Country music’s Gary Allan weathers every storm

Saturday concert at Whiskey Tango kicks off a CD-release tour for his latest album.

01/16/2013 9:13 PM

05/16/2014 8:48 PM

The success of his latest single has taken even Gary Allan by surprise.

Since its release in September, the song, a redemptive anthem called “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” has gone gold and climbed rapidly up the country charts.

After 19 weeks, more than 650,000 digital copies of the song have been downloaded, and it has jumped to No. 5 on the country singles chart, ahead of songs by titans such as Carrie Underwood, the Zac Brown Band, Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley.

The song has done so well recently — 112,000 copies were downloaded the first week of this month — that Allan and his label decided to take advantage of the momentum and move up the release date of Allan’s new album, “Set You Free,” from mid-March to Tuesday. Allan has also put together a quick CD-release tour, which makes its first stop Saturday night at Whiskey Tango in Grain Valley.

It has all been an unexpected but exciting reward for Allan, who now has three gold singles in his 16-year career, the previous being “Watching Airplanes,” released nearly seven years ago.

“It’s the fastest song we’ve ever had,” he told The Star recently. “We’re feeling really blessed. You just don’t see things like this in this business anymore.”

Allan has been in “this business” since 1996, when he released his first album, “Used Heart for Sale,” which has gone gold, and his first hit single, “Her Man.” Since then, he has released seven studio albums, five of which have gone platinum or gold. Those numbers are impressive, though what Allan says he’s proudest of is his longevity, which has required some faith, agility and persistence, especially in the face of shifting industry trends and personal tragedy.

“I always knew I wasn’t going to be the latest, greatest thing,” he said, “but I didn’t want to become some flavor of the week either. All I wanted to do was be the guy who makes you think, ‘Wow. He’s been around for 30 years now.’ ”

Technically, he already has. Allan turned 45 in January, and he has been involved in music since he was 12, back in the days when he played music in bars with his father and brother in their native Southern California.

“I was listening to punk rock and all that but also cutting my teeth on Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and George Jones,” he said.

When he was 15, he was offered a recording deal, but his father wouldn’t co-sign it so nothing happened.

“He said I wasn’t ready,” Allan said.

A few years later, he caught a show by the Highwaymen, a quartet featuring Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. It gave him the music bug, hard.

“That’s when I realized what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I was so blown away by them. It was so cutting and hard-core. I was floored. That’s when country became punk rock to me.”

He pursued his music career in earnest in his early 20s, getting through some disappointment along the way. He sold the construction company he owned when one recording deal seemed imminent, then sold cars when that deal fell through. One day, a couple he’d sold a truck to returned to the dealership for some service and raved about some music that had been left in the glove compartment. It was a copy of Allan’s four-song demo.

“I told them it was me and I’d had a contract that fell through so I was saving money to go to Nashville and make a demo,” Allan said. “The wife asked how much that would cost. I said $10,000 to $12,000. Then the husband taps his wife on the shoulder and says, ‘Write him a check,’ which she did for $12,000. I gave it back and said I didn’t want to feel like I owed them anything if it didn’t work out. They just laughed and gave it back to me.”

It all worked out in the long run. Six months later, he used that money to go to Nashville and record the demo that would lead to his deal with Decca Nashville, now MCA Nashville, and then the release of “Used Heart for Sale,” which launched a career that has weathered a few storms itself.

Allan’s music bears traits of both modern and traditional country and the sounds of his heroes and inspirations. Much of his music evokes the sounds of traditionalists like Dwight Yoakam, Alan Jackson and Randy Travis. Some of his later work, like the title track “Get Off on the Pain,” bears more contemporary twists, the kind that can make fans of Southern rock take notice. He can veer easily from warm, sentimental ballads drenched in fiddle and pedal steel to up-tempo honky-tonk anthems or country rockers.

His lyrical themes are often coined in his songs’ titles: “All I Had Going Is Gone,” “Send Back My Heart,” “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long,” “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” and “Nothing on But the Radio” — “You and me and the lights down low / With nothing on but the radio.”

Allan writes or co-writes much of his album material. His first rule is to stay true to his own self. “I don’t sing about tractors or things I don’t know about,” he said. If it has cost him anything, it could be more attention from radio stations and programmers. But he’s not willing to compromise.

“When I first started in country music, it had a very distinct sound,” he said. “You didn’t have to leave a station on for a few songs to figure out if it was a country music station. But since radio stations were bought up by the big companies like Clear Channel, it seems like music isn’t made for certain genres anymore, it’s made for demographics. It’s a big difference.

“You know how old country feels? That sound’s not getting on the radio anymore. Just to stay relevant it has to have more of a pop feel to it. It’s not as distinct. It all got real blurry once it went into this format where they were shooting for demographics.”

If he’s unwilling to write or sing about tractors or swilling tequila on a beach surrounded by pretty senoritas, it’s because Allan says he writes about what he called the root of country music.

“To me, pop music is about what happens on the weekend, country is about what happens Monday through Friday,” he said. “When I write, I kick around every kind of emotion.”

Several years ago, music rescued him after a tragedy that could have derailed his career. In October 2004, his wife of three years took her own life in the couple’s Nashville home. Two years later, Allan told People magazine, “After she died, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do anything, I was a mess. I was just packing stuff up one day, and a buddy asked me what I was doing. I said, ‘Just puttin’ memories away.’

“And then I laughed and said, ‘Let’s write that song.’ And that’s when I realized, I’ve got a lot to say right now. It surprised me that I could do it. But what I realized is that music was my only real escape.”

Asked about getting through that time and using music to help him, Allan said: “That’s the best thing about what I do. It can be like therapy.”

He poured his pain into “Tough All Over,” the album released in 2005, the year after his wife’s death. The songs are filled with raw expressions of loss and grief. It became one of his gold albums and included one of his three gold singles, “Best I Ever Had.”

Since then, Allan has put nine singles on the charts; only three have cracked the top 10, including “Every Storm.” For a guy who has been at it so long and made so many well-received albums, those numbers seem skewed.

Mike Kennedy, on-air personality and program director for country radio station KBEQ (104.3 FM), said Allan deserves better.

“Gary has been plugging for quite a while,” he said. “His success has not matched his level of talent. Wicked songwriter, ridiculously gritty and soulful singer, puts on a heck of a show: Mainstream country stations have not embraced him like they should have. He’s underappreciated for all the skills he has.”

They are these days, at least one more time. “Every Storm” could get an even bigger boost from the impromptu early release of its host album and the tour of large bars in country radio markets. Allan said he has lots of faith in a new team at his label that has helped promote and push “Storm” and figures things could get even better once the album is out and he starts touring in earnest. He’ll be out with his seven-piece band, which includes guys who have been with him for 15 years.

“We do at least 100 shows a year no matter what,” he said. “Lots of people say their success is related to what gets on the radio. We haven’t been on the radio for a while, yet we still do 100 shows and headline the Throwdown Tour. We’ve been lucky that way. Our fans are so loyal. Some of them tell us they come and see 40 or 50 shows a year and have seen us 300 or 400 times.

“It’s a relentless lifestyle but I love it, the fast-pace and the grueling parts of the road. It never fades. You either love the hustle and bustle or you don’t. Once I got my record deal, I knew this is what I wanted to do. It has been a real slow but steady climb. There have been peaks and valleys, but we’ve managed to keep improving and getting bigger and attracting more fans.

“And what I’m proudest of is I did it all my way. I’m really proud of my entire past.”

It already looks like ’13 is going to keep that steady climb rolling and give him more to be proud of.

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