Jake Owen didn’t get to be one of country’s leading party-starters by capsizing the format’s boat. His platinum-certified hits “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” and “Beachin’” (each a Hot Country Songs No. 1) show his Nashville anthem bona fides. But after a public divorce from model Lacey Buchanan in 2015, the perpetually grinning Florida native, 34, eschewed both turn-up friendly singles and cliched break-up laments for his fifth album, American Love, out July 29.
Owen does some especially canny tweaking of familiar formulas on winking at the headiness of high-school romance in the title track, paying tribute to tokens of youthful attraction in the album closer “American Country Love Song” and doing plenty else that lands him somewhere between sly and earnest. Alongside pining ballads and pop-philosophizing are sounds that skillfully blend programmed precision with deliberately baggy grooves and a generous helping of bohemian imagery. One moment Owen’s fantasizing about picking up a date in a Camaro, and four tracks later he’s inviting listeners to imagine a freewheeling ride in a vehicle that rarely ever makes appearances in country songs: a vintage VW van. He bought one of his own, a sea foam green, 1966 model that appears in his road-tripping music video, but he was on a regular, old tour bus when he called to talk to Billboard.
What is it about the symbolism of a VW bus that you wanted to embrace?
They kind of lend themselves to hopping in and taking a road trip to wherever. …It’s kind of a feeling of the freedom of young love, and at this point in my life after going through a divorce last year and being a little sad, I needed to make a record that made me feel good. American Love is kind of like one long playlist of songs that not only make me feel good but take me on a journey of where I was, where I wanna go, where I am right now, and that’s kind of the same thing as hopping in a van and just rolling.
I’ve always wanted to buy a beat-up van. And I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna buy one of these things, find one online that’s been restored.” I looked for awhile, and ended up finding this one in North Carolina, and got my buddy to pick it up for me. Then I took it on the Love Bus Road Trip to Key West, driving 55 miles an hour down the highway in a Volkswagen. Nobody got mad. Everyone was just smiling, sticking their thumb out the window like, “Heck yeah, man.”
You’ve always used beach imagery in your songs, like Kenny Chesney before you, but it’s only recently that references to a hippie girl, a VW bus and Nag Champa incense have shown up in your lyrics. Tell me about this shift in a slightly more bohemian direction.
Over time, it’s about honing in on how you want to represent yourself as an artist. Some artists are able to do that on the very first record they come out with, but I’m self-aware enough to tell you that it’s taken me, like, five records and going from being a 22-year-old kid who got a record deal to taking years to get to number one, and then having four in a row, and then having a couple of songs that didn’t do as well, that whole ride. I think it’s a lot easier to realize what works for me and what’s real to me now.
I love the funky feel of these songs, “American Love,” “Good Company” and “VW Van.” I like to play barefoot, but I don’t consider myself some hippie or anything like that. But I do think that anyone that knows me will tell you that I just kind of float like a feather. If the wind picks me up and wants to take me somewhere, I like the ride.
It’s been a good, long while since outside observers associated hippie sensibilities with country music — maybe even since the ’70s, when Willie Nelson grew his hair out and the cosmic cowboy movement drew attention. Do you think about that stuff?
I do. I also think it’s kind of helped me brand myself. Not that I’m by any means doing something that’s not real to me. If anything, looking back at the first part of my career, I was singing songs that didn’t represent me as a person as much, and at the time I didn’t know any different because I was just trying to prove myself as an artist that was viable. But thankfully now, after having a record deal for 10 years, I can say that I feel like I made it. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody at this point.
I saw you play an acoustic show during CMA Fest. Your set featured a horn section, a Ben Harper cover and a jammy vibe. Have you ever considered playing a jam band festival?
What’s really important things to me is the entertainment aspect of what we do. At CMA fest, being able to unplug and break it down, that was pretty freewheeling. We just kind of went with it, and it allows me to open up and be carefree. I looked over at one of the guys and I said, “Take it. Take the solo.” It’s not planned. It’s so exciting to me to not know each night what’s gonna happen, if the sax player or the trombone player or somebody is gonna play something cool.
I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about going to a jam band festival, but hell, I’d do it, because I love music that much that I’d love to try it. I’ve always been a little jealous that maybe my music wasn’t too fitting for a place like Bonnaroo or something, but I’d love to play Bonnaroo.
