Sunday, 13 April, 2008 12:05 PM
Gary Allan: Living Hard One Song at a Time
by Tony Baker
Nashville recording artist Gary Allan
2008 CMA Close Up News Service
The ascension of Gary
Allan, back from a difficult period of emotional retrenchment and
introspection, is welcome and familiar news throughout the Country
Music world. But to the crowds gathered at Nashville's Sommet Center
on the night of Nov. 30, 2007, it was an event to witness literally.
Reenergized and ready
to reclaim his share of the spotlight, the singer/ songwriter emerged
from an elevator in a tower planted onstage. Looking lean and primed
for action in jeans and T-shirt, he delivered a 45-minute set filled
with hits as well as new tracks from Living Hard, his seventh studio
album on MCA Nashville.
It was a textbook lesson
of how to open a concert, in this case for Keith Urban, whose world
tour he had joined on Nov. 1 and would stay with through Dec. 16.
There is an art to heating up the room for the main event - and
Allan approached the challenge with the seriousness and authenticity
he brings to recording and, especially on Living Hard, writing.
"Keith is a great
guitar player, and he's hired two more gunslingers to tour with
him," Allan explained, several weeks before he would hit the
road with Urban. "Now, I can play, but I know he's going to
outshine me in that. I'm going to have to bring my A game and a
little raw, Waylon-style Country."
It's a different strategy
than the one he conceived while opening for Rascal Flatts before
more than a million fans throughout their 2006 trek.
"I actually tried
doing the same thing at first on the Flatts tour, playing the raw
and rugged tunes. But at the end of the day, their fans responded
best to my recent hits. Keith draws more of an eclectic audience,
so I think they'll expect me to switch it up a bit."
This thoughtfulness comes
from a life devoted to combining professionalism with a passion
for performance, going back to age 12, when Allan started playing
with his father's band on the Southern California bar circuit.
"You can tell who
grew up playing in clubs," he observed. "There's an interaction
with the crowd that's not contrived or rehearsed. I feel like I've
got that. I can proudly say that I'm not a product of the Nashville
system. I'm not something that they made and spit out. I mean, I
was offered my first deal at 15, but my dad wouldn't cosign it.
He told me, 'If I let you do this now, you'll become whatever they
want you to be. You need to play for the people that love you, the
people that hate you and the people who could care less. Then you'll
figure out how to play for yourself.'"
As a result, when he
did finally come to Nashville in 1996 to cut his first album, Used
Heart for Sale, Allan was already seasoned - and by his own admission,
a little cocky.
"I had some heated
arguments with [producer] Mark Wright. It wasn't because I had a
chip on my shoulder; I just didn't realize that everybody wasn't
making their own record. And that just didn't make any sense. It
was impossible for anybody to tell me how my music should sound."
"Usually a brand-new
artist isn't quite as sure of his identity as Gary was," Wright
recalled, chuckling at the memory of their first sessions. "So
I'm sure that somewhere in our conversation I said, 'This is how
we do it here, son.' But then I realized that this guy has a voice
and he knew what he wanted to do. There's a real artist living inside
of him. I wouldn't have signed him if I didn't believe that. We
just had to grow some trust between us, like, 'Hey, if that's what
you really feel, if that's what's going to make you happy, then
say it the way you want and I'll help you get there.'"
Wright serves these days
as President of Universal Records South, but he's kept his seat
behind the console open for all of Allan's albums, including Living
Hard. On this one, they weren't able to get together for pre-production
until just two weeks before sessions were to begin. But plenty of
communication passed between them prior to that point, through e-mailed
MP3 files of songs Wright thought would suit the album or that Allan
was writing and demoing on his new Pro Tools system at home. So
when "the tape began rolling," the situation was ideal:
They had the tunes and yet the vibe was as raw as a late-night jam.
"I've switched my
live show and hired more rock 'n' roll kinds of guys," Allan
said. "It's more high-energy, much more in-your-face, much
edgier. So when Mark saw that and heard the stuff I was writing,
we all knew where we were headed."
More than his previous
albums, Living Hard acknowledges the artist's current and longtime
influences: Coldplay on "We Touched the Sun," the Police
and U2 on "Learning How to Bend" and Tom Petty on "She's
So California." "I even kind of sound like Petty on it,"
Allan admitted, laughing, and then sang one line - "She's a
Deadhead" - with the rocker's familiar phrasing and intonation.
The new album represents
Allan as a writer more thoroughly and revealingly than ever.
"When I first came
to Nashville, Harlan Howard used to tell me that I could write but
I didn't have anything to say," he remembered. "He said
I needed to get married and divorced a few times, and since my wife
passed, being able to talk about that . Well, first of all, my best
friends were the ones who helped me through it. But those are also
the guys I write with, and I feel like I can go into emotions a
lot deeper and more authentically now. I guess I liked it better
when I didn't have as much to say, but now I understand what Harlan
This is apparent on "Yesterday's
Rain," a co-write with James LeBlanc and Matt Warren. Right
after singing "that's the only place I see your face,"
Allan's vocal pauses as the musicians continue playing until he
comes back in a few seconds later. It's as if, in a moment of conversation,
the feelings that surface make it difficult to talk until composure
can be regained.
what it was," he revealed. "It was authentic. There were
tears. I don't think I'll be able to sing that live. It's all the
Yet that night at the
Sommet Center, Allan seemed to achieve a communion with his audience
that went deeper than the reach of entertainment. Speaking candidly,
he introduced two songs - "Best I Ever Had" and "Life
Ain't Always Beautiful" - as especially helpful in getting
him past tragedy and on toward the affirmation epitomized by the
title track of Living Hard, a bone-crunch embrace of a life dedicated
to "livin' in the spotlight" and "chasin' dreams
one song at a time."
The bottom line? "I'm
OK," Allan said. "I've got a lot to say right now. And
there's a whole bunch more coming."
On the Web: www.garyallan.com
cover courtesy of MCA Nashville
Allan's latest album "Living Hard"
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