Jake Owen Plays a Winning Set at ACM Concert in Las Vegas

Jana Kramer, Randy Houser and Chris Janson Also Appear on Fremont Street

LAS VEGAS — Jake Owen kept country fans out well past midnight here as the headliner of Saturday’s (April 6) free concert lineup at the Fremont Street Experience. Presented by the Academy of Country Music, the downtown event entertained thousands of fans a few miles away from the Strip, where the ACM Awards will be taking place Sunday night.

Owen led a four-of-a-kind lineup of country stars whose career could potentially be without limits.

Randy Houser, Jana Kramer and Chris Janson were all able to connect with Fremont Street fans through stage presence, strong vocals and some aces up their sleeves.

Four years ago, Owen held down a middle performance slot at the event. Back then, he had just “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” and a few moderate hits to save for the end of his set. Now he’s able to shuffle the deck with “The One That Got Away,” “Alone With You” and “Eight Second Ride.” All of those tunes drew cheers of recognition, although the breezy “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” is probably his signature song right now.

Along with older hits such as “Starting With Me” and “Yee Haw,” Owen offered a handful of new songs from an album he’s working on. I couldn’t make out the titles but the message was clear: Sunny weather and pretty girls are a winning combination. With a melody similar to “Wagon Wheel,” one of the choruses went something like: “I like it a lot/A whole lot.” And he’s starting to infuse the new material with unmistakable twang and hints of reggae and rap. Without hearing the music, that sounds like a really weird combo, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Meanwhile, it’s fair to say Houser and Kramer beat the odds to make a career in country music.

Houser lost some momentum after a change of record labels, but he projects a newfound confidence thanks to his first No. 1 single, “How Country Feels.” Although he’s had other hits, he tends to stretch his set by saying things like, “Let’s sing that chorus one more time!” and asking how many country fans are in the audience.

However, all is forgiven through powerful songs such as “Like a Cowboy” and early hits like “Anything Goes.” In addition, he dusted off a little number he co-wrote called “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” His new single, “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” should keep his career moving ahead.

As for Kramer, she’s working with a hit and a-half. “Why Ya Wanna” reached the Top 5 — and “Whiskey” is working its way up the chart. Last year, as an artist whose album wasn’t even out, she injected her set with bravado and girl power. This year, she seemed more comfortable onstage and earned cheers for mentioning her engagement to fellow country star Brantley Gilbert. They’ll compete for the ACM’s best new artist tonight, with Florida Georgia Line being the third contender.

Kramer said she’s working on new music, too, and offered a preview of a song presumably titled “Don’t Touch My Radio.” (She called that her one big rule.) You can hear a Shania Twain influence in its melody and arrangement. She also covered Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”

If there’s a joker in the bunch, it’s probably Chris Janson. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that there’s an electrical cord running from the amplifier straight into his ankle. Prancing all across the stage, he wasted no time getting the crowd revved up on songs like “White Trash,” “Redneck Revival” and “Back in My Drinking Days.”

Like Houser, he’s on his second record deal, and this one seems to be working all right. His catchy new single “Better I Don’t” is currently climbing the country chart. It’s not too early to consider the odds that he’ll be on the ACM ballot next year.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.