Singer leaves behind the surf (sometimes) for honky tonks

Jeffrey B. Remz, December 1996

That may be a black cowboy hat sitting atop Gary Allan's head, but don't think of him as your latest hat act.

Far from it for a California native, more of a honky tonker than anything else. Unless you throw in his love for surfing.

"It's pretty much it," when asked if he doesn't care for today's crop of hat acts. "It's probably not the politically correct thing to say. I don't listen to much other stuff. I listen to the old stuff."

And that's pretty evident based on his debut disc, "Used Heart for Sale." Aside from his current single, the acoustic-tinged ballad "Her Man," moving up the charts, the disc wreaks of influences like Ernest Tubb, George Jones and Mark Chesnutt. David Ball is another singer who comes to mind.

That's clear from the lead-off "Send Back My Heart," co-written by George Ducas. The songs tend to have a lot of twang in them with a rockabilly feel underneath often thanks to piano and the sure-handed drumming of Owen Hale.

Allan's vocals have the requisite heartache, lived-it quality from the down-in-the-dumps love songs that dominate the disc. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Allan doesn't oversing, exchanging charged-up vocals for bathos.

Allan, 29, left little doubt where he was coming from before he signed on the dotted line with the Decca Records label. In September 1995, Allan flew out to Nashville with a $1,000 in his pocket, cut a demo and watched a bidding war ensue among seven labels.

The California native asked lots of questions. He wanted to make one thing clear - he wasn't about to change his honky tonk style to fit into some flavor-of-the-month category.

"I asked a lot of questions - what do you want to change about me?" Allan says he asked a Decca Records executive. "She said, 'what do you mean?' (I said,) 'for me to change into something I hate, I'd rather stay here and play the bars for $50.'"

"I think they got it," Allan said of Decca. "It just clicked. It wasn't so much of having control. It was just that everyone had the same goal, so we got along better."

Mark Wright, best known for his work with Mark Chesnutt, served as co-producer along with Byron Hill. Chesnutt, however, had split with Wright prior to his last regular disc, "Wings," because he felt Wright was taking him into too commercial a direction.

Allan says he talked with Chesnutt about that and thinks the split may even have worked to his advantage. "I kind of went gearing up myself up for battle, but I had never had to," says Allan. "I psyched myself up, but there was never really a battle, which makes me feel that whole Chesnutt deal loosened him up."

Although Allan writes, the only song of his among the 10 on the CD is the title track, co-written with a member of his band, Jake Kelly, among the 10 making the final cut on the CD.

That didn't bother Allan one bit. "I wanted to make an album that I would like to listen to. That was my biggest goal...I wanted to try to make sure the album had some depth. Some albums, you get burnt out on real fast. "

"I'm probably harder on my songs than I am on any others," Allan says.

To some extent, familiarity bred contempt. "Some of the stuff, I've played in bars the last six years, I was kind of burnt out on it. I'll probably put more on the next one."

"You get too close to it, and you can't really tell whether it's good," he says.

"I would say a good song is a good song, whether I wrote it or not," he says. "I don't think I give things much weight because I wrote it. I think that will help me in the long run."

Allan went on the usual in-depth song search. He visited a different publisher daily for a week and heard close to 2,000 songs. "I took anything I remotely liked. I probably took home about 200 songs and then I really sat and listened to them and was able to weed it to 20 or 30 really quick."

"I really listened to the songs for a long time, months just making sure they had some staying power with me...There was a song that had gotten cut and hadn't put on the album."

Allan ended up with a mix of honky tonkers and ballads. He used two co-written by Jim Lauderdale ("Forever and a Day" and the slow burn "Wake Up Screaming") and a ballad written in part by Garth Brooks ("From Where I'm Sitting").

And he covered Faron Young's "Wine Me Up" and the blazing fast "Living in a House Full of Love," a hit for the late David Houston in 1965.

The inclusion of the former was a fluke. A musician friend played him a song his band had cut, hoping Allan might record it. A version of "Wine Me Up" was on the flipside.

"He was kind of pissed off because he pitched me one of his songs," Allan says, adding, "I just like it. It had that old honky tonk feeling to it. It's just straight ahead, and it's a great song."

As for "Living," Wright suggested the song to Allan, who hadn't heard the original until after he cut it.

"Wake Up Screaming" almost did not make it onto the album, though thanks to a persistent Allan, it did. When Allan returned home to Huntington Beach from a month of recording sessions in Nashville, Decca sent him the songs. But Allan said one tape was missing.

