DEAN Owens was driving back to Nashville from New Mexico when he heard about the death of one of his heroes. “I was somewhere around Amarillo, in Texas, when news came through that Muhammad Ali had passed away,” he says. “As a kid, I was a big boxing fan, and watched boxing matches with my dad.

“Probably one of my earliest memories is seeing this big guy on the screen, in his white boxing shorts, dancing around. I wanted to become a boxer after that. His death really hit me, and when I got back to Nashville, that was when I penned the song. I’m really chuffed with it, it came out really nice.”

That song – Louisville Lip – is one of the strongest songs on the Leith-born singer-songwriter’s soulful and engaging latest album, Southern Wind, which was recorded in Nashville. Listen to it and you’ll realise why such luminaries as Leith’s own Irvine Welsh (“Scotland’s most engaging and haunting singer-songwriter”), Russell Brand and Whisperin’ Bob Harris have all fallen under his spell.

Southern Wind is Owens’s seventh album released under his own name since 2001. He is also one-half of the transatlantic-folk-song specialists Redwood Mountain, alongside the traditional fiddle player, Amy Geddes. Owens started out as a singer and says he had absolutely no interest in picking up a guitar at first.

“When I was a kid at school – 14, 15 – I started getting into bands,” he says. “I used just to sing, and my pal would play guitar. But I always wanted to write songs, so I had to go round to his house and sing him my wee songs, and he’d figure out the chords. Then he went off and got a real job, and I realised I would have to learn how to play guitar. I was probably around 17 when that happened. I’m not the youngest; some guitarists started playing when they were seven or eight. It’s still not something I’m particularly interested in,” he acknowledges with a laugh. “It’s always been about the songs for me.”

Owens, who early in his career fronted The Felsons, the much-admired Scottish Americana band, has toured and played shows with the Mavericks, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Joan As Policewoman. He has opened for Roseanne Cash, Jason Isbell and Patti Griffin. He has played Celtic Connections and the London Folk and Roots Festival. Last August he toured with Grant Lee Phillips; the following month he was the first Scottish musician to be given a showcase at Nashville’s Americanafest.

“I first went to Nashville as a tourist when I was young, and then I went back seriously for the first time in about 1999. The Felsons had been touring with the Mavericks and I was invited over by their drummer, Paul Deakin. I went over and met a lot of people, and fell in love with the place. That was really the start of my Nashville love affair. I’ve been going back ever since, writing songs and making records.

“You definitely soak up all the influences over there, and when you’re mixing with top-class songwriters it does tend to rub off on you a bit,” he adds. “I still stick to my guns and the way I write – I’ve been influenced by Nashville and many places – but it’s worth pointing out that Nashville is not just about country music, though that is what it built its reputation on. It’s now the fastest-growing city in the US. Jack White [formerly of The White Stripes] moved there. The Black Keys set up a studio there. It’s the kind of place where you see these people round about, in bars and restaurants.”

Owens is at Perth’s Southern Fried at the end of the month. The excellent bill also features Steve Earle & The Dukes, Graham Nash, Iris Dement, Gretchen Peters and Rodney Crowell. One of the songs on Southern Wind, Love Prevails, was originally written for an art project based on Crowell’s autobiography.

On August 10 Owens and the Celtabilly Allstars play the Fringe by the Sea, in North Berwick, in a show revolving around some of Owens’s favourite songs inspired, written or covered by the late, great Johnny Cash. On August 11 and 14 he’s at Edinburgh’s New Town Theatre with “A Hatful of Songs”, in which the setlist will be suggested by his fans by email in advance (his website has a link to his email address).

He’s heading back to the States for an October tour spanning some two or three weeks, including a couple of festivals in Memphis and South Carolina. One of the gigs he’s looking forward to, he says, will be at the open-air Levitt Shell amphitheatre in Memphis, which Elvis played in July 1954, in what has been claimed to be the first-ever rock and roll show.

Owens is particularly excited by a new project. It’s called Buffalo Blood, an international film and music collaboration by Neighborhoods Apart Productions, which was co-founded in Nashville by Owens’s producer, Neilson Hubbard. It’s the reason he was in New Mexico before he heard of the death of Ali.

“It’s about the displacement of Native Americans,” he says. “We recorded the songs in these remote canyons in New Mexico. They filmed it, too. I think they’re going to release the album next year. There’s a great bunch of people involved in it. I’ve always been fascinated by the Native American story, but of course there’s a huge issue in the world right now about displacement. The Native Americans had their own trail of tears but every nation has had its own trail of tears.

“There’s a huge refugee crisis in 2018 but the Native American one is the one we homed in on, and we all felt we could relate to. The songs are written about that kind of cause,” he adds, “but they are all very relevant to what is going on around the world just now.” Southern Wind is available on At the Helm Records. A track from the album, Elvis Was My Brother, is being released as a digital single on August 16, accompanied by a new video.