Gary Allan: The Cover Story

Written by Chris Parton
Gary Allan: The Cover Story
Gary Allan; Photo Credit: Eric Adkins

There’s no use denying it. 2020 has made us all into grumpy old timers, sitting around pining for the long-gone “good old days.” Well, if your good old days were soundtracked by the country hits of the 1990s, Gary Allan is here to help.

The brooding, raspy-voiced star behind favorites like “Right Where I Need to Be,” “Man to Man” and the double-Platinum “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain),” Allan first broke out in that decade of high tops, bright neon colors and questionable male grooming — and if you haven’t noticed, those have all come back around. With his new single, “Waste of a Whiskey Drink,” Allan’s adding one more ’90s relic to the list, and he’s got plans for more.

A smooth-burning shot of throwback country paired with Allan’s sweet-and-sour vocal — strong but mellow, a little wounded and a little dangerous — it’s the first single Allan’s released since 2017’s “Mess Me Up,” and he’s not blind to the fact country has moved toward a beat-driven electronic sound in that time … he just doesn’t care.

“I think we need a lane that sounds like that older stuff,” he says of the modern country format, speaking with Sounds Like Nashville from his home just north of Music City. “Everything can’t sound like this new stuff.”

Written by Josh Kear, Michael Hardy and Mark Holman, “Waste of a Whiskey Drink” is vintage Allan every sense — right down to the team he used to record it. The singer-songwriter reassembled the crew who made 1999’s dark and twangy Smoke Rings in the Dark, including all-star producers Mark Wright and Tony Brown. And there’s more on tap after this.

“We started thinking of what we wanted to do, and I thought ‘All of my favorite stuff was in that ‘90s era with Mark and Tony,'” Allan explains. “So we thought it would be really cool to try to get all of the original players from back then, and we did. I’m super excited, and this isn’t even my favorite track.”

The reformed team laid down six new tracks in total — all of them basking in the same old-school vibe which permeates “Waste of a Whiskey Drink.” The single is actually the “most commercial sounding” song of the bunch, he hints mysteriously, and goes on to note that capturing the late-’90s feel was almost too easy. It’s a moody barstool warning from one buddy to another, weighing the pros and (mostly) cons of approaching a woman across the room, and it hits the ’90s mark with a mix of live drums, electric and acoustic guitars — all laid down by people playing real instruments, no computers necessary. Allan’s never been labeled a country traditionalist, but as he says, these are “odd times.”

View this post on Instagram

Waste of a whiskey drink

A post shared by Gary Allan (@garyallanmusic) on

“It’s just organic, and there are no [programmed] tracks,” Allan says with a scoff. “I think our minds have gotten used to tracks, and that used to be like nails on a chalkboard to me. But I guess for kids today that’s just in their DNA. They don’t even notice. … I hate it.”

The new single does mark a return to the spotlight for Allan, but his time “away” was hardly intentional. As it turns out, he’s been recording new music all along. But perhaps because of his steadfast devotion to the pre-digital sound, nothing’s been released. He finally got so tired of waiting that he basically demanded his record label release “Waste of a Whiskey Drink,” damn the consequences.

“I feel like I record so much stuff that nobody gets to hear anymore, but the label decides what goes out,” he admits. “I’ve probably turned in like 40 songs, and we’re just now talking about the last six. … They keep saying ‘Well the time’s not right.’ But our last conversation was like ‘Look, I think it’s been a mistake for me not to have anything out. We keep saying it’s not right, but I would rather have an album out that flops than nothing at all.'”

Whether it flops or not remains to be seen, and with concert touring out of the question it’ll be hard for Allan to judge if he’s hit a vein of nostalgia, or just sounds dated. He explains that with the new release formats, singles go to streaming platforms first, and then radio, so he’s not even sure what successful early numbers would look like. But on the bright side, there is some precedent — Allan’s not the only artist tapping into the good old days. Luke Combs is arguably one of the brightest stars of the moment, and much of his music is built on a similar classic-rock meets country vibe that defined the ’90s. Meanwhile others like Jon Pardi and Midland are having success with even older callbacks.

“I was like ‘You know what? This stuff is coming back, and it’s right up my alley,'” Allan says.

These days there’s no avoiding our new reality … and in many ways there’s no going back to the way things were. But as for music, guys like Allan aren’t looking to change with the times — and maybe they shouldn’t. Asked how close he’s willing to get to country’s modern sound, his answer is simple.

“Umm, not at all,” he says with a laugh. “I feel like we’ve ventured into that a couple of times. But to me it’s like people don’t want to hear me do that. They want to hear me be me, so that’s what made us go back and put the old guys together, and do what we do. … I always follow my heart and [my music is] just whatever I want to play, but it’s odd times.”