Hand Jake Owen an ukulele and he’ll be quick to bust out his go-to tune. Hugging the little instrument to his chest while standing on his Malibu M235 speedboat, he sings Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” for a few passengers onboard for a 30-minute cruise on Nashville’s Cumberland River. When it was time to whistle, the whole party joined in and sang.
“It’s amazing,” he observed, “just hearing you sing, and how a song can just be two chords and a voice, that’s all it needs.”
“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is a perfect signature song for Owen. No matter what life throws at him, he remains blessed with a genuinely positive personality. In his first decade as a signed artist, he’s weathered at least two personal storms. He’s felt the pain of cancer after watching his father Steve Owen fight the disease and win in 2013. The end of his three-year marriage with Lacey Buchanan was part of the 2015 summer of country breakups (Reba McEntire and Narvel Blackstock split after 26 years of marriage; Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton called it quits after 10 years together including a marriage of four years). Then again, his marriage to Buchanan brought him his greatest joy in 2012: his daughter Pearl.
Through it all, he has come out the other side with more humility and a deeper appreciation for life.
On Music Row, he is known as being a good friend to the songwriter. His first No. 1 “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” was also a first No. 1 hit as a songwriter for Eric Paslay. Owen’s second No. 1 “Alone With You” was also a first country No. 1 for hit-maker Catt Gravitt. Owen has had additional success with songs co-written by with the Cadillac Three’s Jaren Johnston, who is among the lyricists behind the 2014 summer anthem “Beachin’,” the lead title single from Owen’s fourth studio album and his current Top 10 hit, “American Country Love Song.”
Owen’s personality comes with a sincere willingness to help others. According to the TC Palm, his annual hometown shows in Vero Beach, Florida last December raised more than $175,000 with proceeds going to nine local charities and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
“I try and live my life that way,” Owen says when conversation briefly turns to his staying positive. “It’s really hard to take your life as an artist and really 100 percent parallel it with your music. There’s always going to be songs like ‘Eight Second Ride,’ where the lyrics are, She said, ‘Hey boy, do you mind takin’ me home tonight?/‘Cause I ain’t never seen a country boy with tires on his truck this high.’ I wrote that when I was 18 years old at Florida State University. At the time, that’s what I was doing in college and everybody wanted to hear songs about big trucks. That’s not me now. But I still play that song because it’s such a big song. So my point is, even though you can hone in on who it is you are and what you do, sometimes it takes a long time to chip away at it to really focus on how you want your music to sound, and how you want it to be perceived. I do believe this record is the closest to that for me of anything I’ve done.”
“I feel like I’ve been lucky because I’ve had my record deal for 10 years,” he adds. “I can look at those 10 years as a really cool building process to where I’m going now. It’s like a launch pad really. I’ve learned a lot about me. I’ve learned a lot about how to make music. I’ve learned a lot about what I want to say in music and how I want the music to sound. And I’ve also learned a lot about how I want to portray my personal lifestyle along with the music, and it’s really what’s helped me bring it all together.”
We’re in good company for our CMT.com interview with Owen: there are fish jumping and turtles breaking the water’s surface. With temperatures hovering around a swampy 95 degrees, being out on the water is Owen’s favorite office to test new music before releasing an album. His latest, American Love, passed the test.
It’s a genre-bending collection of 11 mostly feel good anthems with sonic allusions of Ben Harper, Steely Dan, Jimmy Buffett and JD Souther. The genesis of his new musical direction started with the title track written by Grammy-winning hit-maker Luke Laird and Johnston. Upon the first listen of the demo, Owen fell in love with the song’s Garageband horns.
“We have a three-piece horn section on the road with us now,” he says. “Not only am I loving it, but the fans are loving it. It’s something they can see that’s different. The guys playing horns in the band are loving it because it’s something new for them, too. It’s a growing process.”
He feels confident that American Love was the right opportunity to do something different by following his top country icons who have experimented with different sounds. It was Cowboy Jack Clement’s idea to add mariachi horns to the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire.” And one of Owen’s favorite tracks by Hank Williams Jr. reeks of New Orleans jazz. While motoring upstream, he scrolls through his iPhone, looking for Hank Jr.’s “Women I’ve Never Had” and blasts it on the boat’s supped up stereo system.
