Originally published in the April 6, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
Gary Allan, like Shakespeare’s Cassius, still bears that “lean and hungry look” at age 47. Sporting a jeans-casual outfit adorned with a ball cap, Gary appears very much in fighting shape as he takes a seat inside a Nashville sound studio. He’s excited to be coming out swinging with a new and acclaimed single, “Hangover Tonight,” and upcoming album, along with plenty of touring for the rest of the year.
It may seem hard to entirely fathom, but Gary’s on the verge of celebrating 20 years in the most difficult of trades: the music business. The raspy-voiced singer out of California made his debut in the summer of 1996 with “Her Man,” which gave listeners a first glimpse into his soulful, and certainly sensual, sides. And though industry awards and statuettes haven’t filled up his mantel, Gary has succeeded in two of the most important areas—loyal fan base and longevity. The latter has remained his goal ever since he embarked on this unpredictable career two decades ago.
“In my eyes, success is longevity,” says Gary, in a reflective tone. “When people asked me back when I started, ‘What do you want?’ I would always say longevity, and that’s still the same. I’d like to be that Willie Nelson type of guy who just keeps on going.” With a wraparound grin, Gary pokes a little fun at himself, adding, “You know, 20 years from now, I want people saying, ‘How is that guy still here?’ That wouldn’t bother me. That’s what I still want—to be writing and recording relevant songs and still have your hat in the game.”
Gary’s latest offering, “Hangover Tonight,” is one of those wheelhouse songs perfectly matched for Gary’s style. The melody sways to a Motown-esque groove combined with a touch of Philly soul, delivered with Gary’s blues-tinged rasp and sexy swagger.
And to his point of staying relevant, Gary wrote the tune with three relatively younger artists, Chris Stapleton, Jesse Frasure and Cary Barlowe. The single is the lead track from Gary’s next album, due later this year.
“I just really felt like we needed something fresh [for the album],” Gary explains. “We had finished most of the record and I didn’t feel like we had that.” Gary had admired an earlier song that Chris and Jesse had written, one that he thought he had wrapped up in the bag. But not to be.
“Chris and Jesse had written this kind of Motown thing and I thought I had it for my record,” Gary begins. “But then, I didn’t have it. My manager said why don’t I try to write something with those two in that vein.” Gary got together with Chris and Jesse, bringing Cary on board, and the result accomplished the musical mission. “This was actually the last song we wrote for the album,” Gary says. “It’s exactly what we were going for. Chris and Jesse and I ended up writing two others and both of those made the record.”
Throughout his career, Gary has never been one to avoid taking new steps. He’s pushed himself vocally at times with cuts like the emotional “Best I Ever Had,” a cover of the Vertical Horizon hit, and “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful,” a wrenching number if one ever existed. For his 2013 album, Set You Free, Gary collaborated for the first time with female writers, including Hillary Lindsey on the No. 1 single “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” and Sarah Buxton on “Pieces.” He’s open to fresh experiences, perhaps one more reason why he has stayed not only active but also relevant at the same time. Teaming up with the three writers on “Hangover Tonight” proved one more example of his willingness to be flexible, even when the processes aren’t the same.
“It was very different writing with Chris and them,” Gary acknowledges with a smile. “I remember Chris being a really fast writer. Chris had written a lot with Jesse, who is a DJ, and that was different itself. Jesse had speakers set up facing me and he had a little laptop with the beats and the chord progressions and the instruments on there. We basically put melodies over what he did. Which was very odd—I had never written like that. I mean, I still write in notebooks,” he adds with a generous poke at himself. “In fact, we were all laughing about how much country music has changed as we were writing. They all came in with their computers and I walk in the studio with my notebooks and they’re all kind of laughing at me.”
Gary describes it all in good-
natured fashion, even fessing up to one more nod to the old-school method. “I always have songs and ideas written down,” he says, “and I also put things on cassettes. It’s easier for me to jot down ideas. I’ve lost so many songs to computers.”
But other than his nonreliance on technology, Gary is good with change. It comes from within, he will gladly confide. “First off, it’s me trying to push myself to do something different,” Gary says. “With this new single, I almost feel like I did when I had [the 1999 single] ‘Smoke Rings in the Dark.’ I got something that is so different that it’s either going to screw up my career,” he smiles, “or help it.”
