The chorus of Jake Owen's current top 10 single, "Down to the Honkytonk," playfully discounts the importance of a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame or on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: "I might not go down in history/But I'll go down to the honky-tonk."
So it's ironic that "Down to the Honkytonk" went down in history by picking up an Academy of Country Music Award nomination for single of the year. (The 54th annual event is scheduled for April 7 in Las Vegas.) The timing was ideal, bringing him attention as "Honkytonk" hits the home stretch in its chart climb (it's at No. 10 on the Country Airplay list dated March 30) and as his first Big Loud album, Greetings From… Jake, is released March 29.
The ACM accolade didn't knock him off his game. Owen is "super flattered," he says, to be on the ballot for the first time since he won top new male vocalist in 2009, but trophy consideration is gravy for his career, not the meat and potatoes.
"It's obviously a huge honor to be nominated for something, but I just don't put much emphasis on it anymore," he says. "I'd rather people remember me 10 years, 20 years down the road for having good character and being a good person than remembering me because I won a single of the year award."
That sort of practical, common-man attitude fits the tone of Greetings, an album that returns Owen to the country core that served as his bread and butter at the starting gate on his career journey, which has yielded 10 Country Airplay top 10 titles, including seven No. 1s. Instead of the programmed drums and plug-in effects that are fairly standard in modern country, Owen drapes the album in guitars — biting honky-tonk electrics, ringing acoustics and Paul Franklin's tangy steel — and reconnects with the twang in his Florida-bred accent and the rich basement tones that dominated his early recordings.
"He's a classic-country-song jukebox," says producer Joey Moi (Florida Georgia Line, Morgan Wallen). "He can sit there and play any old, old classic country song for hours and hours and hours, and he sings in this awesome, great baritone country voice, which is so natural to him. I really wanted to get him [to do] more [of] that: more organic, more traditional, more singing down in those lower keys."
Greetings is graphically presented as a vacation postcard, intended to portray the 14-song project as a message from the current location of Owen's career journey. But the album itself works as a journey, too. Starting with "Down to the Honkytonk," it travels in stages through classic-rock influence — represented by his John Mellencamp-derived "I Was Jack (You Were Diane)" and a weed-referencing Kid Rock collaboration, "Grass Is Always Greener" — to Owen's familiar beach-party brand and into more philosophical songs about life and love before circling back to its traditional country starting line with "Damn."
The path includes a visit from YouTube star Lele Pons, a Venezuelan-born singer-actress with 33.8 million Instagram followers. "Senorita" is a tropical-country effort dusted with Spanglish phrases and Mexicali guitar, and it marks the biggest side trip on Greetings.
"I like the fact that she's not someone that's expected on a country album," he says. "It kind of gives me a little bit of cred outside of just the country genre. I know that might contradict [the foundation of] this country album, but I think that it's important for any artist to kind of step outside the comfort zone sometimes and actually do something that does throw people for a loop."
Owen has made it a point to test roads less traveled of late. When he signed with Big Loud, he represented the first established act to join the roster, which already included newer talents Wallen, Chris Lane and Jillian Jacqueline. Owen started work in February on his first movie, The Friend, starring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Segal. And he established his own management firm, Good Company, with founding partners Keith Gale and Jon Andolina. Good Company created, at least temporarily, a radio promotion wing in support of RECORDS artist Matt Stell.
"It's a lot like when I left Tallahassee to move to Nashville," says Owen of the management firm. "It was a big chance. It was something [where] people are like, ‘Wow, I can't believe you're doing this.' But anything I've ever done in life where I've just taken a chance but believed in myself to do it has really flourished and worked out in a great way."
Good Company also gives Owen a bigger role in directing his business life in conjunction with his personal life, and that played into his concert plans behind Greetings. Following last summer's tour, which focused on minor-league baseball parks, this summer's schedule is grounded in festivals and fair dates, where the production costs are minimized and Owen is just one attraction in a ream of events and entertainers.
It makes creative sense — he'll be promoting an album with greater traditional country vibes by playing the kind of venues that have long been associated with the genre — but it also fits his domestic needs. Girlfriend Erica Hartlein is carrying his second daughter and is due in late spring. Owen indicates that his career focus has been partly responsible for damaging previous relationships; the fairs and festivals will allow him to be more casual about work for the baby's first six months or so.
"It's a grind putting together a big show, paying for a lot of big production, paying your opening acts," he says. "There's a lot that goes into that, and I fully intend on doing that with this album come 2020, but for this summertime, I just felt like it was good for me to go out, make some money playing fairs and festivals and not have the pressure of having my own tour. Actually, for the first time in 10 years, it'll give the guys in the band a little bit of a break."
In the meantime, the ACM nomination gives some validation to the approach Owen has used in his work, represented well in the country-grounded odyssey that is Greetings From… Jake.
"I've had a really great journey, and I'm so proud of who I am through all of this," he says. "The music really helps me say that for anybody who's listening."