"I'm sorry, I couldn't find Mill Street."
Jake Owen is behind the wheel of his 1966 Volkswagen Bus, cruising down the west side of Nashville, and Siri is not cooperating. "Not Mill Street," he says, speaking into the microphone. "Mel Street!"
After some fumbling with his iPhone at a stoplight, Street finally comes on the radio — the song "Smokey Mountain Memories" — to which Owen sings along. "I've been on this big Mel Street kick," he explains. There's no air conditioning in the bus, but there is what seems like a state of the art sound system, pumping the classic country out loud, crisp and clear. "There are a lot of these great barroom honkytonk singers who just lost their shit. They'd come home and just drive out on their bus and put a gun to their head. And that's what he did."
Indeed, Street took his own life at the age of 43 after a lifetime battle with depression — not exactly the kind of artist most would expect the sun-worshipping, Florida-born Owen to have on constant rotation. But after a complicated few years, he's not trying to project anything that he's not. Most of the time, that includes being unapologetic about his penchant towards surf, sand and swim trunks: today, he's wearing a pair of blue board shorts and sunglasses, driving the vehicle he refers to as "The Love Bus" while a hula girl bobs around on the dash. The destination is equally summery: local shop Las Paletas, for a couple of Mexican-style popsicles, all before the clock strikes noon. Sometimes, though, that also means listening to weepy old twang and driving until the song queue runs dry.
This sea foam green bus — a gorgeously restored Bahamian VW he bought from a woman in North Carolina — has become the de facto mascot of American Love, Owen's fifth album, and for his life in general at the moment. Outfitted with a beachy, straw-like lattice ceiling, plenty of Mexican blankets and a roof perfect for toting a surfboard, it's about as Owen as you can get. It's also the polar opposite of country's preferred mode of transportation (i.e., the massive truck). The Love Bus is the cover star of the LP as well, along with a barefoot Owen, and even gets its own song (the swampy and pleasingly twangy "VW Van" that kicks off with — what else? — some beeping). So after years of wondering whether or not he should try and tone down this tanned image, and be something more than just a sand-dusted, sing-talking Florida guy, Owen decided to take a gamble — on himself.
"I used to always worry, 'Was I was country enough?"
"I used to always worry, 'Was I was country enough?' Because I come from Florida. And I didn't want to let too much of my Florida roots come through, because what if it makes me lose my record deal?" Owen says. He's parked the Love Bus in a spot outside a window at Las Paletas, and he selects a seat close by where he can keep a watchful eye while eating his strawberry-lime popsicle. "But now, I kind of don't care. I have been lucky enough that people have played my songs and I've created a base where I can do what I want. And I want the record to feel like I do when I look at that bus: that this is a pretty good ride we are all on, and we can all take a trip, whether it be in that van right there, or by putting the record on and riding through funky songs, and songs that bring you down to earth with love and heartache. That's how I want people to feel."
It's no wonder Owen has been attracted to escapism. Last year, he and his wife, Lacey Buchanan, announced that they were getting a divorce (they have a three-year-old daughter); around the same time, his follow-up single to 2013's Days of Gold, the cheeky, soft-rapping "Real Life," ostensibly tanked on the charts. Live performances, like his version of the song during the CMT Music Awards, didn't quite help: bouncing around with inflatable donuts, it seemed more Katy Perry Lite than Southern Jack Johnson, and soon it was dropped as a candidate for Owen's next album, along with anything else in the works.
"It's almost like I wanted to make a song I knew was polarizing."
"I try to make music that feels like what I am feeling at the time," Owen says, reflecting back on the song, "but ultimately it didn't necessarily feel as good as I thought it did. Those are things I've had to live with. I was going through a divorce, trying to find new things as a distraction from everything else going on. But if you can't go out there and be really proud of something — that's not how it's supposed to be." He takes a plaintive lick of his popsicle. "It's almost like I wanted to make a song I knew was polarizing."
The funny this is, the song Owen released before "Real Life" — Days of Gold's somber, piano-driven "What We Ain't Got" — was about as classic country as you could get from a mainstream artist in the B.C.S (Before Chris Stapleton) Era. "Real Life," however, in the genre-bending world of Nashville, could barely make a case to be anything but sprightly pop, which, if someone like Andy Grammer released it, could have been a major hit. But it just didn't fit. Owen scrapped it and let the divorce settle. Newly single — and without a hit single — he retooled the music. And, of course, bought that VW van.
"We were all so disappointed," says Ross Copperman, one of the writers of "Real Life" who went on to produce American Love with Shane McAnally (Lukas Bracewell and Owen also co-produced four tracks). "I think that song is so special and unique. But I get why it was jarring to people. That happened and we took a risk, which is what wanted to do. Then we had to pull it back a little."
