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.