Allan hopes third disc blows no smoke

Jeffrey B. Remz, November 1999

Gary Allan be third time lucky? Or will he once again only get one hit from his third album, "Smoke Rings in the Dark," a fate that befell the honky tonker's first two albums with his very first single "Her Man" and "It Would be You."

Allan, sounding hoarse in a phone interview from California, seems quite satisfied thank you with "Smoke Rings...," also the first single off his new album.

"It was me," says Allan of the new album, his first for MCA. "I just had a lot more freedom this time. They really let me do my own thing again. That was part of what I needed to hear to go to MCA. I had lot of meetings with (label President) Tony Brown where we talked about stuff. They just let me do what I wanted to do. The first one was a lot more like that too."

The first ("Used Heart for Sale") and third albums both maintain a sonic rawness to it, captivated by Allan's sturdy, emotive vocals. He can put the pain in the songs - a necessity given the subject matter of heartbreak - with little difficulty.

"It Would Be You," the second disc, maintains some of that sound, but also goes for a softer feel.

"The second one, we started second guessing," says Allan. "When you miss at radio, everybody second guesses themselves."

The second guessing may have resulted because "Her Man' reached the Top 10 in 1996, but follow-up singles only hit in the 40's. The title track of the second disc did well, but again follow-ups didn't make a dent at radio.

"Smoke Rings..." is different from what is the current standard fare. The title track has a lot of tremolo and intensity with those vocals dominating. The song has a bit of a haunting quality to it as well.

"Actually, I got this song right at the end," says Allan. (Producer) "Mark Wright found it. A buddy of his wrote it, Rivers Rutherford. I guess the guy wrote it a couple of days before."

Allan made it clear to his producers - Wright and Brown (a change as Wright and Byron Hill produced the first two) - he only wanted songs that possessed a good vibe.

"I gave him hell - it has to have a vibe," says Allan of Wright. "Otherwise don't bring it to me. He brought it to me. It was never demoed. It was just a guitar-vocal. I dig it. You can take it without being (influenced) by someone else's opinion)."

Artists usually receive demo versions of songs with a studio singer and backing band giving a sense for what a song is supposed to sound like.

"I love the way it felt. Even just that guy's demo was just like that."

While the single has captured airplay, it's not zooming up the charts. Meanwhile, the album debuted in Billboard's top 10.

"I've never had a single flying up the charts," he says. "I think everything I do is different. So everybody is slow to jump on board all the time. Hopefully, I can break through that barrier."

Even if music lovers think how many more times could someone cover Del Shannon's "Runaway," Allan thinks he has the answer - at least one more.

Jake Kelly, the guitarist from Allan's backing band, the Honky Tonk Wranglers, nailed the guitar lines, and Allan's vocals give the classic a more earthy feel.

Allan has played the song in concert for years. "We just thought it (should) be done for the record. It was the last song we did. It was a one take."

And Allan, who seems to have a sufficient amount of self confidence in his abilities, didn't seem to care what others might think about covering "Runaway."

"No, I don't concern myself what anybody is going to think about anything we do on the record."

Allan says his goal was to "just go in and make a fun record, something people would buy."

"I think when you start concerning yourself what people on any level (will think), it starts compromising everything,' he says.

And that has not been part of the game plan for the Whittier, Cal. native. He grew up on his dad's country music. His father played in clubs near the family's home.

Allan obtained his first gig at a neighborhood bar, but the owner tried to deep six the dreams of the 13 year old. After a few hours of Merle Haggard tunes during the day, Allan returned that night for a regular gig.

He soon started playing with his dad for about five years, showing up at bars and lodges.

Allan apparently was good enough to have A & M Records coming out him with a record deal in hand.

But Allan's dad nixed the deal, not wanting to rush his own.

Allan eventually gave up music for a few years, finished high school, married, went into the military before being out in a year due to an injured back, did a short stint in college, went into the construction business and later sold cars.

Steady talk about getting into music and a push from his now ex-wife led Allan to start hitting the club circuit in Southern California with his band.

He had a development deal with a division of BNA, but that fell through when the label fired its A&R staff.

Hill, who was head of BNA's A&R department, helped Allan cut a demo. He received money from wealthy benefactors who somehow found a tape of Allan singing in their vehicle, which had been repaired at the car dealership where he worked. The demo found its way to Wright.

The object of bidding from seven labels, Allan inked with Decca in 1995 after hearing the right things - the label would not change his honky tonk style.

Allan was in the process of picking songs for his third album for Decca when the label folded. Several artists, including Allan, were picked up by its mother label, MCA.

While a label split could be catastrophic for many artists, Allan did not seem worried.

In fact, it worked to his benefit. "They actually had to come to the table to keep me. We had a bunch of offers. They really did come to the table. They definitely showed me they were very committed."

"No, I wasn't just swept over there. It worked out great." Allan refused to be specific about what MCA did to sweeten the deal.

And the break turned out better in another way.

"I had a lot more time. It was the biggest difference," Allan says. "I had already done one song search. I spent another six months just looking for songs."

About three songs from the first search made the album.

"I had lot more time to find songs, quality songs, and I was a lot more confident in what I had going into the studio. Each time you make a pass through every (song) publisher, you find two or three."

About the saddest song on the disc is "Don't Tell Mama." it tells the lament of a truck driver who lays dying after drinking. Not your typical feel-good song exactly, but Allan also is used to that, given his hidden extra track on "Used Heart for Sale," "Judgment Day" about a tear jerker of a song about a robbery gone real bad.

As for "Mama," "That's one of those songs that every publisher in town knows about. I've heard it floating around, and man I just love it."

Allan says he's the kind of singer who wants to hear the sad songs that no one else would want to hear or cut. "It's a classic sounding song," says Allan.

While Allan has painted picture of being his own man when it comes to music in interviews over the years, he acknowledges "I slanted ("Used Heart for Sale') as much towards radio as I could. On the third one, I think we just got free reign. I feel it was the best thing to do."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •