He’s a man who’ll look you squarely in the eye as he gives you a vice-grip handshake. That handshake comes from being country strong, working hard climbing trees, clearing yards, wrenching on stock cars he races and motorcycles he rides. It also comes from building stills in the woods of North Carolina because after all, Josh Owens is a moonshiner.
But he’s also a biker. Anybody who saw him hustling around barrels in a pasture on his Harley at the Michael Lichter/Sugar Bear ride will attest to that. In fact, Owens won two plaques for his riding skills out at the ranch in friendly but competitive biker games.
“First the horses would do a time trial and then motorcycles would do the time trial. We go to the far end of this horse arena and go around the barrel and back and see who did the best time and I won that. Then we did a barrel race and I won my barrel race, pushed the barrel with my front tire. We raced a horse, actually raced a horse, but the horse kicked my ass. I got second place on that deal. Can you believe that, I got outrun by one horse when I had a whole bunch of horses between my legs!” laughed Owens.
Josh Owens demonstrates his riding skills during the barrel roll race at the 2015 Michael Lichter/Sugar Bear Ride.
The North Carolina native will tell you he’s loved motorcycles “pretty much since I was born.”
“I used to pretend that I was Evel Knievel and I just always had a fascination for going fast. Anything that’s balls-to-the-wall, I love it,” said Owens, adding, “All my life I’ve been into fast cars, fast bikes, fast go-karts. I used to play with go-karts all my young life, race go-karts. I used to race dirt bikes. I was the North Carolina state champion two years in a row. I won the North Carolina Hare Scramble Association twice and now I race dirt track.”
This explains why he looked so comfortable rippin’ around a pasture on his Harley. Owens, a true lover of the biker lifestyle, was in Sturgis this year for the very first time, jokingly referring to himself as a “Sturgin ‘cuz I’m a Sturgis virgin.” For a first-timer, he embraced the experience fully, braving the nightly South Dakota squalls at the end of the week in a tent at the Sturgis Buffalo Chip.
“I came by myself, I packed a tent, I’m out here roughing it and showering in the shower house with all the locals. I wanted the full experience and boy I’m getting it,” said Owens.
The full experience included lots of promotional duties, from shout-outs to soldiers on the main stage of the Buffalo Chip to supporting the fundraising Legends Ride as a celebrity guest. Somehow he still found time to ride out to Custer State Park and take part in the annual Lichter/Sugar Bear ride. He was also busy signing autographs and snapping pictures with fans at his Moonshiners’ merchandise booth at The Chip, hawking t-shirts and posters in between. And fans are something he had no shortage of in Sturgis, people stopping him in his tracks eager to talk to him about the show, to just say “Hi” or ask for a picture with him. The affable Owens took it all in stride, never turning anybody away, keen on meeting and greeting fans of the show. He’s as animated in real life as he is in the show, and his combination of a larger-than-life personality teamed to good ol’ boy honesty makes him very approachable. Of course, the majority of people who approached him asked for a little nip of his ‘shine.
When asked how he was enjoying his experience at The Chip, Owens said, “Tell you the truth, I love it. It’s a little overwhelming. It’s packed. This is the 75th anniversary so there is more people here then probably ever has been before, so I’m probably getting a little extra dose. It’s pretty much got everything, including its own zip code if I’m not mistaken. It’s its own town. It has its own medical people, its own fire people, its own laundry mat, its own restaurants, it’s got everything! Music, food, beer – you don’t even have to leave this place to get beer. It’s here.”
While Owens is riding a wave of popularity now thanks to his role in the Discovery Channel’s hit show Moonshiners, his road to success hasn’t been easy. His story though is a testament to what can be achieved with a heart-load of determination and perseverance. Here’s Owens tale of how he ended up on the show.
“I never really expected to. All my life, I’ve dreamed of being a race car driver, and an actor, and a motocross racer. And then, I never really thought that I was gonna be a moonshiner on TV. It’s kind of all just fallen into place like it’s meant to be.
