulele and trumpet. He also plays the snare drum in the school band and has been making dance music using a computer program. And while he’s not sure about who will be performing, there are a few acts he’s hoping to catch.
“Because I’ve gotten to listen to a lot of the past year’s dance music, I will be ready, pen in hand, to meet some of the dance/electronica nominees, such as Skrillex and Deadmau5,” Walker says. “It would be cool to meet some of today’s top artists — Rihanna, Usher, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, etc.”
And it’s through dance music that Walker remembers his father most.
“One of my favorite memories is whenever a dance/pop song would come on at a party or on the radio, he would do the really cheesy dance move where his hands would move like a worm,” Walker says. “He couldn’t very well keep up with today’s moves, but he could make a crowd laugh.”
Owsley’s brother, Bud Owsley was also invited to attend the Grammy Awards, but has chosen to stay home.
“Given that my brother’s not there, I don’t feel it’s my place to sit in his seat,” he says. “I’ll continue to root him on from Anniston, as I always have.”
Owsley was no stranger to the Grammys. His solo debut, Owsley was nominated for Best Engineered Album in 1999. In addition to his two solo records — Owsley and 2004’s The Hard Way — Owsley made a name for himself behind the scenes as a songwriter, and a session and touring guitarist for more than 15 years with Amy Grant, Charlotte Church, Michael McDonald and Shania Twain among others.
He often found inspiration for songs in his childhood memories of Anniston, a point Owsley illustrated on the back of the CD cover for The Hard Way, which showed him playing guitar alone to only the weeds and cracked concrete at an abandoned amphitheater at McClellan.
“We miss him very much,” said his mother, Alys Owsley. “This just reminds us of how talented he was … and we’ll always have his music.”
“Threaten Me with Heaven” was the first single off Gill’s Guitar Slinger album.
The achingly poignant ballad deals with love, loss and mortality: “What’s the worst thing that could happen if they say my time is through/ Can they take away the love or the years I’ve shared with you/ What’s the worst thing that could happen …Threaten me with heaven, that’s all they can do.” These lyrics serve as a haunting reminder of a talented musician whose life of promise was cut short at the age of 44.
Owsley died in Franklin, Tenn., on April 30, 2010. He was laid to rest in Anniston on May 4. Amy Grant sang “Threaten Me with Heaven” as part of the funeral service at Parker Memorial Baptist Church.
“It never would have been written without Will’s tenacity … to get us in the same room,” she said at the time. “I’ve sung this song a thousand times, but it’s never been more appropriate than for this day.”
Vince Gill credited Owsley with the song’s success
“I couldn’t be more thrilled for my late friend, Will,” Gill said in a statement after the Grammy nomination was announced. “This would have meant the world to him. In my lifetime, ‘Go Rest High on That Mountain’ has been the song that helped a lot of people through their grief. I think this one will in turn hopefully do the same thing.
“It’s a powerful, powerful song.”
For Bud Owsley, the fact that “Threaten Me with Heaven,” which he called Will’s “swan song,” has been nominated for Grammy somehow makes sense knowing how special the song was to his brother, and it gives his hometown one more reason to be proud.
“The whole experience has been bittersweet … more bitter than sweet,” he said. But the memories and now the acclaim, it does temper the pain, but that’s about as good as it gets. Still, I feel like everybody in Anniston, especially those who knew Will, is applauding, not only for his accomplishments and his commitment, but for his life.”
Contact Brett Buckner at email@example.com.
Will Owsley' Music Owsley, 1999
The debut album by Will Owsley, recorded in the musician’s home studio. Musical influences include The Beatles, Todd Rundgren and The Cars. Nominated for a Grammy for Best Engineered Album.
The Hard Way, 2004
Owsley’s second and final studio album. Musical influences include Big Star, Tom Petty and Paul McCartney and Wings. Partially recorded at a studio in Anniston.
Guitar Gunslinger, 2011
12-track album released by Vince Gill, featuring the single “Threaten Me with Heaven,” which Owsley co-wrote. The song is nominated for a Grammy for Best Country Song.