There was a moment on the night of Feb. 10 when manager Jason Owen allowed his mind to “go there.” Could his client, Kacey Musgraves, who by 4 p.m. had already picked up two Grammy Awards — for “Space Cowboy” and “Butterflies,” for best country song and best country solo performance, respectively — in Owen’s words, “sweep this thing”?
Musgraves did just that, winning every category in which she was nominated — including what many consider the most coveted honor of the night, the all-genre album of the year award, for “Golden Hour.” But it was also a sweep for Owen’s own Nashville-based Sandbox Entertainment, whose clients — which include Dan & Shay (co-managed with Scooter Braun) — took home all of the Grammys in the country categories.
For Musgraves, whom Owen has represented since 2011, it was “a reckoning,” he says. “It said a lot for Nashville and for the future of country music, to put a spotlight on things that are considered not as mainstream that deserve all the attention in the world. It was special.”
And personally speaking? Says Owen, who currently boasts projects in development at Netflix and Amazon: “It was single-handedly the best night of my professional life. Hands down.”
If ever two people were destined to traipse through life together, it’s Musgraves and Owen — he, an unabashed worshiper of all things Dolly and Madonna while growing up in Arkansas, and she, a Texas girl that embodies the country glamour of a Barbara Mandrell with the vocal majesty of a Linda Ronstadt (Harry Styles’ comparison). And it’s perhaps their mutual real-time growth in relatively new terrain that both drew and bonded them to each other. “The job of a great manager is really to allow the artist to make the music and the art that they want to make, and then let me go out and give them the opportunities,” Owen explains.
But Owen is more of a builder than a finger-snapper. From his first management client Shania Twain, whom he took on after serving in senior publicity, marketing and creative positions at her label, Universal Music Nashville, to Midland, a neo-traditionalist band that unexpectedly topped the country charts, there’s strategy behind the step-by-step positioning of a Sandbox act, particularly as it relates to the live arena.
“I never pigeonhole because I don’t listen to music that way, and I never have,” says Owen. “There’s a place for all, especially with the right records and the same goes for touring. Like Kelsea [Ballerini] is out with Kelly Clarkson right now; Harry [Styles] and Kacey was a magic combination, and early on with Katy Perry and Kacey, too. Neither she nor I wanted to stay in a specific lane of country touring.” (At Sandbox, Leslie Cohea heads touring.)
Owen has always gravitated towards female artists, going back to his childhood listening to Madonna, Cher, Bette Midler and Dolly Parton. “I think [female acts] just possess this power of superstardom,” he says, recalling a family ski trip in 1990 during which he traded the slopes for MTV as he eagerly awaited the premiere of Madonna’s “Vogue” video. “I would not leave the house because I was dying for it,” he says with a laugh. “The visual of that spectacle just always stuck with me.”
Unlike most Nashville industry heavies, however, Owen didn’t start out in the music business. Out of college, he went to work at New Line Cinema and Fine Line before moving over to Spelling Entertainment. It was then that veteran label PR strategist Lauren Murphy (now Lauren Lewis) tapped him to take charge of publicity for Mercury Nashville. At the same time, UMG launched a new label called Lost Highway. Positioning itself as left of mainstream country, it was home to albums by Johnny Cash, Ryan Adams (Owen notes that Adams’ publicity was run out of New York) and the newly signed Musgraves. “I used to sit in that chair at Universal and would have to deal with the worst f—king managers. And I was, like, ‘I can do better than that with my eyes closed.’ And that’s what started me thinking [about management]. But it was scary.”
Timing-wise, a shift was coming to the Nashville music business as the 2010s approached. Luke Lewis, a beloved figure in Music City, was set to retire (he was succeeded by current UMG Nashville chairman and CEO Mike Dungan) and with his exit in 2012 came some uncertainty. Says Owen: “I knew that I could be left there in a really good or bad situation.”
Owen ended up leaving his peers in the dust as Sandbox signed Faith Hill, Dan + Shay, Little Big Town, Midland and Devin Dawson (Twain left for Maverick in 2016). His team grew too, to 15 — “basically 90 percent female,” Owen adds. “And [the acts] don’t really compete with each other. They’re all supportive and rooting for each other.”
And there’s a lot to cheer on. Dan + Shay, who saw a massive crossover hit in recent months with “Tequila,” and also picked up a Grammy last Sunday, just racked up 10 Academy of Country Music Awards nominations, as a duo or individually. Five more of those ACM nominations went to Musgraves, who, nearly a year after “Golden Hour” was released, is finally getting played on country radio, which had all but sat out the cycle.
Owen’s place in the greater socio-political-economic balance of Nashville — an oasis of blue in a traditionally red state — is significant. Early last year, when conservative talk-show host Mike Huckabee was appointed to the Country Music Association’s charitable board, Owen was one of those vehemently opposing the move, in particular because of Huckabee’s history of slamming not just same-sex marriage but gay parenting. In a letter to top CMA brass, Owen wrote, “As you may know I have a child and two on the way. This man has made it clear that my family is not welcome in his America.” Huckabee quickly resigned amid the firestorm, with many crediting Owen’s clout for the swift action, although he was quick to point out that many other top execs were exerting their own pressure behind the scenes. He’s confident Huckabee’s views are very much the exception and not the norm among his Nashville peers.
“Look, since 2002 when I moved here, I never felt anything but accepted and loved and normal,” says Owen. “There was for a long time — and probably still is to some extent — the same way of doing things. And there are a few of us who stray away from that thought process. That will hopefully start the change.”
As for country radio, Owen and Musgraves didn’t lament that lack of support “because we hadn’t had it in the past,” he says. TV bookings and other media love (“Golden Hour” just won the annual Village Voice critics’ poll, too) made radio support more of a bonus. “You have all these people saying, ‘Where does this fit?’ Like, who cares where? It’s brilliant.”
In a rare instance of “the commerce catching up with the art,” Owen is thrilled that the format is coming around to Musgraves, and credits John Sykes at iHeartRadio for leading the charge. “I’m happy for her and I’m happy for us,” he says. “I think it gives her yet another layer of opportunities and things for us to accomplish. … We’re off to a really good start.”