“When I was younger I had friends who were kinda like legendary moonshiners where I’m from, and that’s how I got into this. My mentor (Barney Barnwell), he was a local legend moonshiner. And I went over to his house one night and he told me to bring him some beer and some cigarettes. He had cancer and was sick and he said “Boy, I got Hollywood coming.” And I said, that’s awesome. I’m like, OK, whatever man. I believed him but, you know, all right you got Hollywood coming. But I believed him because he always had off-the-wall things going on and there’s been film crews there before. And he said, “I’m dying, and you’re going to be going from Barney’s woods to Hollywood.” And I’m a son-of-a-gun if they didn’t come about two months later, three months later. They were here for two weeks filming and my mentor had two strokes while they were here filming, went in the hospital and died.
“The film crew left, and I thought my chances of going on TV were over and I lost my best friend. My mom, my great aunt and my dog all died in a year. Plus I got on TV, all at that exact point and time. So I was having to juggle all that, plus juggle building this underground still site, plus juggle my partner, plus juggle a crazy ex-girlfriend, so it’s just been like a total ball of chaos that I somehow seen my way through.
“I sacrificed a lot for that and then, it hit. It frickin’ hit. I don’t want to influence anybody to gamble but it’s just like somebody believing they’re going to win a million dollars on a lottery ticket and they did. I just believed in something and I strived for it and I put everything, my heart and my soul into it, and it happened. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Now he along with partner Bootleg Bill are two of the most popular characters on the show. The two fight like brothers, have more than their share of hardships sprinkled with rare moments of triumph. Murphy’s Law definitely applies to these two. But the trials the duo have to overcome are part of what make them so likeable and easy to associate with.
During our conversation, we had Owens give us a little Moonshining 101. When asked when moonshining season was, he said, “Anytime’s good for making moonshine! Moonshine season’s typically summer time because moonshine’s made in the woods, and if it’s cold outside your mash is going to freeze. You gotta keep your mash between like 70 and about 84 degrees or it will kill off the yeast. If the yeast dies, your mash ain’t gonna work. If you can’t work off the mash, then you can’t cook no moonshine. You’ll have to kind of do that in a building somewhere.”
We were also curious as to what ‘shine he likes brewing up the best to which he replies “All of it! I like making all moonshine. I like making flavored moonshine, I like making brandies. Probably like making brandy the best. I seem to have sort of a niche for it. It’s just something that kind of comes to me. I found all the wrong ways to do stuff, you know. Once you master all the ways not to do something, it kind of starts to fall in your lap after that, right?”
Like everybody else, we were curious as to how he’s able to do something on TV that’s against the law without getting busted. Owens said, “How come I’m not in jail ‘cuz I make moonshine on TV? I’m not in jail because it’s not evidence, for one, that I’m on TV making moonshine. And for two, I could be doing anything, it could be just water. For three, they got a lot bigger fish to fry than somebody just making a little bit of something to sip on when alcohol’s in every store and every bar in the countryside. Why would they, over just a few tax dollars, I don’t see…
“I’m expecting them to come get me at any time, to be honest with you. To be honest with you, I expect them to bust every one of the moonshiners at any time. I don’t know, I’m just hoping and praying for the best. I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.”
He is indeed going to continue what he’s doing because the new season of Mooshiners should be back on-air around October. Owens couldn’t tip his hat about what the new season will bring beyond saying there will be “some new and exciting things and it should be big.”
The only thing bigger than Owens’ personality is his heart. He’s the proud father of a young daughter and doesn’t hesitate to use his celebrity to promote charitable causes. His love of children and his magnanimity were both on display at the Sturgis Legends Ride that raises money for the Black Hills Special Olympics. When the kids in the program met him at the event, their faces lit up, big eyes and big smiles. They gathered around, shared hugs, took pictures together, the interaction raw and genuine. The joy he brought them was priceless, but ask Owens and he’ll tell you he was the lucky one meeting these inspiring athletes. Though we only hung out for a couple hours, Owens easy-going personality is the type that makes you feel like you’ve been friends forever, his character genuine, 100-proof like the shine he brews.