GARY ALLAN: Writing His Way Through the Pain

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

What he hasn’t been until recently is a full-time singer/songwriter. Most of the material on Allan’s six previous major label country albums, including hits “Man To Man,” “The One” and “Right Where I Need To Be,” have been penned by others. His song choices were frequently adventurous (he chose material written by Jamie O’Hara, Pat McLaughlin, Todd Snider and other songwriters who don’t usually tread around in the middle of the country road),but he was largely content to work the road as a performer, participate in the occasional co-write and interpret other writers’ words and melodies in a vocal style that blends throaty toughness and open-hearted sensitivity.

What he hasn’t been until recently is a full-time singer/songwriter. Most of the material on Allan’s six previous major label country albums, including hits “Man To Man,” “The One” and “Right Where I Need To Be,” have been penned by others. His song choices were frequently adventurous (he chose material written by Jamie O’Hara, Pat McLaughlin, Todd Snider and other songwriters who don’t usually tread around in the middle of the country road),but he was largely content to work the road as a performer, participate in the occasional co-write and interpret other writers’ words and melodies in a vocal style that blends throaty toughness and open-hearted sensitivity.

All that is changing now, though, as Allan releases his new MCA album, Living Hard. For this one, he has a writing credit on more than half of the album’s songs. He also wrote songs for 2005’s Tough All Over, including the countrified, autobiographical “Putting Memories Away” and the bluesy “Putting My Misery On Display.” It was human tragedy that brought him to a place where he felt able to write words and music that would resonate.

“After my wife passed two years ago, I felt like I could dive into any emotion as well as anybody out there,” he said, sitting in his manager’s Nashville office.

In 2004, Allan’s wife, Angela Herzberg, committed suicide. Reeling, the singer paused his career for a bit, but friends prodded him to write through his pain. When Tough All Over was released, it was hailed as a high-water mark, with a bracing honesty underpinned by edgier arrangements. Living Hard is the next step in that progression, with rock and roll drums and guitars that are far from the tradition-drenched country of his first albums. The amped-up mix is something that works well in festival settings, where he and his band tend to appeal to both cutting-edge country fans and the goth-and-piercings set. As Allan’s music gets louder, it also has grown deeper and more honest.

“Harlan Howard used to say to me, ‘You can write; you just ain’t got nothin’ to say. Get divorced and married a few times.’ And I did, and then more things than that happened. Now I wish I didn’t have as much to say. But since I do, I’ll write down everything I can.”

Did your songwriter friends ever chide you for not putting pen to paper?

I think I wrote a whole bunch before I got a deal, and when I got a deal, I quit writing. A friend of mine, Jamie O’Hara, pointed that out. We were having this conversation three years ago about the things the music business takes from you, and how it works against you as an artist. I kind of disagreed with him and he said, “Well, it’s taken things from you.” I said, “Like what?” He said, “When’s the last time you wrote by yourself?” I said, “Holy shit. Seven years.” He said, “That’s what it took from you. You used to love to write.”

How does it take that away?

I have a hard time writing when I’m out and busy. Last year, I started writing early in the year, instead of waiting for December when I got off the road. You just get up in the morning and ask yourself if you have something to say.

Did it bug you to have Jamie, whose songs you have recorded, say something like that to you?

When Jamie said that, it was like a ton of bricks. When you come to town, it’s “What have you written?” I guess I don’t think like that. If I have four appointments next week…I’ll write four songs. If not, there’s a good chance I’ll sit around and smoke pot and walk around and not do shit.

Did these new songs start with you writing by yourself?

They come from all angles. Some of those, I’d have a verse and a chorus, and somebody else would have a line. If I came to a stopping point where I thought, “I can make this good, but somebody else’s insight might make it magic,” I call people in. The ones with Odie Blackmon and Jim Lauderdale-we usually write from scratch. You just kind of talk and they fall out.

Did you write them at home or at an office?

No, we wrote them in Costa Rica. I went there with Odie and Jim. We landed, then drove six hours. We had to have people carry our stuff across the river. You couldn’t drive to this house. We had to go around a volcano. You had these golden rivers….

Are there self-written things that don’t wind up on the album?

There’s a lot of stuff that I wrote that didn’t make it, and some of that was what I wrote by myself. Some stuff’s too deep.

Do you feel uncomfortable about sharing personal things with the people who are listening to your songs?

If it’s not emotional, I’d rather not be in it.

How long do you work on a song?

I don’t revise very much. I hammer through it and find the best way to phrase it. Most of my songs are three- or four-hour writes with my co-writers. If it’s by myself, it’s three or four days. I’m good for a chorus and a verse by myself, then I have to come back the next day.

When you’re looking to write, what’s your routine.

I’m very careful not to watch TV or listen to the radio when I first wake up. I get up and ask myself if I have something to say.

Was it easier to write when you were first signed to a label deal?

No. There was so much pressure to get a song right then…I was feeling such pressure to get a song, every day, right then. Eventually, I was going in, getting high and sitting there. There are a couple of people I’d like to do it with again. Leslie Satcher’s one of them. I was so over it by that day that we were supposed to write together, but she’s such a great writer. I got something productive with her, but it was all her. I was just not caring. She was very talented.

