Prior to his headlining acoustic performance at the historic Hoyt Sherman Place venue in Des Moines Friday night, Vero Beach, Florida native and country star Jake Owen was seemingly an easy one to peg.
Good looks, a voice to match, and a catalog of songs about lost love, dirt roads and pickup trucks. Depending on who you ask, he’s a card carrying member of the bro-country movement, too, that subset of country artists who have pushed their sound beyond the realms of “real country” music, say purists. It’s too rap, it’s too electric, and there’s just not enough damn fiddles.
So when Owen opened his 16-city, acoustic “Down To The Tiki Tonk Tour” on Valentine’s Day (night) in the capital city, alone with his acoustic guitar on a barstool on a legendary stage, the question stood:
Who is the real Jake Owen?
Three hours later, the answer had been delivered in spades. When given the opportunity to show his authentic chops and his personality, he’s the real deal. In an electrified arena setting with a full backing band and note-for-note versions of his radio-friendly songs, it’s easy to become lost in a sea of soundalikes, and he does. Give him an acoustic guitar and a show that’s looser than creamed corn in a can, however, and you’ve got something good.
As soon as the house lights went down to reveal a tiki bar-style stage setup complete with stools, leg lamp, cooler (which he playfully pulled beer from throughout the night and handed to the audience), Owen strode out in his light blue, distant cousin to a Nudie Suit outfit with newcomer Larry Fleet, acting more as the emcee than the show’s headlining act. That relaxed atmosphere set the tone for the rest of the night in which Owen, when he wasn’t on stage performing his own music, was playfully bantering with Fleet, fellow opener Scotty Emerick, or the audience.
“Holy shit, it’s like the Price Is Right up here,” he joked after performing “Down To The Honky Tonk” and “Don’t Throw Shade On Me.” “I’m feeling this, Iowa!”
Multiple times Owen took song requests from audience members, even going as far as inviting a newlywed couple up on stage, pouring a beer into an audience member’s seven-high stack of red Solo cups, and asking the audience, “Is this working? Do you like this?” The artists tuned their guitars between songs, and looked as though some of the twists and turns the set took truly came out of left field. But by being imperfect, they were perfect. Save the choreography for the big stage. This night was meant to be intimate, and it was, so much so that Owen spoke during the show of the interesting dichotomy that is his career. He spent years trying to get to the level in which he was playing stadiums, he said, but once he got there, he missed the interaction he had with audiences at smaller venues such as Hoyt Sherman Place.
The full house crowd resoundingly gave their approval to hits “Yee Haw,” current single “Homemade,” and his first No. 1 hit, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” from 2011’s album of the same name. After a short intermission, Owen took to the stage with Fleet and Emerick and an acoustic side band for acoustic performances of “The One That Got Away” and “Anywhere With You.”
The real treat of the post-intermission interplay amongst the three was the myriad of cover songs that Owen, Fleet and Emerick teamed up to deliver, ranging from the tongue-in-cheek “Let’s Talk Dirty In Hawaiian” by John Prine; Ed Bruce’s “Mamma Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys;” “My Own Kind of Hat” by the late, great Merle Haggard; and “Don’t Rock The Jukebox” by Alan Jackson. Emerick took the lead on “I Love This Bar,” “As Good As I Once Was,” and “Beer For My Horses,” songs he co-wrote for fellow country artist Toby Keith.
Fleet is a talent to watch for in the near future. Having just secured his first record deal, the burly and bearded one wowed the audience with his Chris Stapleton-esque tenor and vibrato. Not a clone, mind you, but distinctly close. His debut album, “Workin’ Hard,” was released last fall, and in a perfect world, you’ll be hearing more from him in the future.
Time will tell whether or not Owen is a star maker for Fleet, but this was an excellent start.
And time will also be the judge of Owen and his status within the country music community. Will he ever be accepted by most purists? Most likely not. But for those on the fence, this tour could be the extra bucket of goodwill that he needs.
So who is the real Jake Owen? This one.
Welcome back, Jake.