The title track and lead single on rising country star Jake Owen's fourth album, Days of Gold (duo out December 3rd), is rife with references to trucks, dirt roads, moonshine by the riverside, whiskey in the air and dogs on the burner. They're tell-tale tropes of a hard-charging, radio-ready, red-state party anthem. But Owen says the song doesn't necessarily set the tone for a sonically diverse album he hopes will establish his stature as an artist.
"What I'm trying to do with this record is to not have songs that all sound the exactly alike," Owen tells Rolling Stone. "I've definitely had moments in my career where I've released songs that were not necessarily the most, you know, in-depth-written song, or maybe it was a party anthem. I wanted to start adding more validity to my music."
One song Owen hopes will help him accomplish that is a piano- and pedal-steel vocal ballad called "(We All Want) What We Ain't Got."
"I think it really has a chance to be a single," he says. "I really hope it does, because I think it'll help push my career in a direction differently than others that aren't doing those sort of things."
The song is about a guy lamenting a lost relationship, with a broader, grass-is-always-greener theme that reaches beyond heartbroken lovers. It's ultimately relatable to all listeners who want something more.
"We need more of those kinds of songs in [country music]," Owen says. "We need more songs than just songs about tailgates and fuckin' cups and Bacardi and stuff like that. We need songs that get ourselves back to the format that made me love it . . . [like] when guys like Randy Travis released songs like 'He Walked on Water' – songs that meant something, man!"
That said, Owen isn't straying too far from the formula of his breakout 2011 pop-country chart-topper Barefoot Blue Jean Night, an album that yielded four Top 10 singles and elevated the singer to arena status. He says the Days cut "Beachin'," a summery lifestyle jam, "sounds like if 'Barefoot Blue Jean Night' had a sister song, this would be it."
But even the "party songs" on Days have a weightier subtext, Owen says. "Life of the Party," which the singer describes as sounding like a "straight-up radio smash single," is about pretending you're the life of the party to mask a heart heavy with ache and stress, like a countrified answer to Smokey Robinson and the Miracle's "Tears of a Clown." It's a song the singer relates to.
"[The song] is true to my life," he explains. "My dad went through cancer last year. I went and saw him, he'd lost 80 pounds and looked horrible. Meanwhile, I was still having to put on a smile every night and go out onstage and pretend like my life is the greatest thing ever."
If there's one Days tune Owen is perhaps most proud of, it's "After the Music Stops," a story song about a man losing his woman and wishing he could get her back, with lyrics constructed entirely from titles of classic rock and pop songs.
"I wish you were here/So you could be my baby/Rescue me from this heartbreak hotel/I heard it through the grapevine, you were comfortably numb on that highway to hell," he says, reciting the song's first verse. "It's pretty far out, dude. It's just something that I would hang my hat on, in my career . . . I even said when I recorded it, 'This could be my only chance ever in my life to win a Grammy award.' It's just that poignant of a song."
Not long after the album's release, Owen will embark on the Days of Gold tour, the singer's first outing headlining arenas. "I'm pretty fired up about it," he says. "It's a big move, man, [but] I feel like I'm ready, man."
Nevertheless, the singer says success won't stop him from staying hungry. "I don't feel like I've made it. I feel like if you ever feel like you've made it, then you're content with where you are, and I don't ever feel that way. When I finish playing arenas I'm gonna go, 'Well, I wanna play stadiums.'"
"Days of Gold"
"Life of the Party"
"Tall Glass of Something"
"One Little Kiss (Never Killed Nobody)"
"What We Ain't Got"
Jake Owen Steers Clear of Country Cliches on 'Days of Gold'
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