Jake Owen Takes the Fast Track

New Artist Opens for Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley

Jake Owen will probably accrue plenty of grim war stories to tell as his career blossoms. But they certainly won’t be about the hard time he had gaining a foothold in Nashville. In that, he’s been the notable exception to a generally unyielding rule.

“Everything’s happened very quickly,” he admits. “It’s very humbling to look around and know how much has happened.”

Consider this: In the three years since Owen moved to Nashville from his native Florida, he has signed a major label deal with RCA Records and a similarly impressive publishing agreement with BMG Music; co-written, recorded and released a hit-spawning album; convinced Alabama’s lead singer Randy Owen (no relation) to cut a duet with him; and toured with two of the hottest acts in country music, Kenny Chesney and Brad Paisley.

(It bears noting, of course, that Owen is managed by the same company that manages Alabama and Chesney and that Paisley records for an RCA affiliate. Such cozy tie-ins never hurt.)

Currently, Owen is opening shows for Paisley and Carrie Underwood on a tour that closes with a Dec. 8 show in Chicago.

“It’s been amazing,” he beams. “I’ve always been a huge Brad Paisley fan. I just love his traditional style [and] the way he keeps it new and hip and kind of cutting edge. His shows are so entertaining. He does all his own cartoons and stuff for his [stage] background. And to watch that guy play guitar is phenomenal.”

Owen says he’s noticed a difference between the kind of crowds Paisley attracts and the ones that follow Chesney, with whom he toured earlier this year.

“Kenny’s got the whole beach-y kind of Jimmy Buffett crowd where people are out there partying all day long — to the point that when they get into the arena, they’re feeling pretty good,” he says. “Brad has a fan base that’s very loyal — not that Kenny’s isn’t — but [Brad’s fans] listen. Brad’s a musician. I think there are a lot of musicians who are in the crowd watching not only the artist, himself, but the band — and really respecting the music coming off the stage.”

Paisley is notorious for the practical jokes he plays on his opening acts. But Owen says he’s not been a victim. So far.

“Knock on wood, I haven’t,” he says. “I’ve been warned. So my eyes are constantly on the lookout. The longer he waits, the longer I have to think of retaliation. So bring it on.”

Owen, who’s now 25, grew up in Vero Beach, Fla., and was on his way to becoming a professional golfer until a water-skiing injury snuffed out that dream. That’s when he turned to music. Although his family was not musical, his dad liked listening to country music, especially to such traditionalists as Vern Gosdin and Keith Whitley. After Owen enrolled as an English major at Florida State University, he began playing in local clubs. And the more confident and established he became as a performer, the more he worked his own songs into his shows.

A mere nine credit hours from completing his degree, Owen decided to drop out of school and pursue music full time. His parents gave him their blessings.

“I packed up my truck and moved to Nashville,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know where I was going to live. I just knew that that’s where I needed to be and that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

In his one previous visit to Nashville, Owen encountered an omen. “I was staying at the Hampton Inn, right off of West End Avenue. I walked outside with my guitar, and there was this guy who looked like he’d been living on the streets for a while. He said, ’What’s your name?’ I told him. He said, ’Are you a country music singer?’ I said, ’Well, I sing country songs and, hopefully, one day I’ll make it.’ And he said, ’Son, I believe you’re going to make it.’ I’ll never forget that. I left the next morning and came back about four months later.”

The street prophet knew what he was talking about. Instead of wandering up and down Music Row and knocking on doors as most newcomers would, Owen settled in to writing songs “every single day.” He also took in a lot of showcases and writers’ nights to check out the competition. Owen says, “My dad always told me, ’If you want to be the best, surround yourself by the people who are.'”

Songwriter and producer Jimmy Ritchey, who had worked with Mark Chesnutt and Clay Walker, became one of Owen’s closest pals and ended up producing his debut album, Startin’ With Me.

“I did a lot of things different than I think most people do when they move to town,” he notes. “I actually didn’t play a whole of lot of music live. I didn’t want to get over-exposed to the whole Nashville scene. I wanted to lay low and hone my craft. Every day and night, I kind of locked myself up in the house and wrote songs and wrote songs to the point that I thought I had [enough of them] that I could go out and play and wow people with them.”

Owen co-wrote all 11 songs on Startin’ With Me, pairing up with such established songwriters as Ritchey, Brett James, Bob Regan, Casey Beathard and Chuck Jones, among others.

To pay the rent while waiting for his record and publishing deals to materialize, Owen worked as a caddy and frequently drove back to Tallahassee, Fla., on weekends to play in the bars where he was known.

By the time Owen started making the rounds of record labels, he had written and demoed enough songs for an entire album. “Basically, I went into RCA with my whole record written and played them one song after another on guitar,” he says. “And they just kind of said, ’Go for it.’ I signed my record deal in September [2005], we were in the studio in October and the record was absolutely finished by the end of November. In January, the first single came out. It all happened very quickly.”

That first single was “Yee Haw.” It peaked at No. 16 in Billboard in August. Recently, the song was featured in the opening episode of the new NBC-TV series, Friday Night Lights. Owen’s album made its bow in July. His second single, “Startin’ With Me,” is just beginning its climb up the chart.

Owen summarizes his album as “love songs and life song and songs about feeling good and forgetting about life. … There’s something on there for every single person and whatever kind of mood they’re in.” He wrote one of the songs, “Eight Second Ride,” when he was still in college. Another he wrote about his grandfather soon after moving to Nashville. It’s called “Ghosts.” Chesney had it on hold for a while but never recorded it.

After he went with Dale Morris & Associates for management, Owen asked Morris if he could talk Randy Owen into dueting with him on “You Can Thank Dixie.” A few days later, the two were in the studio together.

“We had two microphones set up in the same room,” he recalls. “I’d sing a couple of lines, and then Randy would sing a couple. We just went back and forth. It was so inspiring to sit there in front of a guy who’s done it for so long. Here I was — I hadn’t even finished my record yet, and I hadn’t even sold record one. And I’m with a guy who’s sold over 70 million.”

Owen says it doesn’t bother him that other artists haven’t recorded any of his songs. “I’ve never been a songwriter who’s writing for other people. I write every song with myself in mind. … I’m greedy with my songs.”

Although he revels in his opening slots for Chesney and Paisley, Owen admits that there’s some frustration in being limited to a 20 or 25-minute set. “It’s almost like a little tease. We only get to play six or seven songs, and we’re so ready to just keep on rockin’. So it’s nice when we play clubs. [There we] play for an hour and a-half, and we get to play the whole record. And I get to throw in cover songs that have been my favorites throughout the years.”

Owen remains close to his family, which, he says, is still coming to terms with his success. “I didn’t grow up in a family that had a family band or knew anything much about music. So they’re just kind of in awe of everything. When I called them up and told them I was going on tour with Kenny Chesney, they laughed and thought I was lying to them. So then I called them and gave them their set of front-row tickets for the first show. That’s when it hit them that I was actually serious.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.