Surely, “Hangover Tonight” works in well with today’s brand of country, where the spaces are more wide open than ever before. Listen to the majority of tunes that get whopping amounts of airtime and you’ll hear an infusion of sounds from outside the traditional boundaries of country.
“This is the most I’ve ever seen country music change,” Gary muses as he sits back in his chair. “You have to look at it and say, ‘How am I going to fit into this?’ Especially now, with all the rapping and stuff like that. But when I heard this song, I thought I could get all over that. I’ve always got it in me to try something that I haven’t heard or done before. I think the opposite of that is you find yourself on the jaded side of the fence, and there’s no money on the jaded side.”
When not in the studio or on the stage, Gary tends to a thriving business, the hip clothing store he opened a few years ago in Nashville, The Label. The shop, located in the trendy neighborhood known as 12South, features an array of clothes and jewelry for both men and women. Gary’s fellow artists drop in often to buy that special, eye-catching garment for red carpets and awards show appearances. “We have a lot of tourists who also come through,” Gary says. “But mainly, any band that comes to town will come and see us.”
The Label has actually evolved into a family business. Gary’s daughters, Maggie, Dallas and Tanna, all play a big part in the day-to-day operation. “My oldest daughter does the books and a lot of the buying,” says the proud dad. “My youngest girl is still in college, but she comes in when she can. It’s always fun to watch the awards shows with them because they’ll see an artist and go, ‘I helped dress him,’ or something like that.”
Gary’s middle daughter, Dallas, once held aspirations of a singing career, and even performed with her dad during his 2009 show in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. The two harmonized on The Band’s classic “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” earning a crescendo of applause from the audience. But neither she nor her sisters show any sort of interest in following their dad down the entertainment trail.
“They all still like to play and sing but none of them want to do this for a living,” Gary says, gesturing toward his guitar case. “And I think it was because I was gone so much. In conversations with them, their take on it was that success means you’ll never see your family. And I said that’s true. But you have to decide what you want.”
He received a similar slice of advice from the legendary Buck Owens, one of Gary’s musical heroes. “Buck told me one time that you’re going to have to make sacrifices if you want this career,” Gary recalls. “One of the sacrifices is being gone all the time.”
Now that his three daughters are grown, Gary has more time to put in additional (and guilt-free) road dates. The schedule for the year is packed with concert and festival dates, but there’s a new wrinkle he’d love to add. “What I want to do this year are more acoustic shows,” Gary explains. “I’d like to do some by myself or maybe just me and one or two other guys and just strip it all down.”
He’s performed such shows at Nashville club The Listening Room Cafe as well as for a recent benefit, Stars for Wishes. Fans, always Gary’s prime consideration, embrace the intimate, more personal shows. “I have so much fun doing them and I always think, ‘Man, we have to do more of these.’ It’s great to be able to do some album cuts and things like that,” Gary says. “Anytime it’s a charity, it’s always an acoustic thing. But one day, I’d like to do a whole tour of just that. It’s always fun to watch people play when they’re in a stripped-down setting,” he adds, smiling wryly. “You can tell the ones who are being carried.”
No such concerns for Gary, who’s been carrying the load in workmanlike fashion since the 1990s. He knows that he’s already beaten the odds many times over. To the question “Are you a survivor?” Gary answers in the affirmative.
“I do look back on my career and say I’ve survived,” he reflects, matter-of-factly. “And I love the way I did it. I think I always did things the way I wanted to and even bucked convention sometimes. I wouldn’t change one thing.”
He looks around the sound room and breaks into a slight grin. “You know, I always said I wanted to be here for 20 years,” he notes. “Now, I’m going to have to start saying 30.” CW
Sidebar: New Fave: Chris Stapleton
Fans aren’t the only folks raving over singer/songwriter Chris Stapleton. Gary Allan, who collaborated with Chris on three songs from his upcoming new album, has also been captivated by Chris’ writing and achingly soulful voice that can leap from Otis Redding to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in a heartbeat. Chris co-wrote Gary’s current single, “Hangover Tonight.”
“He has become one of my favorite singers,” Gary, a soul-tinged vocalist himself, says. “All of the background vocals on ‘Hangover Tonight’ are his. When Chris layers his voice like that, it sounds like 15 black women from a choir. We’ve got him all over the record.”