With a string of No. 1 hits at country radio in recent years, Jake Owen has earned the right to steer his career.
So when it came to designing the set of his Days of Gold Tour this year, the 33-year-old singer-songwriter filled the stage with tiki bars, nautical ropes and palm trees. Owen wanted it to look like Riverside Cafe — a bar located on the Indian River in his hometown of Vero Beach, Fla. — for sentimental reasons, and not just because they cook "a good fish sandwich."
"It's the place that really embraced me when I started playing guitar," Owen said on the phone recently from Missouri while on the road. "I would go there and play Sunday afternoons — everything from Jimmy Buffett to Otis Redding to Alan Jackson songs. When I think of home, I think of Riverside Cafe."
It's no wonder Owen, who headlines two shows at Merriweather Post Pavilion this weekend, surrounds himself with reminders of home. He has hardly been there since his career took off with the release of his third album, 2011's "Barefoot Blue Jean Night." Owen's previous records (2006's "Startin' with Me" and 2009's "Easy Does It") were far from flops, but "Barefoot" and its four consecutive No. 1 singles on country radio raised his profile considerably.
The success led to supporting slots on major tours with Jason Aldean, Keith Urban and other country heavyweights. But the release of his fourth album, last December's "Days of Gold," finally and firmly placed Owen in the position of headliner.
"Just having your name on the ticket is such validation," Owen said. "Like, 'Man, really, I've made it.'"
Years back, "it" was supposed to be the top of the golf ranks for Owen. But after a wakeboarding accident forced him to quit the Florida State University golf team, he turned to music. The transition was not entirely smooth because Owen lacked the traditional country pedigree many Nashville gatekeepers require for entrance. On songs like "Yee Haw," from his debut album, he overcompensated as a way to justify his place in the genre.
Owen found more widespread success when his increasingly anthemic songs — such as "Anywhere with You" and the recent hit, "Beachin'" — infused more pronounced party vibes. But it is his latest single, the piano ballad "What We Ain't Got," that Owen views as a game changer. He did not write it (his friend Travis Meadows, along with Travis Jerome Goff, did) but the themes of regret and longing struck a chord with the singer.
"Sometimes I want to just be home and not be a star, per se," Owen said. "I want to just go home to Florida and be with my dad, who beat cancer last year. The whole time he was beating cancer, I was on the road with a big smile on my face every night, lights and video behind me, pretending like everything is OK.
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Owen knows his reputation as a fun-loving party starter is his own doing, from the songs he sings to the concert stages he designs. But he's also smart enough to know that songs like "Beachin'" open doors to more substantial tracks.
"It's easy for people, whether they're fans or they're critics, to classify artists just based off a song or two ... but they don't really know them until that artist gets a chance to spread their wings," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to put out songs that I think are fun and feel good and help my arena show. But you have to take people on a journey."
As he reveals himself more as an artist, Owen's journey continues to his next album. He expects his fifth album to be out sometime next year, but Owen is currently working with other songwriters on it. He knows his audience better now, he said, which means the songwriting process easier. The approach is no longer, "Let's throw a dart and see what happens," Owen said.
An artist's confidence tends to grow at the rate of his career, so the shock of seeing his name on a ticket stub has since dissolved. Now, Owen has greater goals.
"Even though my life is going great with my career, I want more out of it," he said. "People are like, 'What could you possibly want more?' I want to win Entertainer of the Year. I want to win Song of the Year."