Despite reaching the pinnacle of country music success, Jake Owen remains firmly connected to his Vero Beach roots
BY CHRISTINA TASCON
Jake Owen searches the world for country music talent, participates in at least a dozen charity events every year and just raised more than $1.5 million for the Jake Owen Charity Foundation to help children. And that’s just his side job.
Throw in 53 concerts last year, five career studio albums, seven No. 1 singles, two top country music awards and weekly appearances on the music competition show, “Real Country” with Travis Tritt and Shania Twain.
Raised in Vero Beach, the 37-year-old Jake boasts to the world about his hometown, returning to it every December for visits with family and friends and performances for charity events.
Friends and supporters say he has changed Vero Beach’s landscape through his philanthropy and by using his star power for the community’s good.
Jake believes that in an industry like country music, being a nice guy pays off. The fans are notorious for getting up close and personal, with many giving the stars homemade gifts and following their lives as if they were family. And in return, country musicians make themselves approachable and available at many personal meet-and-greets.
“I believe that striving to do things to the best of my ability and to be the best person I can be is the only way to be. I also think that it helps to go further in this industry because being a good person is appealing to the people that I am in business with.”
AS DEPENDABLE AS CHRISTMAS
Although he lives in Nashville now, Jake comes to Vero like clockwork every December. Besides spending time with his family and friends, he also holds his annual Jake Owen Charity Foundation concert and Pro Am. This December was no different, with charity appearances Dec. 7-8 at Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa, the Vero Beach Country Club and a performance at a benefit concert at the Indian River County Fairgrounds that drew 6,000 people.
Jake’s first charity event began in 2005 and was a joint venture with his boyhood friend, Mardy Fish, a former No. 1-rated American tennis professional. Both did their share to raise funds for their mission to help children.
Originally, Fish provided tennis talent to play in celebrity matches with professional greats like Serena Williams, while Jake gave a music festival with country stars he knew. As Fish’s schedule became hectic and Jake began touring and rose in the country rankings, it was almost impossible to schedule a mutual free weekend. The two friends decided to hold separate events while still keeping a strong bond between the two families.
THE EARLY YEARS
Born Aug. 28, 1981, in Winter Haven along with his fraternal twin, Jarrod, Jake was christened Joshua Ryan Owen. The name change came much later when he got into the country music business, but friends and family still slip back and forth between Jake and Josh.
His family moved to Vero Beach when it was a sleepy beachside town and the twins were 3 years old. Their father, Steve Owen, was hired as director of sales for a new private subdivision called Grand Harbor.
Their attractive and outgoing mother, Mitzi, had been a flight attendant at Delta Airlines, but became a devoted stay-at-home mom who, with her husband, always encouraged the boys to participate in local activities.
When they relocated to Vero Beach, their first home was in The Moorings, another young community located near the ocean.
“Back then, it was not as populated as it is now,” said childhood friend and neighbor Sheana Firth. “In fact, I think that Josh and Jarrod were about the only kids close by and since our houses backed up on each other’s, our parents introduced themselves, so we would have someone to play with.”
They did the typical things beach kids did — swim, climb trees, hunt for sand fleas on the beach and jump from swimming pool to swimming pool.
“Jake was always such a caring, nice person,” Firth recalled. “One time I fell into the empty pool shell when it was being built and scraped myself badly. Jake came over to check on me and when he saw me all bandaged, we had to console him that I wasn’t dying. He was always so concerned about everyone.”
They all attended Beachland Elementary School, where Jake and Jarrod began to focus on organized sports and when he first met Fish.
“I remember many days walking over from Beachland to Riverside Park so they could play tennis with Mardy and another friend, Robert Kowalczyk. I was the cheerleader even then,” said Firth, who also was a cheerleader at Florida State University when both Owens boys attended. Jake was majoring in English but he still loved sports and was on the school golf team.
Indian River County Deputy Teddy Floyd looks back on the time when the boys first started getting into all types of sports. He used to coach them in Little League football when they were just 9 and kept up the friendship as they went through Gifford Middle School and then Vero Beach High School, where they graduated.
“Mardy Fish was my quarterback and the twins were my running backs,” said Floyd, who is still close with the twins and the Fish family today. “They were really good, too.”
Floyd said what stood out to him was how humble and caring they were.
“So generous,’’ the deputy said. “They had to learn it from someone and it must have been from Mr. and Mrs. Owen.’’
Later, tennis and football turned into baseball and golf. Jake had plans on turning pro on the golf circuit after playing at FSU, but a serious wakeboard accident in 2004 ended his golf aspirations. If there is such a thing as a lucky accident, this might be one since his injury led him to his true destination in music.
LIFE LESSONS FOR A REASON
Although some people might have become despondent and turned bitter, that is not the Owen way.
“There’s always going to be bumps in the road,” said Jake. “My path is not going to be the same as anyone else’s and there’s always going to be obstacles along the way. What’s important is just how you navigate through that.”
