Jake Owen became a star so quickly that he didn’t have time to memorize any Country Music Rule Book – which made it that much easier to toss it out the window.
Guided by sheer musical instinct, a drive for self-improvement and a willingness to experiment, the singer-songwriter has crafted Barefoot Blue Jean Night as one of the most innovative and refreshing country collections of the year. The CD’s title tune is already exploding as the biggest hit of Owen’s career to date.
“I never wanted to be the guy that did everything the way you’re supposed to do it,” says the candid and outgoing music maker. “And that led me to make this record, which I think really represents who I am more than anything I've ever recorded. If nothing else happens after this, I can honestly say that I did the absolute best that I can do. I’ve never felt this good about music, or anything in my career, as I do right now.”
His buoyant optimism is justified. Barefoot Blue Jean Night brims with vocal self-confidence and a superbly chosen stack of songs. The pumping energy in such country rockers as “Anywhere with You,” “Apple Pie Moonshine,” “The One That Got Away” and “Nobody Feelin’ No Pain” contrasts dramatically with the feverish thumper “Wide Awake” or the crunchy, edgy and atmospheric “Alone with You.”
“Keepin’ it Country” is a Jake Owen statement of purpose. “Heaven” is a smiling, seductive come-on. On the other hand, there’s the touching, lovely and philosophical acoustic ballad “The Journey of Your Life.” The frothing power, cascading rhythm and head-to-the-sky vocal shout of “Settin’ the World on Fire” mark it as a blue-chip, blue-collar rocker. And what more can be said of “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” surely the most joyous Southern celebration on disc today?
All of these sounds mean a new beginning for the hit maker. Jake Owen has previously enjoyed major-league success with such performances as 2006’s “Startin’ with Me,” 2008’s “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You,” and 2009’s “Eight Second Ride.” His revival of “Life in a Northern Town” with Sugarland and Little Big Town in 2008 earned him Grammy and CMA Award nominations. Owen was named 2009’s Top New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. But nothing, he says, compares to the impact his new music is making.
“Everything is amazing right now. I have other artists, song publishers, promotion reps, people at other record labels coming up to me and saying, ‘Jake, I really like your new song. We’re pulling for you, dude.’ That validates everything I’ve ever done up to this point. Now, I have people cheering for me and that is an awesome feeling.”
In 2005, Jake went from performing in Florida bars to moving to Nashville and within months he had a Music Row song-publishing contract. Less than a year later, he was signed by RCA Records and was on the charts with his first two singles, “Yee Haw” and “Startin’ with Me.” He went from being a speck in a stadium crowd at a Kenny Chesney concert to opening shows for the superstar. Then Brad Paisley took him on the road as Owen scored his third hit, 2007’s “Something About a Woman.” In 2008, Owen opened shows for Sugarland and this year, Keith Urban asked Jake to be his touring partner on the Get Closer 2011 World tour.
“I would say I have had a pretty great life,” he admits. “As far as me struggling in Nashville, I can’t say that I did that. A lot of singer/songwriter’s come to town and play all the honky-tonks and bars, hoping to meet someone and worrying and struggling. Mine’s not that story.
“For a long time, I tried not to really tell my story, because I felt like everybody thought, ‘Look at this lucky kid.’ So I’ve always been a little hesitant to talk about that, even to be a little ashamed of it.
“Then I started thinking. This is my story. This is what I did so I should be proud, not ashamed. Yes, I feel like I was very, very fortunate but I am also extremely grateful that everything happened the way it did. I truly believe that everything always works out the way it is supposed to.”
There was a downside to his good fortune. Because of being so suddenly thrust into the spotlight on the road, Jake Owen never really got to know the Nashville country community. Because he wrote his own songs, he knew only a handful of the hundreds of gifted song craftspeople in Music City. So in making his third album, he addressed the missing parts of his “Nashville education.” Jake Owen had co-written nearly all the songs on his first two records. For his third, he reached out into a songwriting community he had never tapped.
“I searched out songs. I searched out songwriters. I got to pick songs from this amazing community of writers, and I’d never done that. Before, I’d written everything because I felt like that was expected of me. On this record, I wanted to include the incredibly talented writers in this town.”
He also set out to find a more personal sound. In search of a new musical direction, he initially teamed up with legendary producer Tony Brown, who is famed for his work with George Strait, Reba, Steve Earle, Vince Gill and dozens of other hit makers. Brown produced the first five songs that Owen chose for his album.
But Jake Owen still felt restless. Since he had kept Rodney Clawson’s co-written “Keepin’ it Country” for more than a year without recording it, the singer felt obligated to the songwriter. So he approached Clawson about producing the song. Clawson’s songwriting credits include George Strait’s “I Saw God Today,” Big & Rich’s “Lost in This Moment” and Jason Aldean’s hits “Hicktown,” “Amarillo Sky,” “Johnny Cash,” “Crazy Town” and “Why.” So Tony Brown gave Owen his blessing to continue experimenting with the sound of his record.
To the singer’s surprise, Clawson suggested bringing in Canada’s Joey Moi as a co-producer. Moi is noted for his work with the rock band Nickelback. This is his first experience with country music.
“Joey came to town with all these extra ideas,” Owen comments. “I’d always listened to people say what you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do on a country record. He blew my mind.
“Instantly, when I started to work with these guys, I felt, ‘Wow. They get it.’ They had the sound I’d been hearing in my head.” So after two CDs, a big ACM award and a string of radio successes, Jake Owen has come into his own.
He observes, “When you get a record deal, no one hands you a manual or an instruction booklet and tells you how you’re supposed to conduct your professional life. I was a kid straight out of college, thrown out on these massive stages. I really didn’t know anything. I had to find out who I am.”
His roots are fairly easy to describe. Jake Owen was raised in the coastal town of Vero Beach, FL. He and his fraternal twin Jarrod grew up in the sand and surf. Both boys attended Florida State. That’s where music became Jake Owen’s true focus. He suffered a severe shoulder injury while wake boarding. This ended his days on the university’s golf team. During his recuperation, his left arm was in a sling. Jake realized that even with his arm in a sling, he could hold a guitar so he started playing guitar and writing songs.
“This scar that I have on my shoulder reminds me about the one dark time in my life,” he recalls. “It took that accident to make me realize that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. What I was supposed to be doing, was something that fulfilled me. Music.”
After his recovery, Jake became a regular club entertainer. He quit college just shy of graduation to make his pilgrimage to Music City. Then he was catapulted into the country-music spotlight. Now comes the real work.
“If you want to get better at your craft, you have to push yourself, take risks and try something different,” he reflects. “In order to grow and not be complacent, you have to open your mind, expand your horizons and be grateful. That’s what this record represents for me.”