TVA fisheries biologist casts wider net with songs
Posted: Friday, July 9, 2010 3:02 pm
By MORGAN SIMMONS
Knoxville News Sentinel
DANDRIDGE (AP) — It was early afternoon, and Donny Lowery was back at his motel room after working on Douglas Lake all morning.
An acoustic guitar sat on the bed. Lowery wanted to play, but first he had to wash the fish slime off his hands.
For the next 20 minutes, Lowery sang about old memories and lost love. Delivered in a smooth baritone, the songs had the familiar ring of country classics still played on the radio.
Perhaps most recognizable was “Old Flame,” a No. 1 single for the group Alabama that Lowery co-wrote in 1981.
“That one opened up a lot of doors for me in Nashville,” he said.
If you ask him his job title, the 59-year-old Lowery will tell you he’s a fisheries biologist for the Tennessee Valley Authority. By day, he monitors game fish populations on TVA reservoirs. In his spare time, he’s a country music songwriter with a string of hits to his credit.
A native of south Arkansas, Lowery paid his way through college by playing in rock ’n’ roll bands. In 1974, with a graduate degree in fisheries under his belt, he moved to Atlanta to work as a biologist for Georgia Power.
While in Atlanta, Lowery began listening to bluegrass and acoustic music. He started writing songs, and in 1976 he took a job with TVA in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a small town on the Tennessee River known worldwide for its music recording industry.
“My ploy was to move to Muscle Shoals and check out the music scene,” Lowery said. “I never felt at home in Atlanta. I wanted to write songs, but I didn’t want to live in a big city. I was a country boy.”
Lowery’s first break came when Hank Williams Jr. recorded one of his songs. He began collaborating with Mac McAnally, a prolific Nashville songwriter who plays guitar in Jimmy Buffett’s backup band.
Without leaving Muscle Shoals or his day job with TVA, Lowery had reached his goal of becoming a Nashville songwriter.
“I was excited, but I didn’t have a clue,” he said. “Things were happening pretty fast.”
In the early 1990s Lowery co-wrote two hit singles for the country music band Restless Heart titled “Why Does It Have to be Wrong or Right?” and “Say What’s In Your Heart.” Artists like the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Reba McEntire and the Judds have recorded his songs, but even today, some of Lowery’s colleagues in fisheries biology don’t know he’s a successful songwriter.
“I’ve put in my normal work week and write at nights or on weekends,” he said. “Having a job with TVA all these years has provided a good balance. I don’t think I’d want to be in the music business full time.”
Lowery writes about 30 or 40 songs a year. His inspiration comes from family, friends and life in general. When an idea hits him in the middle of the night, he writes it down, and if he has to labor over the lyrics to a song, he knows he’s on the wrong track.
“When a song comes easily, you know it’s good,” he said. “When it turns into too much work, my wife and I go fly fishing.”
Lowery still lives in Muscle Shoals but travels throughout the region to do aquatic monitoring for TVA. He has a publisher in Nashville who pitches his material to various artists, and he likes to collaborate with other songwriters.
Lowery and Jeff Hannah of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recently wrote a song called “Brand New Heartache” for the band’s new album, and singer Craig Morgan is among the new wave of country artists who’ve recorded his songs.
“People don’t change and emotions don’t change,” Lowery said. “The themes of country music are still heartache and heartbreak. What has changed dramatically is the business side. With everybody downloading music, nobody buys records anymore.”
Published in The Messenger 7.9.10