After the initial reality set in, Jake turned to another of his interests and picked up a guitar again in his recovery time. He and his brother used to do little concerts with Fish during break times at school, but that was just amateur hour goofing off, according to Jake. As he grew more proficient after the accident, Jake began to play publicly and then do gigs at local hotspots in Tallahassee.
“He was doing shows at a local place everyone used to hang out at called Potbelly’s,” said Firth. “He invited me to come see him and he was really good. I was just not expecting it since I always thought of him as an athlete but, after that, I knew he was going to be something really big.”
After being signed with Sony RCA Nashville (which is when Josh became Jake), he began playing as an opener for stars like Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. His albums began to be released and he won an American Country Music Award in 2009 as Top New Male Vocalist and 2012 as Breakthrough Artist of the Year.
“Jake’s success has just given us a lot of fun,” said his mother. “We have watched it grow, and Steve and I never expected to be sitting in an arena full of people who bought tickets to see our son. Sometimes it is very surreal. Especially when you go to shows like the American Country Awards or special events and you are in the buffet line and Reba McIntyre is in front of you and Carrie Underwood is behind you. I remember when we did not know a lot of the people, and no one knew us, and we would walk in and see people like Reba McIntyre and Keith Urban and Jake would say, ‘Now mom, just calm down.’
“You don’t expect to see your son in the company of the people you have looked at as huge stars,” she said.
ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
Jake’s infectious sound, combined with handsome looks and a winning smile, helped push him higher in the charts and began to help him become a mainstream artist in country music. A lot of performers might have become arrogant — not Jake. From his crew, staff, his old friends and his family, they all use the word “nice” when referring to Jake.
His friends and family say he is just as sweet now as he ever was, perhaps even more so since he has matured as a father to daughter, Olive Pearl, and has another baby girl on the way with his girlfriend, Erica Hartlein.
“Jake is completely down to earth, super nice, hardworking, cares about people and the type of person I always wanted my daughter with,” said Eric Hartlein, Erica’s father.
Jake credits others for keeping him from getting too big for his own good and keeping him true to the way he grew up. His parents keep him grounded and his friends love to kid him and let him know he is just one of the crew.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to keep my eyes on the road and have a lot of people who helped me in my navigation, in my growth and helped me blossom,” said Jake. “I’ve made mistakes in life, I’ve said things and done things that maybe were not perfect, but that is just what human beings sometimes do. But I approach each day to treat people in the right way.”
TRAGEDY IN LAS VEGAS
In every life there are rough spots. For Jake, he will never forget Oct. 1, 2017, as one of the worst days of his life.
Fifty-eight people were killed and 851 injured at the Route 1 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. Jake counts himself incredibly blessed to have lived through it. Not only was he there but so were his friends visiting him from Vero Beach, Don and Linda Proctor, with their daughter and son-in-law.
The Proctors, who had known Jake for years, were at the concert to see Jake play.
“We knew Jake was going to be famous the second time we ever saw him play. He was a great performer,” said Don Proctor. “We took our daughter there to celebrate her birthday and had VIP access passes that put us right on the stage.”
The group had just gathered to talk to Jake off-stage when the shooting began.
“We would have been right there on stage with Jason Aldean, who I believe was the intended first victim,” Proctor said. “The first victim shot was near us, and who knows what would have happened to us if we had not moved from the VIP section at that time.”
Proctor put his daughter, son-in-law and himself behind a large amplifier. Jake and Linda went down a 10-foot wall in another direction. Jake got the two of them around a fence behind the stage and into his band’s work bus out of danger. It was three hours before the separated groups talked to each other by cell phone when reality really set in.
None of them like to think or talk about that day, but Jake reflected on the incident in this way:
“Life is fragile, and you can’t take it for granted. Appreciate everything that you’ve got around you. I don’t know why I made it out of there and others didn’t or understand why innocent people’s lives were taken. I will never understand that. I’m grateful to be where I am and for everything good that has happened in my life. They happened for a reason even though there were moments that, at the time, I didn’t understand because my mind was probably battling with it. But I believe I have to just forge ahead and keep being positive. I’ve always believed that in the negative moments, there has got to be something positive around the corner.”
ALWAYS LOCALLY LOYAL
As Jake keeps rising in stature in the music business, he continues to stay in close touch with his brother, a successful insurance agent, and his parents in Vero Beach. Since Jake’s schedule is packed, Mitzi, Steve and Jarrod often visit him in Nashville or fly to some of his concerts around the country, as do many of his Vero friends.
“The first thing I do when I get to town is to give my mom a big hug and tell my parents how good it is to see them. After that, honestly, I just kind of drive around town and go to places like Casey’s for a burger or just go driving by the beach and look at the ocean that I was lucky enough to grow up on.”
His parents say it is good to see Jake come in town, hang out with his brother and enjoy some of the things he did when he lived here growing up, spending time with the same people he knew before he was famous.
