Gary Allan concert at Clyde canceled
Gary Allan stays true to self with old-school sound
After his 2013 album Set You Free debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, Gary Allan should have had it easy. The album’s first single “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” sold 2 million copies, topped the country charts, and earned the admiration of the late poet Maya Angelou.
“There’s a country song out now which I wish I’d written, that says, ‘Every storm runs out of rain,’ ” the celebrated civil rights activist told an interviewer. “I’d make a sign of that if I were you. Put that on your writing pad. No matter how dull and seemingly unpromising life is right now, it’s going to change. It’s going to be better. But you have to keep working.”
Allan kept the momentum going with two more country hits, “Pieces” and “It Ain’t the Whiskey.”
“After two uplifting singles, Gary Allan has become the dark, heartbroken and wretched singer his fans have loved for over a decade,” enthused Taste of Country reviewer Billy Dukes in his review of “It Ain’t the Whiskey.”
A truly heartbreaking ballad, the song remains a staple of Allan’s live set, which he was set to perform at The Clyde Theatre on Feb. 9 before the show had to be canceled.
Fight with record label
By 2015, Allan was back on country radio with “Hangover Tonight.” During interviews, he talked about the single and a forthcoming album, tentatively titled The Hard Way, which he’d just finished recording. But while the artist was talking to the press, his label was having second thoughts.
True, Allan had made a lot of money for MCA Nashville over the previous decade, releasing a half-dozen Top 5 country albums, a string of hit singles (“Right Where I Need to Be,” “Watching Airplanes,” and “Nothing On But the Radio”), and selling upward of 10 million records. But the label also knew that corporate-controlled “country” radio stations were no longer keen on artists who drew musical inspiration from the Bakersfield, California, sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
So MCA did what many other bottom-line-driven labels were doing. They told Allan they didn’t hear a hit and sent him back to the drawing board.
All of which resulted in an eight-year gap between Set You Free and its country-rock follow-up Ruthless, which was released in June 2021.
Ruthless reunites Allan with several of the musicians who appeared on his 1999 debut Smoke Rings in the Dark, as well as producers Mark Wright and Tony Brown, who helped define the sound of ’90s country with a list of clients that included Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack, and Martina McBride.
Allan spent last year on the road and is continuing to make up for lost time. Between shows, he found time to talk about white-washed country music and the art of being ruthless.
Q: You spent the second half of 2021 on the road. How different would you say the Ruthless album is from what would have been The Hard Way?
Allan: Oh, I would say only four songs made it from that. I’d finished it, and the record label said they didn’t hear a single. And yeah, now all you can do is say, “OK, I’ll go find more songs.” So that happened to me twice. And after a five-year or six-year period, I finally had to go in and talk to the label and say, “Look, I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any good, or doing me any good right now, just by constantly pushing this down the road. Because all it looks like is that I’m not recording music and I’m starving my fans, so we have to put something out whether you guys like it or not. And that’s this Ruthless album.”
Q: I’ve heard you mention the old music industry truism, “You’re only as good as your last record,” and you seemed kind of resigned to that idea. Your records have never sounded that calculated. How do you walk that line?
Allan: To me, I just try to find songs that I love, and that’s the continuity. I mean, I second-guessed myself a little bit with (the single) “Hangover Tonight.” They just kept saying you have to do something that sounds more like what’s happening on the radio today. But I tried not to do that, especially with Ruthless. And I for sure won’t do that in the future, because I think I’ve recognized that as a mistake.
Q: You mentioned in a Rolling Stone interview that you’ve been listening a lot to Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel,” which has that great verse about Elvis Presley wanting to put down his amphetamine crown, unbuckle the Bible Belt, and head out on the road with “the truckers and kickers and cowboy angels” to find a good saloon in every town. Which sounds like the image a lot of us have of country music back in days past, without the amphetamines, of course. Do you miss that, or, you know, miss what was left of it when you started out?
Allan: I do. I think that was the glory of country music, and I think it’s been slowly white-washed in every sense. To me, country music was about Monday-Friday, and pop (music) was about the weekends. And now it seems like it’s just all about the weekends and, you know, pickup trucks and beer.
Q: It seems like you’ve changed up your set list. Is that true?
Allan: Yeah. You know, I would always like to go out and play all brand-new songs. But every time we do it, we realize the fans want to sing along with the hits. So that’s most of the set list we’re strapped to. I think we put five new ones in there that are off the new record, Ruthless.
Q: Contemporary country radio has obviously changed a lot since you started out. Do you expect that, at some point down the road, you’ll be embraced by that industry again? Do you even care?
Allan: Yeah, I don’t think they’re gonna go backwards. And I don’t think I’m gonna go that far forward. So I honestly don’t know. And it won’t affect me either way. My touring is my bread and butter, and that grows every year, no matter what radio does.