Shane Owens is unabashedly up-front about two of his passions: traditional country music and his support for the U.S. military. He’s showcasing both with his new single, “19,” a straight-ahead country tune inspired by the late Pat Tillman, who was killed while serving in the military in Afghanistan in 2004. Tillman was playing pro football for the Arizona Cardinals before leaving in the prime of his career and enlisting in the Army in 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Before delving into “19,” Owens, seated in the conference room of his Nashville publicist’s office, makes his case for traditional country, which he firmly believes is on its way back into the forefront. The Alabama native cut his teeth playing honky tonks and country music clubs, and can count the likes of Merle Haggard and George Jones as his stylistic influences. Owens keeps it country because, basically, that’s all he knows. He affirmed that stance in the song “Country Never Goes Out of Style,” from his current “Where I’m Coming From” album.
“I think the pendulum toward traditional country music is swinging back our way and I believe that,” Owens says with smiling conviction. “There is some evidence of it. I can see it in my shows, where you’ve got 17 and 18-year-old kids who like what I’m doing. I’ll do a Randy Travis song or a John Anderson song and they’ll come up and ask me about them later. These kids weren’t even born when those songs came out. I think there are millions of people out there who still love to hear steel guitar and fiddle.”
But while trumpeting the virtues of hard-core country, he bears no ill will to the modern stylists who mix country with every conceivable kind of music, hip-hop and rap included. “You gotta have respect for anybody who gets into this business because they get out there and tour and work hard,” Owens says. “It’s a brutal business and you have to respect anyone who can get some success.”
That seems to be coming for Owens, who’s endured his share of knockdowns, only to bounce up off the canvass again. “Where I’m Coming From,” executive produced by Travis and featuring a guest vocal by Anderson on “Chicken Truck,” has racked up considerable acclaim. This past April, Owens crossed one vital item off the bucket list when he made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry. “That is something every country artist dreams of,” says Owens, who assures that he has been asked back to the famous stage.
Now, “19” seems poised to become that elusive breakthrough single. Radio is behind it and the emotional anthem moves crowds whenever Owens performs it live. “I have sung it about 200 times already,” he notes, “and there is never a dry eye in the house. I get chill bumps every time I sing it.” He experienced that same chill-inducing feel when he first heard “19” performed by one of the song’s co-writers, Jeffrey Steele.
“I did a show with Jeffrey in Alabama,” Owens begins. “He told me he liked my voice and he said that he would really like for me to listen to this one song. He sang that and it was unbelievable. I said, ‘Man, is there any way possible I could record that song?’ Jeffrey said that he wanted me to record it so we went in and cut it. We’re moving up the charts with it, so we’ll see how it does.”
Owens performed “19” on TV’s “Fox and “Friends” over Memorial Day weekend, fittingly enough. The song honors those who gave their lives and particularly Tillman, who made the ultimate sacrifice in more than one way. He essentially gave up an all-pro football career to declare his service. “Tillman was making millions of dollars in the NFL,” Owens points out. “He could have stayed there [Arizona] and lived in a big house and had all the praise, but he wanted to serve our country. He’s an American hero as far as I’m concerned. His story influenced the whole song.”
In turn, Owens is taking the story to help give back to the military community. All of the net download proceeds from “19” will be donated to TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. “They set up counseling for military families who have lost loved ones,” Owens explains. The organization also offers youth programs, educational assistance and other resources to help families deal with their loss.
Beyond “19,” Owens is already looking toward his next album. “I’m getting material ready for that,” Owens says. “I’ve been doing a lot of writing with some great people in Nashville.” No official target date is set, though early 2018 seems likely for the new record’s release. “Once we get off the road, I’ll be very excited to get back into the studio,” he says. “You all stay tuned.”