There are no seat belts in Jake Owen’s Love Bus. In fact, his newest trophy — a 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 in Caribbean blue and white — lacks a few safety features a modern man might call sensible. The door latches are unreliable; the floor-mounted gearshift sticks; and if you’re feeling flushed, the best and only solution is to drive faster.

Sometimes the Love Bus — a couch on wheels, really — takes two or three turns to start. It doesn’t announce itself with a roar as much as it does a cranky, tractor-like putter. I’m coming, I’m coming, it seems to protest with each spin of the keys, before the motor coughs out dust and, finally, a low, steady rumble. Owen, too, is rumbling again after a season-long sputter. American Love, the singer-songwriter’s fifth album due July 29 on RCA Nashville, features the van on its cover art — a hint that perhaps the vehicle’s greatest contribution to the project was to act as a mirror for a 34-year-old who lacks a few standard safety features himself.

At this moment, man and machine are free and unfettered of baggage, both literal and emotional. Owen and I climb aboard the Love Bus, two gypsies trading the sterile air conditioning of his management office for warm Tennessee sunshine, trying to figure out where we’re headed next.

RCA Nashville
RCA Nashville

Owen and his wife Lacey separated last July after three years of marriage and divorced not long after. The spontaneity of their romance was like something out of a movie. She was his video girl ("Eight Second Ride," 2009), two years passing before they got serious, and the courtship sealed with a kiss when he had her lips tattooed on his bicep. In April 2012 he dropped to one knee, proposed onstage and whisked her to a sandy alter one month later. Baby Pearl arrived on Thanksgiving 2012. It was the perfect picture, until suddenly it wasn’t.

“There’s a song that George Strait had out that I gravitate to a lot: ‘Livin’ for the Night’,” he says, referring to the depression that came with divorce papers. He pauses and recites the lyrics. “I've drawn all the curtains in this old house / To keep the sun out and off my face / Friends stop by to check in 'cause I've checked out / I tell them I'm fine, I'm living for the night.”

Great sadness can make great art, and there is an EP’s worth of songs stashed somewhere that Owen says he wrote as he adjusted to the loneliness that followed the split. Ultimately these songs weren’t what the artist wanted for American Love. The album’s dark infidelity tale “When You Love Someone” doesn’t contain any tabloid confessions.

“No, there’s no [real life] story of her getting drunk and getting in a car and going too far with someone. Not at all,” Owen tells ms, referencing the lyrics. “The purpose of that song is that when you love someone, and you’re really in love with someone, you know what that feels like and you know what that should be, just as well as you feel it when it’s not right. That by no means has anything to do with my personal life.”

Written by Blair Daly, Sean McConnell and Hillary Lindsey (who also lends background vocals) and co-produced by Lukas Bracewell, the ballad pairs Owen with nothing more than piano. Sonically, it’s this release’s “What We Ain’t Got,” the singer’s mid-charting final single off of 2014’s Days of Gold. Where that song dealt in longing for the things we can’t have, “When You Love Someone” mines what happens when we get those things and reality takes hold — a feeling well known by someone just through a divorce.

“That line there, ‘It sounds like a lie when you say it / it sounds like a lie because it is’,” Owen pulls the phrase to describe his marriage, “We both got to a point where … we were in opposite places of our life. We weren’t being honest with each other.”

The truth, Owen says later, is it just didn’t work out. He and Lacey care a lot about one another and are working hard to help their three-year-old daughter understand why she’s now living in Florida while her dad lives in Tennessee. He’s still figuring it out, too, and if you watch him closely you can see a father’s heartache. His eyes soften when he admits that his daughter’s car seat takes away from his lifted pickup truck’s street cred, but, he says, “It makes it me feel good when I look in the back seat and see her there.” He proudly admits he can braid her hair. He pauses, as if suddenly realizing how slippery time is, when he says that in just over a decade Pearl will be able to drive the Love Bus, “her bus.”

“Now especially that she lives in Florida with her mom … I have to be a dad that is everything to her,” he says. “I have to be the dad that can teach her stuff and be strict, but I also don’t want to be the dad that every time she gets to see Dad, I’m just the guy that’s telling her what to do. I need to be her buddy, I need to be there for her."

“There would be times,” he shares, “even with her being young, where she’d be like ‘Dad you’re always on your phone’ … She’d be going ‘Dad! Dad!’ to get my attention. And then she’d go ‘Jake!’ Because she saw other people get my attention by calling me Jake.”

Once the divorce was finalized Owen says he began to figure out how to live life again. He prioritized his roles, turned off the George Strait song and fought to reclaim his signature optimism. He hopes to date and get married and have kids again someday. But Pearl comes first, and he needs to protect her.

“My parents have been married for 36 years. My grandparents have been married for 68 years. When I got married, that’s what I intended. It ended up not being the right thing, but that’s what I intended and that’s what I believe in.”

Berman Fenelus
Berman Fenelus

It’s hot, and with no power steering and only one good arm (a cycling crash ripped his left forearm open days earlier), Owen is working hard to turn a one-ton box of steel around Nashville’s city streets. “I’ll turn on some solid air for you,” he cracks as he fiddles with a few ceiling slots. There’s no air conditioning, but that’s not to say the Germans didn’t come up with something. They improvised. They adjusted.