Morrison’s name came up a few times when the Q&A turned to what music he normally listens to on the water. “Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of the Moondance album,” he says. “That record came out more than 40 years ago, but there are so many songs on that record that just made me feel good.”
Next, he plays “Crazy Love.”
“It’s just a good song,” he says. “Like, ‘We had love. We had crazy love.’ It’s just that young love song, but this is 40 years old and it’s still relevant. And that’s how I approach my music. It’s not just about right now. It’s about 20 years from now or 40 years from now. Is somebody still going to be listening to my music? If they are, how do I want them to feel then? Hopefully the same as now.”
Following his reputation of being a friend of the songwriter, Owen co-wrote only one song on the collection, the contemplative “LAX.” The rolling ballad has him dipping heavily into ‘70s California country with his vocal sharing the spotlight with a pedal steel and acoustic guitar.
“There’s a lot in that song,” Owen says of “LAX.” “There’s a storyline about a girl who moves out to L.A. obviously to become something. You wish her the best, and you hope it works out. Then there’s the love side part of the song, too, where the narrator is explaining these little intimate details about her, but really using L.A. as the metaphor for her. It’s just cool.”
Yes, that’s Chris Stapleton on the very danceable “He Ain’t Gonna Love You,” which Owen says was an early favorite for the album. “I found it a couple years ago and fought for it really hard,” he says. “A couple other artists wanted it, recorded it and it didn’t make their albums. So, I ended up getting it back. When I did get it back, we rushed to record it. This was at a time before Chris went out on his radio tour for his first single ‘What Are You Listening To?’ and before even his Traveller album.
“Then you fast forward all these years later, I’m at a point at my life where I’ve got new music coming out, and he’s obviously got a whole lot going on. The timing just worked out great and they were gracious enough to allow him to lend his voice to a song he wrote as well, which is another great thing. But then also, if I put this song out as a single, I don’t ever want to come off as a person that’s trying to jump on a bandwagon or something of Chris Stapleton. I’ve always been a huge fan of him, but I’d be crazy to not talk about how lucky I am to have him on a song with me and use his awesome voice to help me sound better.”
At the end of the day, Owen just hopes his fans feel happy listening to his new music. When asked what he wanted the songs to be for his fifth album, Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” came on.
“This song,” he says. “It’s a good example. Here’s a totally different genre. But why this song works is the same reason a song like Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ worked. It just makes you feel good. If you’re the kind of person when I gave you music that feels good and you’re like, ‘I don’t like that,’ No. 1, that’s not the kind of person I want to be around. But also, I don’t feel like they’re listening to it for all the right reasons. Music is about gaining something from it.”
The No. 1 thing fans will gain from listening to American Love is that Owen nails singing about young love. “This whole record really evolves around that feeling of being young and having a girlfriend or that first love,” he says, “that feeling of butterflies that you get having a young love and that feeling of staying out a little later than you should, which comes in ‘After Midnight.’ And then, ‘American Country Love Song’ talks about that feeling of nervous new love. I think, too, the same reason we listen to songs like ‘Jack & Diane,’ or some of the Kenny Chesney songs, you can look back and remember where you were when you heard those songs and who you were with. That’s kind of the whole reasoning behind the songs for me on the album.”
Toward the end of the interview, it was mentioned that his daughter Pearl picked out the pink metallic detail emblazoned on the boat’s hull. But he’ll get another chance to pick a color for the next boat. Malibu apparently sends him a new one every summer.
“She’s good,” Owen says of his adorable three-year-old daughter. “I was kind of hesitant at first on how I wanted to disclose my life with my daughter, being a single dad and respecting her mom. It’s just a different thing. When you’re putting your kid out there like that, she has no control over it really at this age. So, I don’t ever want her to grow up and be like, ‘Gosh, I wish dad wouldn’t have put me online for the world to see when I was a kid all the time.’ But I also, I’m proud of her. I’m proud to have her. I want people to see her, but I don’t do it all the time.”
When it was time to head back to the Commodore Yacht Club, he dropped the engine into gear to show the high wake the boat makes. The afternoon with Owen made the drive back to civilization hard. But it’s nice to have an escapist’s album like American Love as a souvenir.
“That’s really what it is and I think that’s what music is,” he says. “It’s an escape. Sometimes music is also used to bring you to exactly where you need to be at that specific moment. That’s what it was for me. It was an escape at the time, too, from kind of what I was going through. But it’s also a way to to bring me back down to reality.”