Madison-born singer-songwriter Meaghan Owens is running for her life. Sometimes away from danger and sometimes toward it, with a rebellious spirit that won't stay put. She longs to create music that is meaningful and goes against the grain.
While this restless songbird likes to dabble in everything from rock to hip-hop and even songs in foreign languages, Americana and country are the focus when she performs as Miss Meaghan Owens. It's the project she's taken across the country, from New York to Hawaii. In the process, she's become a spokesperson for Guitars for Vets and rubbed elbows with folks like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Loretta Lynn and the late Don Helms. Her latest album, Bounty on My Heart, chronicles the past three years of this journey, especially the challenges of living on the road and trying to make ends meet as a musician.
"I was on the road for three years, and that's really hard, especially when you're by yourself," Owens says. "I felt like I was running and running and running. I'm so grateful for being able to play for everybody, but when you're out there that long by yourself, your reality is very different from other people's."
Owens compares her travels to Willie Nelson's song "Night Life," with the line "Oh, the night life ain't no good life/Oh, but it's my life" resonating most as she looks back on her time in Nashville. It was there that she wrote Bounty's title track, an outlaw country song about a place in the Grand Canyon. The title also represents some of the challenges she's faced as a professional female songwriter.
"It's pretty hard on women," she says of the music industry. "So I felt like that, that there was a bounty on my heart. But I was hanging out with songwriters who were on the outskirts of the mainstream. That and the classic cowboy song, classic Thelma and Louise kind of song, where you're running and you're different from the mainstream. And it's very clear because you're in this canyon, out there by yourself."
This feeling of being an outsider isn't a new one. After growing up south of Madison, where country music was everywhere, Owens moved to Milwaukee, where she was surrounded by friends in rock bands. Soon she embraced some of these new influences. She also expanded her horizons while working in a record store, where she would listen to all kinds of music and take home scratched vinyl.
That sense of discovery and adventure continues as she travels around the country. While Bounty took a few years to come together, mainly because she didn't always have enough money to record, Owens isn't complaining. It yielded rich recording experiences with a variety of friends and connections. And she's scored free studio time at Madison Media Institute and through the Steel Bridge Songfest. These experiences culminated in Bounty being released on Bandcamp at the end of July.
Two Steel Bridge engineers -- Milwaukee producer Steve Hamilton, who runs the recording studio Makin' Sausage Music, and MMI instructor Dan Stoffels -- helped Owens piece together Bounty. The album features special guests like Madison lap-steel player Scott "Boo Bradley" Kiker, Nashville singer and dobro player Dave McCormick, and Victor DeLorenzo from the Violent Femmes.
"I could do it on a shoestring because it's made out of actual love and actual connections, not just money and business," Owens says.
The album contains examples of Wisconsin's country and polka traditions, Nashville's stricter songwriting style and Hawaii's unique meshing of cultures, which will be the focus of one of her next albums.
Owens' goal for Bounty was to capture the essence of her live show. It does that with stirring Americana, full of joy, sadness and toughness gained from long nights on the road. When she was recording the song "Slow Burn" with Tim Johnson, who plays a 1930s tenor resonator, it made sense to get together in a room and record the results.
"You can't go back and overdub when we're in that moment," she says.