It's tempting to dismiss a lot of popular country singers for laying it on thick, especially those that overemphasize the tackiest redneck qualities of their carefully crafted personalities and vocal styles. There's no lack of glaring lyrical cliches or stale studio production tricks in contemporary country music, either.
Fortunately for genuine country music fans, there are a number of young, chart-topping artists on the national scene who've found their true voices and developed their musical styles in spite of the trends and expectations within the business.
Florida-based singer/guitarist Jake Owen stands out as one who has succeeded artistically and commercially by way of genuine creativity, technique and enthusiasm.
Owen, 32, is in the middle of his massive Days of Gold Tour, a 55-city trek that kicked off in March in support of his latest studio album, "Days of Gold." The guitar-driven, hook-laden, rough-edged collection features several radio hits, including the anthem "Ghost Town," the laid-back summer tune "Beachin'," and the super-upbeat title track.
Presented by Discover Boating, the Days of Gold Tour will continue through October, concluding in Owen's coastal hometown of Vero Beach, Fla. The tour is one of Owen's first major headlining tours of his career.
"I love throwing parties, and this tour is going to be one big party and everyone is invited," Owen stated at the beginning of the tour. "I've been lucky enough to be on the road and learn from incredible artists like (Kenny) Chesney, (Tim) McGraw and (Jason) Aldean. I'm really proud of this tour and can't wait for the fans to see what's in store."
Music as a second career
Owen and his fraternal twin brother Jarrod were born in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, Fla., in 1981. Both grew up loving and playing various sports. As a young teen, Jake excelled at golf, shooting impressive scores at his home course, the Indian River Club. By 15, he began seriously pursuing golf as a professional career.
Upon graduating high school, Owen planned to play golf while attending Florida State University. Unfortunately, early in his college days, he suffered a serious shoulder injury while wakeboarding. His shoulder required reconstructive surgery, and he was unable to continue swinging the clubs as he'd been doing for years. It was a life-changing experience.
Frustrated and anxious, Owen borrowed a roommate's guitar and started learning chords while recuperating. He gradually learned to play songs and sing melodies and harmonies.
Within a year, he started jamming on rock and country standards with friends at local bars and parties. He even dabbled in arranging a few of his own original songs. It wasn't long before Owen started booking solo gigs and performing from bar stools in popular watering holes around Gainesville, Fla.
As a hobbyist performer, his initial realm was on the overlap of modern country and rock 'n' roll, but he soon started expanding his repertoire and digging deeper into classic material.
"I think people find music in their lives by listening to artists they really like, and then they begin listening to what that artist was really into," Owen recently told Billboard. "That's how I found a lot of Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and a lot of older country music. Growing up in the '90s, I loved country music so much, and for all of the people I looked up to, those were the artists they fed off of."
Movin' to Music City
Just a few years out of college, Owen hit the pedal and focused on performing and writing music as a professional. He made the big move to Nashville, Tenn., in 2005, and his career accelerated almost right away.
Owen hooked up with the Warner/Chappell Music publishing company and signed with RCA Records. By 2006, he landed on the charts with the first two singles from his debut collection, "Startin' With Me" - "Yee Haw" and the title track.
By 2007, Owen and his backing band snagged a spot as an opening act on a major Kenny Chesney tour. He supported Brad Paisley, Sugarland, Keith Urban and other superstars on the road throughout 2007 and early '08.
From Owen's second album, "Easy Does It," the sweet love song "Don't Think I Can't Love You" made a splash in the summer of 2009. The disc spawned two more hits, as well: "Eight Second Ride" and "Tell Me."
In 2011, Owen joined Urban on his successful Get Closer Tour.
"As far as me struggling in Nashville, I can't say that I did that," Owen states in his most recent official bio. "A lot of singer/songwriters 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,' " he adds. "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."
Following his rapid-fire success and positive reactions to his first two releases, Owen's third album, "Barefoot Blue Jean Night," was a worthy successor. Released in the summer of 2011, it became gold-certified and delivered four consecutive No.1 hit singles, including the title track, "Alone with You," "The One That Got Away" and "Anywhere with You."
Melodic, catchy and comfortably rhythmic, "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" followed a tried-and-true musical formula that led to huge success. The popularity of Owen's good-vibe chart-topping tunes established him as one of the leading male country singers in the country.
For Owen's follow-up, 2013's "Days of Gold," he wanted to take a bit of a musical detour with a fresh new set of songs, written in large part in collaboration with some of his closest songwriting friends in Nashville.
"You look at guys like George Strait or Kenny Chesney - guys who've had huge careers - and they didn't write everything, so I'm OK with that," Owen says. "There's a lot more people in town with a lot more vested interest in my career and pulling for me than before. Why would they? I was writing everything I cut. It's great to have more people into you and excited for what you're doing."
Twangy in just the right places and politely polished, "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" fit nicely with the contemporary country sound. "Days of Gold" aimed for a beefier full-band vibe and a more dynamic rock sound overall, a blend of the Southern rock grit of fellow Floridians Lynyrd Skynyrd and the power-pop Americana of Tom Petty and John Mellencamp.
"A lot of people have asked me if I felt pressure, making this album ['Days of Gold'] now," Owen told Billboard. "I had a lot of pressure on me during the years beforehand to make an album with a hit on it. But after you make one that has four Number 1 hits in a row, it actually takes a lot of pressure off. I'd finally hit my stride. I had finally gotten people's attention, and it was up to me what to do with it."
Owen belts things out with gutsy emotion. His baritone tends to veer into a slight chuckle in some moments. The songs are steeped in optimism and a Southern-fried sense of joy. There's even a healthy dose of mischief in the lyrics, especially on boozy party anthems like the bouncy "Life of the Party" and the funky acoustic guitar-driven "Tall Glass of Something."
With gnarly slide-guitar riffs and a fist-pumping vocal delivery, the nostalgic song "1972" pays homage to Owen's favorite classic rock acts, name-checking Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and the Who's Keith Moon.
Owen touches on some of typical points of interest on the fast-beat rocker "Days of Gold," a powerful opening tune. "Well, it's a Southern summer; Whiskey's in the air, dog's on the burner. Beer's ice cold, got a pretty little lady to hold; Gotta hop on the old dirt road to the days of gold."
The goofy summertime party tune/rap "Beachin' " - a two-chord jam with cliches about partying on the sands, koozie in hand - might be the weakest tune of the bunch, although it clicked with fans last summer.
On a more serious note, the dynamic, minor-key anthem "Ghost Town" comes off well with clever melodies and quick-fire verses.
"I think it's different," Owen says of his current set. "I don't know if it's so out there that people would get offended by it. But we did take a chance. It's a risk-reward thing. I think that as an artist, sometimes for you to grow, you have to take those risks rather than put out the same song each time. You look back on careers of people who had songs that were just a little bit different, and that's what we did."