“When he came in town this last time, he called me and said he was coming to our subdivision to play pickleball,” said his mother. “I drove down by the courts and there he was, having fun with his brother and two of his friends from Vero.”
Of course, not all his time in town is free. In addition to checking in with all his old buddies, Jake has a show to put on…more than one as a matter of fact.
JAKE OWEN CHARITY FOUNDATION
This year’s 12th annual event began Dec. 7 with two of country music’s most promising singers/songwriters, Angie Keilhauer and Larry Fleet, performing at Heaton’s Reef at the Kimpton Vero Beach Hotel & Spa. From there, Jake had to make a beeline for a private VIP reception at Vero Beach Country Club. Celebrity guests who would play in the Sunday Pro Am mingled with sponsors and VIPs at the reception/charity auction where Jake accepted a check from Ken Duke for $30,000 from Duke’s foundation.
On Dec. 8, Jake held his main concert at the Indian River County Fairgrounds with Morgan Wallen, Chris Lane and Joe Diffie. He was presented a plaque by Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari proclaiming December as Jake Owen Charity Month.
On the following day, Jake wound up the charity’s 2018 events by playing in the Hale Groves Indian River County Grapefruit Golf Pro-Am Invitational at Vero Beach Country Club, which included NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick, pro golfer John Daly and Jake’s brother, Jarrod.
All the events raised money for the Jake Owen Charity Foundation which has to date brought in more than $1.5 million. That does not include the money Jake has donated out of his own pocket.
“Last Christmas, Jake gave me money for Shop with a Cop to take 20 kids who were less fortunate to the store,” said Floyd. “He gave me a hundred dollars apiece to get whatever they wanted. One family had their house burn up in a fire and we got all the kids presents, clothes, everything. It was very heartwarming.”
Jake gives to numerous local agencies and supports foundation events given by his high-profile friends in the golfing, NASCAR and music industries. Celebrities stream in to Vero Beach each year to participate in Jake’s Pro Am golf tournaments, donate incredible auction items and play at his country music concert.
The Jake Owen Field and Sports Complex in Vero Beach was the culmination of one of Jake’s biggest dreams. It was NASCAR driver Harvick who envisioned it and made it a reality for Jake and the kids.
“He always wanted to have a field and sports complex for the local kids,” said Mitzi.
The complex was funded by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and the Kevin Harvick Foundation in large part due to their personal relationships with Jake and his participation in their foundation events each year.
“Cal Ripken and Kevin Harvick got together and funded and built it with the city in Jake’s honor because he had been so generous, but it was a total secret for a year,” said Mitzi. “Kevin was so cute. We were golfing, and he told me about the field but that it was a secret and I could not tell anyone for a year — not even my husband. That was really hard.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Jake will be the first to tell you that he has no idea where he will be in 20 years, but he does know that his life will include music, friends, fun and, most importantly, his family. He is still getting used to having another daughter, but said he cherishes his time with Pearl the most right now.
“Vero Beach will always be my home town, but Nashville is becoming a great part of my life,” he said.
He signed with Big Loud Records in 2017 and other changes include his foray into television this past year. His new reality music competition show, “Real Country,” is based in Nashville so it is close to his home with Erica. The couple met almost three years ago when she was an interior designer helping renovate his home. Their new baby girl is due in May.
“I thought he might be disappointed when he found out he was not having a boy, but he said, ‘Mom, I like little girls, I am a good girl daddy,’ ” said Mitzi , noting that Pearl is Jake’s best fishing buddy.
Jake’s philosophy is to make the best of life and further the work he has already been successfully doing with the Jake Owen Charity Foundation. He and his family are looking ahead to what comes next, especially the birth of his new daughter.
“What we have enjoyed the most about this whole thing with Jake’s career is that it has really been a great deal of fun,” said Mitzi. “We laugh a lot and enjoy meeting all the people who support Jake and his charities, and I am just so touched by the amount of people who support Jake, his career and his foundation here in Vero. It is truly amazing.”
JAKE’S TOP SINGLES
Startin’ With Me, 2007
Eight Second Ride, 2009
Barefoot Blue Jean Night, 2011
The One That Got Away, 2012
Alone With You, 2012
Anywhere With You, 2013
American Country Love Song, 2016
I Was Jack (You Were Diane), 2018
Startin’ With Me
Easy Does It
Barefoot Blue Jean Night
Days of Gold
Jake Owen’s Greatest Hits
American Country Music Award,
Top New Male Vocalist, 2009
American Country Music Award,
Breakthrough Artist of the Year, 2012
The Summer Never Ends Tour with
Florida Georgia Line and Love & Theft (2012)
Days of Gold Tour with The Cadillac Three and Eli Young Band (2014)
Thunder by the Bay with Easton Corbin and Dan + Shay (2018)
Life’s What You Make It Tour with Jordan Davis and Chris Janson (Upcoming)