What’s the state of the country song? Are you interested in anything you hear on the radio?

I can’t listen to the radio much. I haven’t listened to the radio for a long time. I don’t even know if we have a genre anymore. I think that’s the biggest thing I got from touring with Rascal Flatts. There’s not even really a country genre. You’ve got just as much pop as country. I was baffled on that Flatts tour…going, “I just don’t get it.”

Is part of that due to the fact that co-writing is now a mandate and that songs are written by committee? There are more hit songs written by three people now than are written by one.

The result of that is we won’t get the Kris Kristoffersons, the deep thoughts of anybody. You’ll get the surface thoughts we think are the most marketable. It’s just a drag. That said, I like to write with people. I feel like other writers relax more when they write with me, ‘cause I’m not as much in the box.

What songs were hard for you to write?

Both “Putting Memories Away” and “Yesterday’s Rain” were hard. Both of those directly deal with my ex.

You’re a pretty private person. Why not avoid that kind of autobiography?

To me that’s not what country music is. I had to make a big choice. I think the label tried to talk me into just pretending like it didn’t happen. The next single after my wife died was supposed to be “Drinking Dark Whiskey, Telling White Lies.” I said “I can’t sing that right now.” I ended up telling them that I would write some songs myself…and. to me, that was great therapy. I had shit I cut in the studio that was way too deep. I had a song called “Angela, My Angel” that was all about her being a flight attendant and how she died. We spent all kinds of money cutting stuff that I knew wasn’t going to be on the record. Everybody was trying to tell me things. I’d see [producer and label boss] Mark Wright, and he’d be saying, “We have to make this so people will listen to it twice. It can’t just all be down.” If it had been up to me, I’d have made the whole thing brutal. But the label was going, “No one is going to play this album over and over.”

Do you believe that?

No. I think they screwed up. I think I gave them an emotional record. This is country music, and they should have released “Putting Memories Away”…and all this stuff that’s right in the heart of it. I still tell them that now.

Is it their decision what songs get to be singles?

Yes. I used to try to push singles and force songs. But I’ve heard them trying to sell the songs they don’t believe in on the phone.

Do fans treat you differently now, knowing what you’ve been through?

People want to tell you how sorry they are or about their experiences. I’ve become this sort of ambassador for suicide lately. Everybody comes and tells you their story. It’s their way of being compassionate, but…damn. They do that, and then you walk out onstage and try to be up. It’s hard.

Have you ever cut songs that you didn’t think were emotionally challenging or that you thought weren’t great works?

At times, and those times are when everything I’m doing is getting edged off of radio, there’s a few fluffy songs…like when Decca folded and it’d been two-and-a-half years since I had something on the radio. I made a record with Tony Brown, and we were looking for something down the middle to put me back on the radio.

OK with that now?

No. But I might not be here if I hadn’t done that. There were, seriously, two and a half years with nothing going on. I was in People magazine as one of the sexiest people or something like that, but that was all I had to talk about for two-and-a-half years. We made that record and it was, “We need something right down the pike to put us back in this game.” But here’s the funny thing: If you put ‘em right down the pike, it gets on the radio but it doesn’t sell records…and if you do one from the heart, it doesn’t go up the chart. But my worst charting records are the ones that sold all the albums.

You’ve covered songs from people who aren’t really a part of the mainstream country world. Do you see a wall between the Americana and alt. country stuff, and the things that are successful in commercial country?

Yes, and I think that’s the wall I’ve always made sure that I didn’t slip over. I knew I could go to the Americana side very easily, and it’s the starving side. I think, in a very calculated way, we’ve always gone, “We need to get us back in the game here.” It’s weird that it has to be so opposite. Everybody knows it’s wrong, but nobody knows how to fix it. In this town, the writers know nothing fantastic is happening on [that end of things].

Are you proud of what you’ve done in this industry?

Well, I think I’ve carved out my own sound. My own goal was to do my own thing. I didn’t ever want to be a product of the country music business. I wanted to say, “I did my thing.” I’m proud of everything I’ve done-even the down-the-middle stuff.

You don’t have a traditional voice or image. Did your record company ever try to change you in order to increase your commercial viability?

In the beginning they tried to make me look like George Strait. You come in and there’s a committee of people that decide how you’re supposed to look. They decided I needed a hat. Then everybody thought I was bald, because of the hat. Then they told me to take the hat off, and I locked down and kept it on for awhile.

Tom T. Hall said his songwriting got harder once he was famous enough to be easily recognized when he traveled. A song about being famous is tough for listeners to hold close.

That’s right. Once you’re doing this, you live good, and it’s not what other people can relate to. But I have friends that are in screwed up relationships that I can relate to. There’s always some Charlie Brown thing hanging over them all the time. They’ve always got something emotional to say. Last night, my buddy was arguing with his girlfriend and she texted him back, “You’re not worth my tears.” We were like, “We’ll write that down.” I think he wrote back, “Thanks.”


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