This article appears in our upcoming May/June “country” issue. Subscribe here.
Earlier this year, Gary Allan topped the Billboard 200 with the stellar Set You Free. The poignant lead single “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” earned him his first #1 on the country music charts since 2004. We asked the amiable Californian about hitting the bars early, writing in threes, recapturing success and more.
Why do you think you were able to get to #1 now after coming so close for so many years?
I’ve always believed that it could be a number one. It was like a big poker game. I sort of lost my champion at the label. When [former Universal Nashville CEO] Luke Lewis came in, I felt he messed the last record up so bad, I wouldn’t give him the new one. I was trying to negotiate for the last two years. Then [Capitol’s] Mike Dungen came in, and my record was done, so I handed it to him and was back in the game. It was the biggest poker match I’ve ever been in. I won though.
You’ve been a part of the music industry since before you could drive.
I got my start at age 11 singing in bars and town halls, playing bass in a country band with my father and brother. We did old school country. Eventually I started singing, too. At 15, I was offered a record contract through A&M Records. My parents wouldn’t cosign it. I remember I got really pissed off and wouldn’t play with my dad and my brother for a couple of years. I was like, “this is what we’re after, and now he’s standing in my way.”
My dad used to say you need to play for the people who love you, the people who hate you, and the people who could care less, and that’s where you find yourself. He said I imitated people. In hindsight, I really did. I imitated Haggard and Jones and Buck and all of them, and it wasn’t until I was about 23 that I didn’t have to think about how I sang a song. I distinctly remember when it happened, and I got what he meant. And then I got a record contract after that, so it all worked out.
You also used to play in punk bands. Does punk still play into your music at all?
I don’t think it plays into my music but I love an edge to everything, and I think that’s what that comes from. I like things to be slightly out of control, and for it to feel like a rock show. I love my band in the middle of it. Some country acts have their bands hang back and I encourage everyone to get out there and put on a show.
When you put out 2004’s Tough All Over, you had just lost your wife to suicide. Do you still play those songs now?
Some of the more intimate ones, I’m able to do. We did “No Regrets” for a while. I rotate them in and out. That will always be a part of my life. In hindsight, you know, there is so much guilt that comes along with suicide, and when I play that song, I think, “I did it all right. I loved her and it was all good. And I have no regrets.
The vocals on Set You Free have a very direct, intimate feel to them.
I feel like I can convey emotions really well because my voice is so raspy. When I was younger, I never thought I could sing because of that. Everybody had such a pretty voice, and mine was all scratchy and throaty. But then I realized I could convey emotion a lot better because of that, and start to use it.
“No Worries” actually has a reggae vibe.
Yeah, I’ve always been a reggae fan. That came from Pat McLaughlin, who brought over a ukulele to write. My favorite songs are the deep cutting, heart wrenching songs. I learned that when I have a ukulele in my hand, it’s really hard to write a song that’s not bouncy and fun. So that’s where that came from. And I’m sure there’s gonna be more uke songs, because I was trying to lighten up my writing on this album a little bit.
And yet you sequenced it to be a breakup album.
Right. It starts with “Tough Goodbye” and goes through anger and whiskey and all the things that would go along with a good break up. Then it winds you out with “Good As New.”
How do you approach co-writing?
I make appointments with my tight friends and they’ll bring over someone new. Whoever is the third person is the experimental person for us. I like to do threeways because you always get a song, sometimes two. My time is so limited. I have the guys that I’ll go slug it out with on two or three sessions and maybe get one or two songs. I just try to write more accurately and efficiently. It’s less about me making money as a songwriter and more about me producing songs.
What is it about having three people that is better than two?
It’s faster. You get something with more quality, and quicker. If I have the right people in the room, we’ll get whatever the idea is the best that it can be done. The song is only as good as the idea. But if I can get the right guys in the room, we’ll max out the idea.