Exclusive Interview: Jake Owen had certainly not been a stranger to success during the first six years of his Nashville recording career. With substantial hits such as 2006’s “Startin’ with Me,” 2008’s “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” and 2009’s “Eight Second Ride”—and his performance of “Life in a Northern Town” with Sugarland and Little Big Town in 2008, which earned Grammy and CMA nominations—the affable Florida native had proven he is definitely in country music for the long haul. And his ACM Top New Male Vocalist award in 2009 absolutely solidified that contention. But, while his career to this point has been impressive indeed, his new album already shows unmistakable signs that Jake’s earlier accomplishments are likely just a prelude to some wonderful things to come. So what kind of signs are we talking about? The debut single and title cut from Jake’s new album Barefoot Blue Jean Night was at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for two consecutive weeks, and the song has been certified platinum based on sales of more than one million digital downloads—so far. As if that weren’t enough, the album also debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart. And a listen to the rest of the tunes on Jake’s new record makes a resounding statement that the success of “Barefoot” was no fluke. There are a lot more great songs on the record, and Jake is singing better than ever. He took time to give us a call at Nashville.com while on the road in his old Florida stomping grounds. Here’s some of what Jake had to say.
Nash: I remember when you came and played for us in the office not long after you got your record deal and talked about how quickly things happened for you once you got to Nashville; you managed to bypass the typical scenario of waiting tables, singing demos and doing all the other things so many young artists do to survive while waiting for a break. Looking at where you are now with the recent No. 1, acclaimed album, etc. . . . are you about where you thought you’d be after that quick start? Or has the pace of things surprised you one way or the other?
Jake: I think it’s been awesome that it’s worked out to be a slow and steady climb. And you’re exactly right, when I came to play for you guys, I had gotten a record deal pretty quickly, and a publishing deal as well. That was just kind of the way it went. Then I made my first album, went out and promoted it and it was off to the races. Now, here we are almost 6 1/2 years down the road. And “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” was my sixth single, so it took about a year to promoted each single; a year of my life it took to go out on the road and promote a song. And I’ve learned a lot in that time. Some people come out of the blocks and have a big hit right away, and others, you’ve just got to keep knocking on the door at radio, getting in front of people and letting them know who you are. And that’s really what I’ve been doing since ’05.
Nash: Times really have changed. I know the Beatles at one time had four or five tunes in the Top 10 at the same time, and now it takes a year for a tune to work its way up the charts.
Jake: “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” was a pretty big hit for me; it went to number two on the chart. And that was a couple years ago. During the 48 weeks that song was on the charts, Kenny Chesney had already had two number ones, and a third song was just about to pass me by the time I got to number two. (big laughs) He had two songs jump me and go to number one by the time I got to number two. Once you get to a certain spot, once radio embraces you and fans and listeners start wanting your music, it’ll happen. But until then, you’ve gotta keep grinding and keep your head up.
Nash: You’re obviously on a nice roll now, with the recent No. 1 and gold and platinum thrown in for good measure, but have there been some downs along the way, things that surprised you because they didn’t go the way you thought they would?
Jake: Yeah. I’ve come to learn that I don’t know if it’s harder to get a record deal or harder to keep one. Anyone who has money at a label can give someone a record deal and put a bunch of cash behind the song and beat people up at radio to try to get them to play it. And spend a bunch of money on promotion and things like that. But if the artist doesn’t have something completely identifiable and real and people don’t recognize themselves and it’s just a product being forced down their throat; sometimes that doesn’t work. So to answer your question, there’ve been multiple times in my career that I look back and think about things that we did based on marketing or perhaps a corporate decision that might have jaded the public’s perception of who I am. Until I finally was able to have the freedom of going in and making this new record the way I wanted to; putting aside my own songwriting to embrace the Nashville community of songwriters, which I hadn’t done before. I didn’t realize how much that would help change my career. But it has.
Nash: This is not a comment on your songwriting at all, because you’ve written some things that I absolutely love, but I do think that overall this batch of songs is just very impressive—some great songs there.
Jake: To be honest with you, when I moved to town and got a record deal, I was working with my buddy, Jimmy Richie, who produced my first two albums. We wrote pretty much everything together. At the time, in my mind, I really honestly believed that the only way the people of Nashville would embrace me and help me out and believe in me—and for me to validate myself on the charts—was for me to write my own songs. So that’s what I tried to do. And for two albums and about four years of my life, I wrote everything and was kind of blinded to the rest of Nashville when it came to other songwriters. So I decided this time around to change producers and go out and look for songs. I didn’t realize how deep this town got with songs and, especially, with songwriters and how great they are. And I’ve made so many new songwriter friends, and I never knew who they were. And they now are pulling for me, waving the Jake Owen flag and hoping I do well because I recorded their songs, and so do the publishers. A lot of people in town are really involved now who weren’t before.
Nash: And there’s no telling how many great songs you could’ve had offered to you if there hadn’t been the perception that, “Hey, he writes all his own songs, so there’s no point in pitching him anything.”