Decca staff said he had everything.

"I distinctly remembered hearing this real bluesy song that had a lot of range vocally," Allan says. "I kept saying I remembered (one more song). They finally found the tape and sent it. You remember the good ones."

"I really like his stuff," said Allan of Lauderdale, who sang back-up vocals on the title cut. "He's a great songwriter."

Whether he does the writing or not, Allan tends towards the sad. "I like to write sad songs," he says. "I don't like to write happy songs. I don't believe there's much depth to happy songs. I think people like to hear sad songs more, the real tearjerkers."

While "Her Man" is doing very well for a debut single, Allan wonders about the future. After all, Nashville may be in a state of flux with some wondering what the "mainstream" will be. There seems to be some burnout about Hot New Country. Some labels are going for a more traditional sound.

"We're hoping it's going to go back a little retro," Allan says. "I hope that it does so I have a job next year."

Based on the reception at radio and talking with people, "I definitely feel like it's changing, and I feel like that's why I have a deal," he says. "I think country music through history gets off base and then it kind of gets snapped back to center, and it becomes part of a cycle."

"I did (have concerns), but you can't control it, but you do the best you can do," he says. "I really believe it is going to go back."

Allan soon may get his chance to see if he's right. The second single looks to be "Forever and a Day." "That's pretty traditional, but we're going to find out right there how much country they're going to let us go back."

The single should be out in January. A video was shot in early December in California.

Allan is no Johnny-come-lately to the honky tonk style. "Playing that kind of music is home to me," said the native of La Mirada, Cal., about an hour inland from Los Angeles.

He says he loves the simplicity of the music. "I think people that really understand true country music understand the simplicity. It's very simple, I agree, but that's what makes it so hard. That's what makes it technically difficult because it's all about emotion."

The musical bug came from his family. His dad played in the clubs near his home. "There was always a PA and guitars set up in my parents' house," Allan says. "My dad always said if you stick them in the closet, no one will ever play them."

Allan got his first gig at a bar a few blocks from his house. "I saw a sign that said 'entertainer wanted.'"

The 13-year-old walked in, but the owner tried to shoo him away to no avail.

Allan played Merle Haggard tunes for a few hours and came back that night for a regular gig.

Allan started playing with his dad for about five years, hitting bars and Moose lodges.

By the time he was 15, Allan could have signed record deals with A&M or a small label. But his parents nixed the deal. "My dad had just said, 'you're too young.'"

Since his parents had to sign the deal, there was no deal. "They just said it was too much of your life. I wasn't too terribly pissed off. I really wanted to do it, but they just convinced me. My dad... really wanted me to get in bars and develop myself first. I'm glad it worked out the way it did."

While hindsight may be 20-20, Allan gave up playing in public, acknowledging he was upset at the time. After finishing high school, he got married (he is now divorced with three young children), went into the Army for a year before injuring his back, did a very short stint at college and ended up in construction.

Allan's ex-wife convinced him to make a go of music as a career. "She said, 'you're always talking about this, and you can do this. Why don't you just do it?'"

Allan started playing Southern California clubs with his band, The Honky Tonk Wranglers and caught the attention of Byron Hill, who soon had the head of artists & repertoire for BNA Records fly out. A development deal - something short of a record contract - was being hatched when BNA cut its A&R Department.

Hill helped Allan cut a demo tape and pitched it to Wright.

Allan made it clear he wanted a real deal, not some development deal where he sits on the backburner until 1998. "I didn't want to be in that line," he says. "Too much can happen. The music can be completely off the scale of what I'm doing in two years. Timing is everything."

Allan signed a record deal in November 1995. The record was slated to come out in October, but uncharacteristically, the label moved up the release date. "We charted before we even tried to get the record played. We didn't understand how people were getting copies played. It kind of snowballed from there."

Allan did a "grueling" four-month radio promotion tour and doesn't expect to really play out until May or June. By that time, it may be clear whether Allan is starting to take off. "Hopefully, the demand will build(and) I can really put together a good tour."

Until then, Allan will probably be doing the usual stint of interviews like most of his counterparts. But he also can catch a wave, something he did for the last three days prior to a late November interview. "You can really get lost in it. It's great exercise."

His mind, however, probably is more on "Used Heart for Sale" than surfing. "It's exactly how I wanted," Allan says of his debut.

But he doesn't want to get too revved up. "I try not to expect (things)," he says. "That way, I'm not disappointed."

Yet, Allan seems content with his lot. "I've very happy the way things are going. They couldn't be going better."

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