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Sunday, 13 April, 2008 12:05 PM

Gary Allan: Living Hard One Song at a Time

Photo by Tony Baker

MCA Nashville recording artist Gary Allan

By Bob Doerschuk
© 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 meant."

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.

"That's exactly 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 way real."

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

 

Album cover courtesy of MCA Nashville

Gary Allan's latest album "Living Hard"

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