In March, Owen took the Love Bus, which has its own Instagram account with 13,000 followers, on a road trip from Nashville down to Key West (passing through his hometown of Vero Beach). Timed with the debut of his new single, "American Country Love Song," Owen reached out to fans on social media and stopped spontaneously for gigs along the way, i.e., the ultimate in bachelor adventures. He even let anyone armed with a black Sharpie tag up the inside of the bus like it's one giant high-school yearbook. Now, Twitter handles and adoring messages decorate the sides, including a drawing of a circle with a note above it that reads, "Place beer here."
Owen knew what the feedback had been about "Real Life," but he resisted the urge to try and prove the naysayers wrong with his next move — listen to "What We Ain't Got," or Owen's Facebook tribute to the late Merle Haggard, and it's clear that his penchant toward sing-talk isn't because he can't hit a good note, and he knows his vocal capabilities are less appreciated than they should be. But instead of listening to others second-guess him, he just stopped second-guessing himself. And hit the road.
"The music is not about giving the middle finger," he says. "It's an art form. You don't ever walk by someone's painting or into someone's home and go, 'Who did that painting? Why would you want to put that on your wall?' They like it, and they want to live with it, and they want to walk by it every day. And that's what music is. If someone accepts it and puts it on their so-called wall or CD player and lives with it, that is a pretty awesome compliment. Enough of that outweighs the 'Hey, I can do this too' kind of thing. People know."
You could say there's enough proof on American Love that some pretty impressive people do know — Copperman and McAnally on production, and Hillary Lindsey and Stapleton, who both sing on the album as well as contribute to the songwriting credits. Lindsey appears on two tracks, including the stark piano ballad "When You Love Someone" that's the polar opposite of something like "Real Life": Owen's vocals are almost shockingly unadorned for today's country market, and as strong as he's ever sounded.
"It was so vulnerable and so raw, I was completely blown away by it," says Lindsey of the first time she heard the track. "I thought, 'How am I going to sing on top of this and make it sound good?' That vocal is insane to me, it's the real deal."
Copperman agrees. "He really is one of the best vocalists out there."
Though it alludes to infidelity, Owen insists that "When You Love Someone" isn't at all autobiographical, and American Love in general is a more unusual breed of breakup albums — one that focuses on hope and possibility, rather than wallowing in misery. Owen is more of an escapist, anyway. When his father was sick with cancer, he was singing "Beachin'" every night, and though the new LP contains some wistful moments, he thinks it's just as important for his music — and country in general — to service the levity in life.
"[Jake] doing that is one hundred percent necessary and needed," says Lindsey. "We all want to have fun, and we all need that."
"Remember, Merle Haggard also sang 'Rainbow Stew,'" Owen says. "That was a silly, kitschy song. Alan Jackson will always be associated with [2002's post 9-11] 'Where Were You,' but "Chattahoochee" is no different than [Tim McGraw's] 'Down on the Farm,' no different from a Jason Aldean song or a Luke Bryan song or one of my songs. It's what people relate to."
Popsicles finished, Owen is back in the van, which starts up with a bit of chuffy protest. Driving isn’t the easiest — he injured his arm in a bike accident, standard issue for the avid participant in the more daring sort of sports, and he's used to weathering some kind of strain or sprain. In fact, it was a wakeboarding accident in college that led him to take up the guitar, after he was unable to fulfill his golf scholarship at Florida State University.
"People always says, 'Dude, you hurt yourself all the time, you're an idiot. Why are you out there biking or falling off a snowboard?' It's not because I'm like, 'Watch me, guys!' I just want to live life and have fun," Owen says. "And when you live life, you get knocked down sometimes. Personally, last year, I got knocked down pretty good. But this year, with the new record coming out and playing shows, I'm getting lifted back up pretty good, too. One day I'll settle back down and find a new girl and hopefully raise a family like I was planning on. For the time being, I'm going to try and be a better person and make music that makes me feel good."
Anther Mel Street song comes on the van radio — "Borrowed Angel" — and Owen stops talking to listen and chant along. "The lyrics to this will blow your mind," he says about the tune also recorded by George Jones. "'My borrowed angel belongs to someone else.' Phew. Isn't that awesome?" With a voice that can dip and dive, Owen sounds just as much at home singing this as anything else off of American Love. So maybe, one day, might he consider cutting a classic country album?
"I'd like to," he says, taking a bumpy left turn towards Music Row as the little hula girl sways and shimmies. And then he laughs. "Maybe they can sell it at Cracker Barrel."