Bill Owens, Dolly Parton’s uncle and musical mentor, dead at 85

Country songwriter Bill Owens, a mentor and early songwriting partner for his niece, Dolly Parton, has died, his publicist said Wednesday. He was 85.

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“I knew my heart would break when he passed, and it did,” Parton wrote in a eulogy posted on her website. “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.”

In addition to writing songs with his niece, Owens recorded music with Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner, Ricky Skaggs and Kris Kristofferson, WSMV reported.

Owens helped Parton when she was 10 to get her first radio performance on the “Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour” radio show in Knoxville, Tennessee, according to The Associated Press. He encouraged her to practice her guitar and often drove her to local shows.

Owens was born Sept. 28, 1935, in Tennessee, the seventh of Rev. Jacob Robert Owens and Rena Kansas Valentine Owens’ eight children. Like Parton, Bill Owens grew up in Sevier County, Tennessee.

Owens and his niece wrote songs together, including the 1959 single, “Puppy Love,” recorded when Parton was 13, the AP reported. They were signed to Combine Music, and country music producer Fred Foster signed Parton to his Monument Records label in 1965.

Parton and Owens also wrote the song “Put It Off Until Tomorrow,” and Bill Phillips’ recording was named BMI song of the year in 1966, according to the AP.

Owens was also an environmentalist who worked with Dollywood, The American Chestnut Foundation, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and The American Eagle Foundation “to bring back the endangered chestnut tree to the Great Smoky Mountain area,” WSMV reported.

“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,” Parton wrote in her eulogy. “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.”