Jake: That’s what I’m learning now. And, like you said, I’m proud of the first couple records I made—I wrote all that stuff. But, you might be a great songwriter, but you’re not going to outwrite all of Nashville. You know what I mean? I recorded one tune on my record that I wrote this time around. And the rest of the songs are songs I just listened to as a fan of music and as someone looking forward to putting his voice on a song. This time I just cut songs that I personally loved. That’ll never get old to me.
Nash: Now you probably have another problem—having so many great songs pitched to you that you have more than you have room for.
Jake: I’m really fortunate that a lot of guys are contacting me telling me they have songs for me. Even though I didn’t write “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” the reason I chose it is because I’m a Florida guy. I was born and raised in Florida. I grew up in the sunshine, running around barefoot and just hanging out. That song really hit home to me and represented a lot of my life. I think once I tied that in with my video—me wake boarding, doing my thing that I’ve always done—people finally saw that side of me and really bought into thinking, “Okay, I get this guy now. I see what he’s all about.”
Nash: I remember doing a story on you several years ago, I think it was called “Go Big or Go Home,” and you talked about your nothing ventured nothing gained, go for it attitude in wake boarding and other aspects of your life. Where did that confidence come from? Your parents? Just something that’s always been there?
Jake: I grew up with a twin brother and was just a really competitive kid. Exactly the same age, shared a bedroom as kids. And every day we were playing basketball in the front yard together, or we were throwing a baseball or swimming or fishing and trying to beat each other. So when you have somebody like that in your life where you’re constantly trying to one-up them, it really gives you confidence to take out into the world with the attitude that I can do whatever I want. I’ve always felt like that. I think I’ve done a lot of things in my life that at first glance I had no idea how to do, but I just threw myself into it and said, “Well, there are people out there who can do this, so why can’t I?” That’s what I did with guitar, and singing and songwriting. I’d never done it before and didn’t come from a family band or anything. But I’ve always been the kind of person who is just confident. If I’m going to do something, I’m gonna give it a 100 percent effort and do it.
Nash: Let’s talk about the record a little bit. And, again, I really do think that it’s excellent, across the board. And one of the ones I really like is “Anywhere With You.” And I have to ask, what’s the most “wild hair” thing you’ve ever done? Have you done the spur-of-the-moment trip to Mexico? Anything else? Just totally spontaneous?
Jake: Oh yeah. Many instances like that, some that might not be suitable for a family publication! (laughs) That’s the reason I put that song as the first tune on the album. You turn the album on and hear this swelling of guitars cranking up and then—bam! It just kind of hits you in the face. That dueling twin guitars sound. When I first heard it, I closed my eyes and it’s got this breezy Allman Brothers kind of feel to it. And, once again, being from Florida where the Allman Brothers are from, that sound in general was appealing to me. And the lyric and the melody of the chorus, it’s just really easy to sing along with. That’s what it’s all about for me, man. I just want people to have a good time and sing along. Whether I play music or not, when people hang out with me and want them to walk away saying, “That guy likes to have fun. He likes to smile and make people laugh.” That’s what I want to do with my music and my show out on the road.
Nash: So, it’s safe to say that being spontaneous is pretty important to you.
Jake: Totally. I’ve always been spontaneous. I remember waking up one morning in Tallahassee, Florida, with nine hours of college left. And something in my gut told me I needed to move to Nashville. And I picked up the phone and called my parents and told them something in my gut told me I should move to Nashville, and I was going to move there tomorrow. I did. They first thought I was crazy. But I said, I’ll only have one chance in life to do this and I feel like I can do it. I’d saved up enough money from playing bar gigs. And my father told me, “If you’re man enough to call me and tell me this and if you’re man enough to support yourself, I’ll give you my blessing as your father.” And so I did. That was a pretty spontaneous thing, you know?
Nash: And the kind of thing that will minimize the chance of your looking in the mirror in 30 years and saying, “Damn, why didn’t I give that a shot.”
Jake: Right. I can honestly say, there aren’t many things I can look back on in my life and say, “Damn, why didn’t I do that?” But, there’s been a lot of things I can look back on and say, “Why did I.”
Nash: I’d rather have those.
Jake: Exactly. It’s the things you do and fail or succeed at that you learn the most from. You never learn anything from not doing something. I like to do it all and give it my best effort.
Nash: “Wide Awake” is another tune I really like, partly because, like several others on the record, it’s pretty universal in its theme. We’ve all been unable to sleep at one time or another, either because we’re totally excited about someone and can’t get them off our minds or because there’s trouble in the relationship. I assume you’ve been there in both scenarios?
Jake: Oh, totally. Both. I can remember being a kid in middle school and had a little crush on some girl and not being able to sleep looking forward to going to school the next day and seeing her again. Or fast forward in life to now, dating someone and falling in love and thinking about them. Or, being an idiot and doing something stupid, lying there thinking why did I do that? But whether it’s about regret or about not being able to wait until you see someone again, that song relates to a lot of people. And it can also be just some background music to their lifestyle that just makes them feel good.
