An Alright Guy, who talks to Graham Lees
Gary Allan's new album Alright Guy was released on September 10, a month ahead of its US counterpart and on September 25 Gary and the band will be taping a new TV special in Nashville. Gary was in the UK for the album release and to play a gig at London's Borderline on Tuesday the 11th , (the evening of that horrendous attack on New York City and the Pentagon).
New York Times wrote of Allan " The latest exponent of the Bakersfield sound is Gary Allan, a 33 year-old surf bum from Orange County, California…the first West Coast-identified country singer to taste mainstream success since Dwight Yoakum." Gary Allan came to the notice of most UK country fans in 1999 with Allan's 3rd album release, Smoke Rings In The Dark on the MCA record label.
After playing countless smoky bars with his dad as a teen, he formed his own band playing clubs and fairs in Southern California for several years before signing with Decca Records and releasing two albums that each generated Top 10 hits…the single "It Would Be You" climbed to #5. When Decca closed its doors in Nashville, he was one of only four artists picked up by parent company MCA. Releasing Smoke Rings In The Dark (UK release November 1999), the million plus selling album has fallen just short of gaining Platinum.
The morning of September 11, before the tragedy stuck American, I had the opportunity to speak to Gary about his music.
Hi Gary and welcome to the UK.
"Well thank you." Is this your first time in Britain."
Yes it is. So far it's been a bit worky, but after tonight I'm going to see it."
When did you come in from mainland Europe.
"The day before yesterday (Sunday 9 September). Yesterday we did interviews and the day before we were recovering from Gstaad (festival, Switzerland). It was a beautiful place. There were about 2,400 people there. We've been on mainland Europe for about the last week."
I believe that you just have guitarist Jake Kelly with you. What kind of a band do you carry back in the States?
"I've got a 7-piece band back home and some of them have been with me for as long as 10-12 years".
Are these the guys playing on the new album.
"Some of them are and some are not. Jake is, actually."
The single "Man Of Me" from the album is doing well already on the Billboard charts making the Top 40.
"Yeh it's coming up there. MCA has been really good to us. This is the second album on there and the first (Smoke Rings In The Dark) went really well."
What was the decision to release the album in the UK, a month before in the US.
"Because we were coming over here and everybody new it. We weren't quite finished and were mastering some stuff and just decided to make a UK version first, put it out and then we would have something to talk about while we were here."
Well that sounds a sensible way forward. There are songs such as 'Devil's Candy', and 'I'm Doin My Best', which have that bar room theme that Nashville tends to frown upon... Did you make a conscious decision to sing about these types of themes.
"Yeh...yeh I think I have, just on this record. You know, I thought it would be fun to go and make a good bar record. Something that I would love to go and listen being played and so |I did my best to go and do that."
The title track 'Alright Guy' is a good catchy number on a similar theme. Do you feel that your own music is breaking ground with hopefully a move back to the more earthy themes that were so popular a few years ago.
"You know I would always love to see that happen and it would make my career a lot longer. So yeh, I think because of that, I will be always doing my part to push it back that way. I would love to see it go back there. To me that is what country music is. It's not politically correct, it's a format that's about truth and life."
'What Would Willie Do' is a song on the album. Do you see yourself following in the Outlaw scheme of country music started by Willie Nelson and his bunch back in the 80s.
"Yeh. You know that's my favourite stuff! Those are my favourite records. Waylon, Willie, the Outlaw records and stuff like that. We spent a lot of time with Willie on the road this year. I got to play that in front of him on the Willie Nelson Picnic, which was the best crowd that I could have played that song for. I just have a lot of respect for Willie and I thought is would be great to put a tribute to him on there."
What kind of response did it bring, playing it for Willie.
"Huge..yeh. He loved the song. The people loved the song. I played it actually in a little radio thing here in the UK and I was amazed that they seemed to get it here more than they did in the States (laughs)."
Yeh I think they would.
Many touring artistes have said that the fans in Europe seem to be more knowledgeable than back home.
"Yeh, I felt that in Australia too. Just about the roots of everything you know."
How did you like playing in Australia.
"Very nice. Very laid back. The people…great. I'll definitely go back."
You have revived Del Shannon's 'Runaway'. It was on Smoke Rings and is also an extra cut on the UK release of Alright Guy, Why choose that song?
"It's a song that I've played since I was a little kid. My manager, John Lytle used to watch us do that in rehearsal once in a while and at sound checks. He kept saying, man, you've got to record that. Eventually we did, and when we did do it, it was almost an accident in the studio. We had finished with Smoke Ring and it was a one-pass deal. We had finished...we had about 20 minutes, we switched players around a little bit to make it more similar to the combo that we play live and how we play it, so that it would go simple. And it was a one take deal."