Owen did the same last summer and fall. A near-finished album, led by the ska-flecked country-pop trifle “Real Life,” was canned in favor of a sound that hews closer to what he’s cultivated for over a decade. Nine of the 12 songs he’d recorded were scrapped. He jokingly compares the new tunes to a warm sweater needed to stave off the cold. They’re comfortable for him and fans.

“‘Real Life’ shocked people in a way,” says co-writer and co-producer Shane McAnally. “It didn’t feel quite on brand, and at that time Jake was still in process of getting divorced. The record was a priority, but it was hard to emotionally pinpoint what he wanted to say.”

“The songs just didn’t make sense anymore to me,” Owen says as he weaves through the neighborhoods that skirt downtown Nashville. “At the time when I was recording them, I was just in a different spot obviously. I was going through a lot personally with the divorce. And then my label change was happening.”

Sony Music Nashville swapped CEOs, replacing Gary Overton with Randy Goodman in July 2015. Artists Sara Evans and the Swon Brothers were dropped from the roster, putting everyone on high alert. The culture changed, expectations changed, and there just wasn’t a place for an album that relied on left-field influences from a band like ’90s alt-rock mainstay Sublime.

“So everything was new: new people, new regime, new producers, new lifestyle. Being alone a lot but still trying to realize life goes on. I wasn’t going to be the one to sit around just because I was getting a divorce. I’m sure a lot of it was my fault, but at the same time, I had to live my life.”

The sound of air flowing up the windshield and through engineered ceiling vents fills a short silence. The motor gives off a comforting purr. The tiny foot wells and short bench seat are cozy, not cramped. I start to understand why Owen speaks so fondly of road trips. Everything slows down on the Love Bus. You can finish a thought — unless, of course, you have to bend down with both hands to wrestle with the gearshift.

“Play Van Morrison, ‘Crazy Love,’” Owen says, and Siri obliges. This is how he and his crew drove a thousand miles to Florida in early March. Satellite radio and Mel Street, a ’70s hitmaker who committed suicide on his 43rd birthday in 1978, also helped fill the silence. They topped out around 55 mph and stopped for gas every 100 miles because that’s all the tank will give you.

“A song like this,” Owen starts, pausing to let Morrison fill the air, “it gives me a melody to soundtrack my life to, but also allows me to have my own thoughts going on.”

She gave me love, love, love, love, crazy love.

Owen co-wrote just one song on American Love: “LAX,” a clever ballad that laments love lost. McAnally, Copperman and Luke Laird were behind many of the rest. Their vision shaped the first version of this album, and the second one, too: a reflection of real life, with all its emotional highs and imperfect lows. From Point A to Point B, though, the meaning of real life changed.

“You’d be so surprised,” Owen says, “when I was going through my divorce everybody — every songwriter, everyone — was sending me songs that were like that. That new song Blake Shelton has out, ‘She’s Got a Way With Words’? That was pitched to me and I remember vividly the first time I heard that, I was like, ‘That’s a really good, cool song, very well written. But if I record this song and I’m taken literally — I don’t want my ex to perceive I did that to her.’”

You’ll find Lacey elsewhere on the album, however, as the track list is sequenced chronologically with the stages of their relationship. “American Love” is young and fun and carefree. Things heat up with “After Midnite,” a bass-heavy country-funk song that argues “Nothing good ever happens after midnight / Maybe midnight’s just misunderstood.”

“‘Where I Am’ is a lot in line with my relationship with my ex-wife. I was this guy on the road, she was living at home in Florida. Any time she needed me or I needed her I could fly her out. There’s a lot of parallels in that song.”

American Country Love Song” closes the album, as if letting us know that through the ups and downs, he still believes in love. He does still believe in love, after all.

The Love Bus rambles toward Nashville’s Music Row, and as he turns left, the passenger door unexpectedly flies open. Owen at first looks alarmed, but a familiar smile comes quickly when he realizes everyone is still in the car. If you don’t pull the door shut all the way, he warns, that’ll happen.

Fans know this Jake Owen — the one with a quick, dry wit and a wide Cheshire smile. He and his publicist make a remark that the mini fire drill symbolizes how their day has gone, but really, isn’t this how his last decade has gone? Almost quarterly there’s a gym photo, a stage incident, a tweet or Instagram photo, or an accident that everyone is talking about. There’s always a lot going on up front, some distraction to keep the curious at arm’s length. His divorce proved that this façade is more about self-preservation than exploitation.

“The difference with me and the other person that lives down the street that might have gone through the same thing is [my experience] is news or a story to somebody,” he says later. “To me it’s not a story. It’s my life. … Seeing myself exploited like that, like, I don’t think I’m famous.”

Less than three minutes after the door incident, the Bus has its eyes set on a car headed east on westbound-only Music Row West. The driver recognizes the mistake and turns around, and Owen rumbles up to her at the next light.

“Hey, this is one way,” he says, smiling. The woman, likely a student at nearby Belmont College or Vanderbilt University, blushes. And here Owen’s quick wit gives way to a level of empathy only a man closer to 40 than 20 can deliver sincerely.

“Honestly, while you were doing it, all of us were like, ‘I’ve totally been that person before,” he consoles. “Everybody’s done it.”

The light turns green. The Love Bus putters and then rumbles away in search of another open road, and another song.

A Candid Shoot With Jake Owen

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