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It would be easy to dismiss Art Lown’s 1976 album Piper Oz the Hound as another unassuming vanity recording made by another unknown musician with a group of session players, a modest budget, and big dreams. The truth is that, despite Piper Oz’s small pressing and lack of organized distribution, it is a rare album of melodic country psych pop that offers a candid snapshot of one man’s struggle to come to terms with a broken heart.
Art, or “Ardie” as he was known to friends and family, was born and raised in West Columbia, South Carolina in 1949. By all accounts, albeit few, he was an introvert with creative, sensitive, and intelligent qualities. He came from a stable family of high regard in his community; his father and uncles all fought in World War II. and later owned two grocery stores and a strip mall christened Lown Town. He was an honor student and drum major during his last two years of high school and went on to study commercial art at Virginia Commonwealth University. If the song “Going Back to Carolina” from Piper Oz is autobiographical, Ardie may have also spent some time in Los Angeles pursuing a music career.
It may not be immediately evident upon a first listen to Piper Oz, but like many born in that era, The Beatles were a big influence on Ardie’s music. While he learned to play guitar prior to the British Invasion, that influence is probably what inspired him to form a band during school with his younger brother Wayne on drums, cousin Mark Lown on bass, and friend James Hardee on lead guitar. Prior to recording the album, Ardie had recorded several now lost demos of Beatles songs. His love for the Fab Four endured long after the frenzy of Beatlemania.
His inspiration was never limited to performing cover songs though, and Wayne Lown recalls that Ardie started writing original songs during his teen years. Family members recall that Ardie would enthusiastically play them new songs he had written around the house for his siblings, friends, and anyone else who happened to pass by the Lown’s front porch. Recollections frame Ardie’s presentation of music as much a discovery, a divine gift to him from some unknown place as much as something he had created completely on his own.
After high school, Ardie played gigs in Columbia whenever he had the opportunity. The Stage Door, in the still popular Five Points area of the city, and The Scarlet Pumpernickel Old English Pub, which was located in the now defunct Downunder Columbia, a subterranean network of bars and restaurants located in the basement of the Equitable Arcade Building building on Main Street from about 1972 to 1977, were both frequent venues for Ardie. Ardie’s friend and co-musician Gary Hardeman often played with him at these gigs, and Ardie’s brother Donald was brought along as a roadie / tech.
Ardie didn’t have his own band when he decided to cut an album of original music he’d crafted and accumulated, but he had access to the session musicians who were his coworkers at United Music World, the Columbia based studio and record label owned by Crandel Berry "C.B." Herndon. The lineup of session players changed over the years at United, as did the house engineers and producers. Had Piper Oz been recorded just a few months earlier, Jim Stanton, engineer / producer of some now highly regarded cult favorite Carolina funk, could well have helmed the console. As it turns out, Stanton had been ousted from United in late spring of 1976. With Stanton’s departure, some of the session player lineup also changed and O.L. Atwood of Hickory, North Carolina took the driver’s seat in the studio.
The reassembled session musicians for Piper Oz weren’t just a random group of individuals with talent, but, rather, a group that had been playing together since the early to mid-60s. Tony Smith (bass), Donnie Miller (drums), Luke Watts (steel guitar), and Jerry Dooley (lead guitar) played in a band during their formative years called The Dixie Four. The Dixie Four extensively toured throughout the Southeastern US as an opening band for musician, comedian, and Grand Ole Opry mainstay Bill “Cousin Wilbur” Westbrooks. With a group like this backing Ardie, it is no surprise that Piper Oz has a cohesive, polished sound.
Musically, Piper Oz is tight, but full of spirited emotion. The album leads off with the title track, an ode to Ardie’s muse, a pipe-playing dog, and a playful, mid-tempo twang accented with steel guitar and a melodic hook that earworms are made of. This may be the only upbeat song on the album though, as the tone shifts to one of a more vulnerable and honest appraisal of the difficulty of interpersonal relationships. If there is a theme for the album it would be one of cathartic, plaintive yearning. Lyrically, the remaining songs express a deep disappointment in a failed romance, with a small glimmer for reconciliation and a happy ending somewhere in the distant mist.
The lines from “I Knew You Well” — “You’ve made me blue, but there is always something left to cling to” — might sum up the theme of Piper Oz, but honest words alone can’t convey the emotion in Ardie’s vocal delivery. One could be forgiven for realizing that a love interest was Art’s true muse, as opposed to a pipe-playing canine. Art left this world February 1977, just a few months after the release of Piper Oz the Hound. Were it not for the fact that Art was employed at United Music World, it seems unlikely that Piper Oz would have been recorded or produced. Art isn’t around to enjoy the excitement that this release is sure to garner, but his spirit looms mysterious and large.
- 1 Piper Oz the Hound 2:23 Buy
- 2 Knew You Well 2:18 Buy
- 3 Please Don't Tell Me That You Love Me 2:20 Buy
- 4 Power of Rain 2:58 Buy
- 5 Going Back to Carolina 2:12 Buy
- 6 Deep Blue Sea 2:40 Buy
- 7 I Just Can't Neglect You 2:44 Buy
- 8 I'm Amazed 1:46 Buy
- 9 Only Woman 1:40 Buy
- 10 What it Takes to Make You Love Me 2:02 Buy