So how come you've put it on the UK version of Alright Guy?
"That was the label's call. I think it did so well, with #1 down in Australia and I think that they felt it could do really well here. So they put it on to give them that option."
Soul seems to be the priority with the songs that you look for. I believe that when you were looking for songs for the Smoke Rings album, you hosted a private party in your living room with invited guests such as Guy Clark, Harland Howard, Harley Allan, Shawn Camp and Byron Hill. What was it like having the cream-of-the-crop all pitching at you.
"Oh it was great! A couple of them were joking and bitching - why can't I go to the publisher like everybody else. (laughs) But I'll tell you, put all of those guys in a room like that and you couldn't play a bad song! I got about three or four songs that day. I'll do that again."
Have you considered any of the songs from that session for Alright Guy? 'Devil's Candy' is a Harley Allan/Carson Chamberlain number.
"Actually it did and it didn't make it last year. There were two of them and one of them will probably make the next album. And that is 'Stray Dogs and Ally Cats Like Me'. I think that some you find you can use, but don't fit the project or you already have the vibe covered."
You mention planning the next album. How long did Alright Guy take to produce?
"Man...Smoke Rings was on the charts for like 90 weeks, so it was about 90 weeks, we were just waiting for it to end. Which is a great problem to have! It was on the actual sales charts for like 50 - 60 weeks. It débuted at 9 and is still on there"
Tell me about your own songwriting, you co-wrote 'I Don't Look Back'.
"You know, I used to write a bunch more before I had a record contract….I think writing is like an introverted kind of thing and when you're on the road you're forced to be extroverted and it takes me a while to slow back down. Even that song, 'I Don't Look Back'. I wrote that when I came into town (Nashville) about 4 - 5 years ago. I usually write about Christmas, because I'm off November, December and January and that is usually when I have been writing my one or two songs that I'm getting on there. I usually have a lot more to say when I've done touring."
Are you a prolific songwriter, or is it just now and again that you get the inspiration to write.
"It has been both. When I was younger I was more prolific and now it is when I feel it."
Growing up not far from Bakersfield, were you influenced by sounds of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens from a young age.
"Absolutely, that was my whole repertoire until I was about 16 - 17. I played bars five nights a week from when I was like 12 and was offered my first deal when I was 15. My dad wouldn't co-sign, because he said that I imitated guys like Haggard and he said you need to keep writing....keep singing until you find yourself. In hind sight it was a good thing, but I was pissed off at the time."
So how come a Californian teenage Surf Bum started playing country music.
"I still am (laughs). I guess it's when your dad and brother are musicians. I used to surf in the morning and then go play bars with them at night. I think that all my friends that I surfed with when I was young, now have country pre-set on their radios, so I grew on them."
You've paid your dues in country music, working the bars and clubs in Southern California, did you find it hard work to get recognised and draw your audience.
"It seems to be more about radio play and politics in the US. I think it's more about building the team around you and yeh, it's working. If you can put the crowd in the room I can handle the crowd, but putting the people in seems to be all about radio."
What are playing to in the clubs back home?
"We're playing to about 2,000 - 2,500 seated rooms right now. I used to play the likes of the Palomino when I was 13 - 14".
So are the places you are playing now similar to the Palomino?
"Some of them are, but most a lot are a lot bigger. We play some dives that are big too. In Texas we play some of those big tin buildings."
I've been to Texas and seen that type of building. We went to Greune Hall, which is just like a large wooden shed.
"Right...we are playing Greune Hall, I think in a couple of weeks."
So what can we look forward to for the near future.
"You know, I think I'm going to try and get over here again. So, more of the same. We'll keep banging it out over there and then do my best to get over here again. I think it would do me a lot of good to get out of the States. I like to play a lot, so if we could spend some of our time playing somewhere else, it will help us all the way round."
Will you bring the full band next time?
"Absolutely, I was sorry I didn't this time, as we were so close at Gstaad."
This is a stopover on the way back to the States. So what do you have lined up when you get back home.
"We are off until the 20th and then we go on tour, business as usual. We have a few dates with Dwight, most of it's in Texas."
So you're opening for Dwight Yoakum that sounds good. He seems to be very involved in his movie making at the moment.
"Yeh, I think he's trying to make some more money to make another film actually and he's hit it really hard in the States. He was on those Willie Nelson dates also."
Is there anything else happening, which will be of interest to our readers
"We seem to have covered it."
I think so! I hope you enjoy your stay-over and have a good night later this evening at the Borderline. Do you know how the advance sales are going.
"It's been sold out for a couple of weeks."
That's great! Thanks very much for your time. Hopefully we'll see you doing a wider tour and catch you again somewhere in the North of England.
"Thank you. And have a good day now."