Tough all over

We love our heroes brash, unsparing, and a little bad. But that’s a young man’s garb, before life’s iniquities engender a little more pause in the devil-may-care strut. Maybe that’s why it seems that rock is the music of boys, and country the music of men.

Gary Allan has always walked a little on both paths. Though his label might’ve put a hat on him, they could never hide that rebellious streak. He slept through school as a young teen and hung out in honky-tonks, playing bars with his father’s country band. There was a record contract offer when he was 15, but he turned it down and set out to earn his own style.

“A lot of young artists will bend and sway with the wind — because they’re not really sure as an artist who they are or what works for them. `Gary` always had a clear identity about who he was, what he wanted to sing about, and he always knew how to make songs his own,” says Odie Blackmon, one of Allan’s good friends and writer of Allan’s number-one hit “Nothing on but the Radio.”

Allan’s father told him that, as a musician, he would find himself playing in bars for those who loved him, hated him, and couldn’t care less about him. Sure enough, after kicking around Southern Californian bars in his 20s covering George Jones songs with his band Honky Tonk Wranglers, Allan decided to play for himself.

“He told me he remembered when, playing in the bars, it just kind of clicked. It all came together for him in his head — what worked and what sounded good, what he liked,” Blackmon says. “He’s always had a strong identity, and that’s not everybody in music these days.”

Blackmon met Allan through Byron Hill, who produced the demos that helped get Allan signed.
Allan got the money for the sessions from a wealthy couple who bought a car from him. When they returned to the dealership to get the truck washed, they asked about the singer on the tape they found in the glove compartment. When he ’fessed up to being the voice on the cassette, they gave him 12 grand — enough to fly to Nashville and begin recording.

Mark Wright, who’s co-produced all of Allan’s seven studio albums, says Allan was a unique and talented find.

“He had great voice, great show, and it kind of dictated what we did with him. When we started, it was definitely West Coast country, with that bit of Bakersfield sound,” Wright says. “This was just about the time Dwight Yoakam was going into movies and not focusing as much on his music, and I thought there was a little bit of a void.”

Allan’s worked his way up since then, scoring several number-one singles (including “Man to Man,” “Nothing on but the Radio,” “Tough Little Boys”), a handful of platinum albums, and slots supporting stadium stars Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, and Keith Urban.

In addition to his noteworthy tenor and performance skills, Allan’s demonstrated a flair for picking fine songs, like Todd Snider’s humorous, self-deprecating title track for 2001’s Alright Guy and the Harley Allen/Don Sampson ode to fatherhood, “Tough Little Boys.” The latter showcases Allan’s gift for tugging hearts without going maudlin, something he’s really drawn on in the last two albums.

Allan’s wife, Angela Herzberg, committed suicide in 2004. Though he’s refused most requests for press interviews since then, he returned to music with 2005’s Tough All Over, for the first time in his career using more than a track or two of his own material. Drawing on his hardship, he doesn’t bother with pretense, offering up the autobiographical “Putting My Misery on Display,” the haunting, country pop “Puttin’ Memories Away,” and the dark, bluegrass-flavored “I Just Got Back From Hell.”

The album’s full of hard-bitten lines — “when you can’t find no one to blame, you just blame yourself”; “I walked around this house pullin’ pictures off the walls” — and a prevalent rock edge, as if he couldn’t be bothered to dress up and play Nashville this time.

Allan’s producer, Wright, was left with the unenviable job of steering Allan away from the grief-stricken undertones. They tussled over singles, with the label pushing for “Drinking Dark Whiskey, Telling White Lies,” and Allan responding by retreating to the studio and recording tracks like “Angela, My Angel,” about “her being a flight attendant and how she died,” according to an Allan interview with American Songwriter.

“I don’t know how many times you want to address the subject on an album. I think that he can kind of wear it out a little bit, though I hate to use that term,” Wright explains. “We know what we’re talking about, and we know what a lot of the underlying message and themes of that record was. We’d already kind of done that previously. I didn’t know if we needed to come back and readdress it. There’s a moving-on thing that at some point in life you have to get to.”

Last year’s Living Hard followed, highlighted by the hit “Watching Airplanes,” in which Allan lays on his car hood at the runway’s edge, watching the lights go overhead, knowing his baby’s gone, 30,000 miles above, and a million miles away. It’s written by Jim Beavers and Jonathan Singleton, but with obvious reverberations for Allan.

More than half of Living Hard’s tracks are Allan originals, and a couple in collaboration with Blackmon — the title track and “We Touched the Sun.” Like “Watching Airplanes,” “We Touched the Sun” rides a rich, full-bodied arrangement highlighted by keyboards. It also seems to signal a coming-to-terms, as Allan sings, “I’m glad we found each other with no regrets along the way … even if it’s not forever.”

“It had a lot to do with personal memories of what Gary went through,” Blackmon says. “I was with him through that whole period, and it was reflective … it was like some of that stuff was just starting to surface.”

As the tragedy recedes and Allan learns to live again, it seems the changes it’s wrought have strengthened his mettle and forged new confidence to his writing. That’s a helluva price to pay, but life’s not always equitable in its dealings. It might, however, make you a man in the


Gary Allan
9pm Fri, Aug 15
$30 advance,
$35 day of the show
John T. Floore Country Store
14492 Old Bandera Rd.
(210) 695-8827

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