Jake Owen knows exactly what you think of him.
"A lot of folks think I'm just the 'Beachin'' guy, I'm the fucking beach bum," says Owen, 33, seated in a booth at Rotier's restaurant, a Nashville burger-and-shake joint dating back to the Forties. Dressed in a stained short-sleeve work shirt and shorts, he certainly looks the epitome of the "right on, dude" Moondoggie. With his Vero Beach, Florida, roots, long hair and stoner speech — "I have done my share of weed," he offers — it's a justified observation. One his sun-and-sand singles "Barefoot Blue Jean Night," "The One That Got Away" and "Beachin'" have helped further.
Owen doesn't disagree.
"I'm not downplaying that. I've made a good living and a good career out of doing songs like 'Barefoot Blue Jean Night,'" says the country star, who nonetheless hopes to refocus on songs that amplify his artistic integrity. "I take a lot of pride in being a pretty good singer, and songs like 'Barefoot Blue Jean Night' and 'Beachin',' where I'm kind of just talking, don't showcase that. For the first time in my career, I feel like it's imperative for me to put out a song that offers some validity."
Which is precisely the goal of his latest single. "What We Ain't Got," a plaintive piano and steel guitar ballad about unchecked desire, is all Owen's voice. In stark contrast to his prior singles, and to the bulk of country radio's uptempo fare, the sparse "What We Ain't Got" is an unconventional choice to follow up the Number One "Beachin'." In a format where summer songs have become as plentiful as grains of sand, Owen's "Beachin'" stood out like the hot blonde on the crowded beach, thanks to his authentic, suntan-oil-smooth delivery. He sang about white caps and rising tides as if the recording session was done just steps away from the surf.
"What We Ain't Got," however, sounds as if it were cut in a pitch-black room, with all of Owen's fears closing in. "All I want is what I had," he sings in the chorus, longing for the woman, the well-being and the previous life the narrator traded for ambition.
The song was written by tortured artist Travis Meadows, a recovering alcoholic and cancer survivor who documented his road to sobriety on 2011's Killin' Uncle Buzzy, which included his version of "What We Ain't Got." Owen heard the album and was immediately taken by Meadows' honesty.
"My whole world started over with that record," says Meadows, whose song "Riser" was cut by Dierks Bentley as the title track to his latest album. "Jake has always been very kind to me. After he sang 'What We Ain't Got' on Jimmy Kimmel, he called me soon after. He goes, 'How'd I do, man? Did you like it?' It says a lot about his heart."
For the record, Meadows does like Owen's version, which appears on his current Days of Gold LP. "I think he sang it better," he says.
Owen found similarities in the song in his own life. "There's a line that goes 'I wanted the world till my whole world stopped,'" he says. "I know what he meant by that. I have to be careful to not want too much out of this world and lose my own. Even though I have a lot in my life right now, and I'm thankful for everything, I find myself working really hard every day to attain more and more. But yet sometimes by doing that, I disregard the things I already have that are precious to me. Whether it's my wife who gets upset sometimes because I'm always on my phone, or it's my twin brother who is like, 'Dude, you never call me back.'"
Just two days prior to this lunch of cheeseburgers, onion rings and a chocolate shake that Owen barely touches (a health nut, he once committed to a 10-day juice cleanse made up of nothing but water, lemon, cayenne pepper and maple syrup), the singer triumphantly staged his second Nashville block party. A free concert held in the parking lot of BMI's Music Row headquarters, the show, with special guests the Cadillac Three, Dan + Shay and Meadows, who sang "What We Ain't Got" with Owen, was worlds away from the set he played at a former chicken-tenders chain across the street years ago.
The success of the "beach party" was further proof that Owen can draw fans. His current Days of Gold Tour has played to crowds in 75 cities. But Owen says entertaining has never been an issue.
"We have that covered. People know I can put on a show," he says. Instead, he is eyeing critical respect. He's refreshingly candid in admitting that he would like to be nominated for a major award by the CMA or ACM. In 2009, he won the ACM Award for Top New Male Vocalist, but ultimately lost Top New Artist to Julianne Hough. When the 2014 CMA Awards nominations were announced this week, he again came up short.
"I admire all these people that are winning awards and I commend them for it, but I want that too," Owen says, keenly aware of what needs to change to reach that goal. "In order for me to do that, I have to be recognized as someone that isn't just making up songs that are ditties."
The fact that Owen's greatest successes have come from such breezy hits — songs that he is still proud of, it bears noting — is in stark contrast to the meaty songs and artists the staunch country fan cites today. He shows off a text exchange with Keith Urban in which they rave over buzzed-about purist Sturgill Simpson and reveals that he cut an entire version of his album Barefoot Blue Jean Night in the voice of his hero, fellow Floridian John Anderson.
"If you watch his sound check, like I do almost every day, he'll play a T.G. Sheppard song or a Merle Haggard song note for note, singing every word and sounding just like them," says Jaren Johnston, who co-wrote five of the songs on Days of Gold and whose band, the Cadillac Three, has been opening for Owen for the past year. "He's a genuine country artist. He is one of those guys who really did grow up listening to Merle and all those people."
"People ask me all the time, 'Why do you do this?' Because I love country music, everything dating back to Marty Robbins all the way to Roger Miller to Hank Williams Jr. to Alan Jackson," Owen says. The one thing they have in common? "They all put out great songs."
While fans have been responding to "What We Ain't Got" in Owen's live set — it's a lighter/cellphone moment, Johnston has observed — the reception at ballad-averse country radio will be the real test. "In today's world, hearing ballads on the radio is not existent anymore," Owen admits. But he's confident the power of Meadows' lyrics and the poignancy of his vocal will help distinguish the song from "bro country"-heavy playlists. Fellow artists have already taken note.
"It gets him into some deeper water. It gives him a step up," says Johnston. "I think country music needs more real songs like that."
Owen, however, isn't trying to change country music as a whole — he just wants to grow his artistry.
"I laid my cards out on the table with this song, and it's either going to work and do really big things for me or it's going to fail because no one wants to take a chance on it. But you know what? I'm ok with that," says Owen with a laid-back smile representative of his "what, me worry" worldview.
"I want to be a bigger part of this business," he continues, "and in order to do that, I have to offer something up that will connect with people on a level differently than 'let's party.'"