In some ways, what you’re doing now closes a little bit of the gap between country and jam band territory. Some other country acts, like the Brothers Osborne, are accomplishing that in their own ways.
Here we are in 2016 and country music represents so many things. I feel like there’s so many ways that artists now have to still be in the format, but have their own identifiable sound. There’s definitely the more commercial side of things, and then you can go all the way to the other side of the spectrum whether it be Chris Stapleton or the Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell. I love that there’s room for anything and everything right now and the fans are allowed to pick and choose what it is that they wanna hear. And I think for a few years of my career, I didn’t have that opportunity. It’s such a free, refreshing feeling to be able to go out there this time around and hone in more on the sound that I really wanted.
It’s been common to hear songs that songs that describe female characters looking good, riding shotgun and not doing much else. But in “LAX,” the woman is the sophisticated one, driving the guy around in her convertible and introducing him to Jackson Browne albums. Why was this a story you wanted to tell right now?
You’re right. People talk a lot about it these days, how women are objectified in country music. And quite frankly, there are maybe some lines on my album that might seem that way, but I never wanted to jump on that train and objectify women in a way where they felt offended. I am such a fan of a woman in general, and the way that they make a man feel. Not in some lustful male chauvinistic way; I mean that as a human being appreciating a woman. I’m real tight with my mom, and even though I did get divorced, I loved being married. It didn’t work out, but outside of getting a record deal, there’s nothing more fulfilling in my life.
I did date a girl out there in L.A. for a little while, and it was inspiring to me because she represented California in a way. She had that free-spirit attitude, and she’d say, “Hey, let’s go do this. I wanna show you this. I wanna show you that.” I think that it’s a cool story. It’s a way of writing it from a totally different perspective of allowing her to take the wheel. And that’s probably my favorite song on the record, not just because of the lyrics. I love steel guitar. I’ve always wanted to keep it on my records, although the times have changed a lot and you don’t hear that much steel guitar so much on records anymore. But on this song in particular, it doesn’t sound so honky-tonk as much as it sounds almost like ’70s country, kind of Gram Parsons. I wanted that feeling of just driving through Laurel Canyon, like you would think of an old Eagles song with the convertible and the wind blowing through your hair.
It’s one thing for your label to tell you that you need to scrap an album and start over, but my understanding was that it was you who made the decision to do that this time. What was it you were dissatisfied with?
I was just in a different part of my life. I mean, I was going through that divorce. The label head was changing. For three or four months, I’m out there making a record, and I’m in the 10th year of my career, which is a very pivotal, important time to put out an amazing record, and I didn’t even have a label head to go to and ask what they thought of it. I’ve done that before where I’ve conformed to deadlines, and I think that shows to your fans. So I went to the new label head, Randy Goodman, and I said, “Hey man, I know you don’t know me, but I know that I can make an awesome album if I just have the time to do it. Do you care if we push this off a couple months and I go back in and kind of recreate some things?” What came from that was those songs, “VW Van,” “Good Company” and “When You Love Someone,” which is so stripped down, just the piano and the vocal. That’s such a poignant song. I had to put that song on my record. That’s not a freewheeling song at all, but just based off my life and things I went through. I felt like people were expecting me to do some sort of love songs or have some sadness on there, but that’s really as far as I could go. I’m so glad I did reapproach this, because I don’t think I could do any better.
A couple of years back, you put out the emotionally conflicted ballad, “What We Ain’t Got,” as a single. It made the charts but wasn’t nearly as successful as some of your more lighthearted songs. How do you harmonize what’s working for you with what else you want to try musically?
One of the reasons we put out “What We Ain’t Got” at the time was that was right after “Beachin’” was a big hit. And I have to be honest: I’m a competitor. I wanna win. I had five number ones. But none of those number ones were like “What We Ain’t Got,” something that had this depth to it and something where people could hear me sing. Most of my songs, whether it was “Real Life” or “Beachin’,” even “American Country Love Song,” for some reason in a lot of these songs that worked for me I was talking. I just got to the point where I felt like people weren’t taking me seriously as a singer. When you can break it down to just the piano and a vocal, I think it allows people to see a side of me that they don’t necessarily get to see when they listen to some other songs that were big hits. I think that’s important as an artist, to not just show up every time and give them what they expect.
?A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 6 issue of Billboard.