Nash: This sees an appropriate time to ask, you are involved with someone now, correct?
Jake: I have a girlfriend who is awesome and is actually on the road with me now. She’s from Florida, so while I’m down here on my Florida trip, we’re rockin’ around together on the bus and she’s coming out to some shows. I wanted to bring her out here and let her see what I do. It’s hard to explain being on the road all the time. Going from arenas to playing clubs and from clubs back to arenas. She’s seen me do the whole arena thing, with the Keith Urban tour and all that, which was amazing. But I was like, “All right. Now you get to see fairs and festivals and clubs . . . the way it is most of the time.” (laughs)
Nash: Probably my favorite song on here, I’m not sure why . . . maybe it’s that universal thing . . . is “The One That Got Away.” I love that song. I’m wondering is there someone specific in your mind you look back on with regret for having let her get away?
Jake: Yeah, and that’s funny that it’s your favorite song because that’s the one song on the album I wrote.
Nash: Great, and I didn’t know that when I asked about it. I really do like it.
Jake: Thanks, man. Yeah, I wrote that. And I wrote it a while ago based on just growing up in Florida. It’s funny, in the summer months, Vero Beach where I grew up is known as “Zero Beach” 99.9 percent of the year, until summer rolls around when out of towners from up North or out West come to town with their sons and daughters. And I’d be the local hangout guy who could always show people around. I’d meet girls on the beach or down at the Riverside Café and then, since I was the local guy, I’d know where the parties were. But I’d meet these girls or guys and become friends with them, then at the end of the summer they’d leave to go back to school, wherever they were from. So that was written about a girl who came to town and I remember her and hitting it off with her. Then she left and we were so young we didn’t keep in touch. And I never saw her again. It’s got that Tom Petty flavor to it, another song with that kind of Florida rockin’ feel. I’m glad you like that, man, it’s one of my favorites as well. I wasn’t planning on putting any songs I wrote on this record, but that one just stood out and I had to put it on there.
Nash: “Setting the World On Fire” has a line in it about leaving a trail of smoke behind those tires. And I’m not sure it’s necessarily referring to this, but it certainly could be thought of as wanting to leave a mark when you’re gone, making sure people knew you were there. Is that important to you . . . whether you ever achieve huge tangible things like Opry membership or the Hall of Fame or whatever . . . just that you touched people and made them remember you? That you left a mark?
Jake: That song is probably my favorite on the record, just based on the fact that it represents my life and what I’ve done to get here and what I’ll always continue to do. Loves that I’ve lost because of it, because of my passion for it. It’s just a song about getting out there and giving it all you’ve got. But it’s funny, the song doesn’t say anything about playing music, but it’s about being a rambler. That’s what my life’s all about, being on the road and chasing this dream. Spark the match and make it happen. And I’ll always be out here trying to set the world on fire with my music. That’s what I do. And you’re right, leaving a mark. Whatever town we’re playing in, I love playing that song and I explain to them that, thanks to them, they’re the fuel in my fire. And without them, I’d never be able to set the world on fire. And that’s what I’ll always do. And whoever is going to put up with me for the rest of my life and be my significant other has to understand that’s what I’ll be doing. It’s what I gave up college for and my family back home, to travel on a bus with 12 other dudes and see this country and play some songs.
Nash: Can you talk about your next single?
Jake: Yeah, the next single is “Alone With You.” The label wanted to put out “The One That Got Away,” but I said I’d rather go with this one, because I think people will really relate to “Alone With You.” I know I relate to it. That’ll be the next one, and after that, we’ll see what happens.
Nash: There’s a lot of uncertainty in life these days, from the economy to the general state of the world. Can you give me three things you’re absolutely sure of?
Jake: Yeah. I can tell you for sure, no matter what happens, I’ll always be content with who I am, what I’ve done and what’s happened. I have dreams and goals, but I can tell you, if it all ended tomorrow, I could die a happy man, just knowing that I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do without any regrets. Also, I know that my family will always be there for me. That’s a big part of my life, my parents and my brother. And I also believe that the smile I try to wear on my face each day will always stay there. One of the reasons I love to play music is because of the effect is has on people and the way it can make them forget about their day to day life and smile and have a beer. And feel like I can be friends with them. That’s what I love. And, again, if this fickle business all ended tomorrow, I could just go back to playing my guitar on a bar stool in a bar somewhere in Key West or Vero Beach, Florida, at the Riverside Café. And to be honest with you, I really wouldn’t care. I felt like I made it the first time I played on a bar stool and someone gave me a pitcher of beer and asked me to sing “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” or a David Allan Coe song or something. I remember how much it felt like I’d made it at that point. I’m still doing the same thing, just playing bigger venues with more people inside of them. But it all boils down to the same thing, sitting down with my guitar and playing a melody and just feeling completely relaxed. And no matter what happens, that’ll always be there.—David Scarlett
Photo: David Scarlett