Gary Allan reinvigorates country music.
By Michael McCall
JUNE 15, 1998: Look at Gary Allan, and you see just another product of the Nashville assembly line. He's a flawless embodiment of the regulation '90s male country singer: Trimmed and toned and tanned, he's got cheekbones and smooth skin; he squeezes this blessing of genetics and health into a starched shirt, tight denim, Western boots, and the all-too-familiar cowboy hat. These days, male country singers are treated like Radio City Rockettes, church choir singers, or sixth-grade students--those in charge don't want them to stand out or to flash any individuality.
Listen to Gary Allan, however, and his individuality stands up to be counted. He's got that twinge of distinction that sets good performers apart: It's there in his phrasing and in the casually expressive way he brings weight or wit to a lyric. More importantly, it's in the songs he chooses and occasionally cowrites.
He manages to avoid the trite and the contrived, instead focusing on extraordinary turning points in ordinary lives and situations. And he manages to avoid the overly sentimental and the overly dramatic--two loads currently dragging down mainstream country music--while creating small dramas or comedies worthy of a listener's attention.
He does all this with both feet planted firmly in the modern country-music tradition. Drawing on honky-tonk and swing, Allan takes these older forms and brings them into the present with the seamless ease of George Strait or Alan Jackson. In this regard, Allan's second album, It Would Be You, is comparable to 1981's Strait Country or 1989's Here in the Real World; it's a gentle yet undeniable reminder that country music can hold onto its heart while giving in to the uniform slickness demanded by corporate radio programmers.
Allan bends the country formula toward steel guitars and fiddles, and he prefers rhythms that swing rather than pound. Even so, his carefully constructed arrangements are clearly the product of Nashville studio musicians. The difference is that Allan is among the few artists who can transform that formulaic style into something compelling.
"I've been told some of it is too country sounding," he says, a sly smile crossing his face. "If I have to be too something, I'd rather it be too country. They can slam me for that all they want."
Allan isn't the only young, headstrong singer determined to make traditional country music on Music Row. But he is among the few to convince a major record company that he can make it worth their investment. "There's a lot of pressures to go in a lot of different directions and fit what's happening," he says. "But I can't be a part of that. We're trying real hard to keep it us, and, so far, the record company is letting us do that. I feel real fortunate about that."
A native of Southern California, Allan talks often about his days as a surfer and how he stood out among his peers. While his buddies were listening to Black Flag and Red Hot Chili Peppers, he was cranking up Merle Haggard and Randy Travis. In Nashville, his tastes are nearly as odd. While Garth Brooks and Shania Twain push country toward the arena-ready sound of modern pop music, Allan, like Strait and Jackson, is ready to take the sound of the honky-tonk into large auditoriums.
"There's a lot of pop stuff hitting big right now," Allan observes. "But that's just not what's in my heart."
He also notes that many of today's biggest country singers once touted the same traditions he does: Garth Brooks started out with the swing-inflected "Not Counting You" and with songs about rodeo riders; Reba McEntire broke through with a traditional album called My Kind of Country. Randy Travis and Clint Black, among others, started out as hardcore traditionalists before moving toward slicker, more pop-oriented material.
Allan also knows about compromises, about artists who sacrifice a few of their songs--and their integrity--on the altar of country radio. "I know people who have their six or seven songs they want to do, then have their two or three songs for radio so they can stay in the game. I understand that. For us, we want to get songs on the radio. We have to. [But] you just got to make sure those songs have a lot of integrity."
Allan's songs certainly do. His first single, "It Would Be You," ranks with George Strait's "I Just Want to Dance With You," Faith Hill's "This Kiss," Kenny Chesney's "That's Why I'm Here," and Tim McGraw's "One of These Days" as one the best songs currently in heavy rotation on country radio. Like these other tunes, it offers meaningful and clever sentiments set to a catchy arrangement.
As Allan suggests, he's not against adhering to any formula so long as the song suits his style and his personality. "Sometimes when I turn on the radio, I have to sit there and wait to determine if it's a country station," he says. "When you hear my record, I want you to know you're listening to a country record. But I don't want it to sound old. I wanted to catch the traditional sound without sounding dated."
The singer takes a similarly deliberate approach to choosing material. He's willing to listen to songs by the same tunesmiths and music publishers who pitch songs to everyone else on Music Row. But he goes out of his way to remove politics from the process. "Before I get a tape," he says, "I have the record company take off who published the songs or who wrote them.
"When I first came to town, it seemed like every song was coming to me with a buddy story--'Hey, my buddy wrote this,' or 'This guy's a good friend of mine,' or 'This songwriter is really hot right now.' I remember getting angry and going to the record label and saying, 'From now on, just send me the songs without giving me any opinion or any information about the songs. Leave all that out so that all the information I have is the song on the tape.' Because if you look at a name, or someone talks up a song or a songwriter, it can't help but have an effect. That's an edge that shouldn't be there. It should just be about music."
When it came time to choose the songs for It Would Be You, Allan hid out in a Brentwood hotel room. "I hung out there with a bunch of beer, a stereo, and a couple of big bags of tapes," he says. "I came out with 15 songs." From there, producer Mark Wright and others at Decca Records helped to determine the 12 songs that made the album.
In keeping with Allan's break from the typical Music Row formula, It Would Be You includes an unlisted bonus track, Allen Shamblin's "Judgment Day." Featuring just Allan's voice and an acoustic guitar, the strongly worded song addresses the increasing problem of violence among teens. Fittingly, it wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from Allan's labelmate, Chris Knight--another up-and-coming country singer who refuses to be turned into a hat act.
Allan chose to do the song precisely because it violates the established rules of the modern-day country music business. "Country music used to be about what happens during the week," he says. "Now it's about what happens on the weekends. The core of country music is songs that are revealing and honest. It's about--or it used to be about--the lives of the working classes. To me, that's the heart of it. You want to hear some happy songs, but you want to hear the tough stories too."
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