It has been eight years since Gary Allan released a new album, and 462 days from his last show pre-pandemic to his recent show after pandemic. “That’s crazy, I think that’s the longest I’ve been between dates,” Allan tells Sounds Like Nashville.
It’s also the longest he has been between albums. His latest, Ruthless, released on June 25. Not that he wasn’t in the studio during those eight years when there was no new product. In fact, this album represents three separate times Allan went into the studio to record.
“The album is kind of an accumulation of three separate projects,” he explains. “I went in and cut a bunch of songs with my engineer Greg Droman and my road band and that’s where ‘What I Can’t Talk About’ and ‘Little Glass of Wine’ came from.
“Then I did a second batch of songs with Jay Joyce and that was during the heat of Bro-Country. After that we decided to drag out feet until that went away. Then the 90’s trend came in and I thought ‘Why don’t I go see if I can’t get (producers) Mark (Wright) and Tony (Brown) to produce me again and that’s where the last batch of songs came from. So that’s where we are. Somewhere in that time I went in and talked to Mike Dungan (head of UMG Nashville) and told him, ‘It’s hurting more than helping not having something out there. There is more than radio these days to get music out to the fans … so we’re putting it out there.”
Allan says he recorded 28-30 songs and then chose the ones he felt would make the strongest album. The singer/songwriter says he put them all on an iPod and listened to them over and over. “Some of them spoke to me and some had lost their sparkle,” he explains how he chose the 13 tunes that ended up on Ruthless.
“Ruthless” became the title of the album in a unique way. Allan explains he looked at it as if “I’m a kid looking in the music store at album covers and I look for what I think is the coolest one and I pick it to buy. I miss music stores and I miss listening to the whole album.” Indeed, the album cover can’t help but catch attention with his signature skeleton bronco in white against a greenish black background.
Allan is an extraordinaire songwriter so it’s surprising to find only one song, “Pretty Damn Close,” with his name on it. He co-wrote it with Sarah Buxton, Rodney Clawson and Matt Warren. As for deciding on recording his songs or outside material, Allen says, “I go back and forth; it depends on the record. With this album I felt like there was so much time, I just wore the songs out listening to them and I think I did pick the best ones, and I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter who wrote them. When I first came to town singers didn’t even write their own songs. The songwriters had budgets so they would write a song and do a demo on it. Then I got to pick from their demos.”
The oldest song on the album is “Little Glass of Wine,” written by Jesse Winchester. Allan says it is a song he has always loved. “It was on an album called Live From Mountain Stage. I remember Jamie O’Hara said Jesse was his favorite writer, and I respected Jamie’s writing and that’s what made me get into Jesse.”
Allan’s first album came out in the 90’s and to this day he loves that era of music, with songs that tell stories that people can relate to. He writes lyrics that are honest and heartfelt, and never backs away from relaying emotion drawn from his own experiences, whether he is sad, hurting or lonely. Although sad songs are among his favorites, he points out that this album is not as sad as most of his records have been because he is in a good place right now.
The singer has his own philosophy about why ‘80s and ‘90s country music is so popular these days. “I think it’s because of its songwriting and melodies. Today people write with samples, and there are a handful of successful writers pulling from samples and beats. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, songwriters would rally around George Strait, me or Reba. You were reliant on the best writers in town to pull your songs from. I miss the melodies and the cutting lyrics from that era.
“For instance, I was writing with Chris Stapleton and my kids commented, ‘You never write without a guitar.’ And they were right, but this song was already structured because someone brought in the melody. I don’t know if it will ever go back to the way songs were written in the ‘80s and ‘90s because that is just the way the younger guys are doing it these days.”
Allen says he enjoyed working with three different sets or producers. “They are all so different. I missed the giant personality of Mark and Tony. I think if we’re missing anything it’s that personality. They were like, ‘Let’s put a studio band together and go with it.’ Jay would always say, ‘You play guitar because no one else will play it like you.’ I like the left turns that happen with different producers. I like ‘Little Glass of Wine’ with ‘Trouble Knows Trouble’ – I don’t want it the same, (I want) a journey that takes you everywhere.”
When he was playing in his father’s band he was offered a record deal when he was 12. Since he was a minor, his parents had to sign for him and they wouldn’t do it because they thought he was too young. His father told him, “You need to play for the people who love you, the people who hate you and for the people who care less and you’ll find yourself in there somewhere.”
Allan explains his father’s comment. “When I was a kid I imitated everybody. It really wasn’t until I was 25, when I signed my first contract, that when someone gave me a song I didn’t have to think about it. I knew how it was and I knew how it was going to sound. So when I got that deal and came to town, I think that was a big asset for me. If you are a child star they will tell you what to do, and if you wait you’ll know who you are and what you are doing.”
Allan has another outlet for his creativity – he is a jeweler and his daughter Maggie is part of his company. His online store is on his website, garyallan.com.
“I think as a kid I wanted to be a jeweler,” Allan comments. “I was fascinated with watches and stuff like that. When my label contract ran out with Universal, it kinda went dark while I was talking to other labels. I couldn’t do anything musically, so I went to jewelers’ school and learned to set diamonds and cast silver and gold. Then my daughter went to jewelry school and now we turn out about 200 pieces a month of Gary Allan custom jewelry.”
There is a variety of items for sale, from Allan’s custom bronco logo to high end custom jewelry. These are original pieces that were designed and hand carved from wax by Gary. His song beads feature titles of his songs, the latest being six of his favorite tunes from the new album Ruthless including “Sex, “Temptation,” “Unfiltered” and “Ruthless.”
One of Allan’s newest endeavors is Weed Cellars Brand, which includes a line of wines, prosecco, vodka and bourbon. “Before the pandemic, my agent Rob Beckham knew these guys in Los Angeles, in Beverly Hills and we met with them. Business is booming, we’re doing really well. We have seven wines on the shelves, a prosecco from Italy, vodka from Italy, and then the bourbon. It’s going just like I hoped.”
Allan has been involved with the new project from the beginning. “I was part of it when we decide what the bottles looked like, and then tasting the wines and bourbons. I still have the bottle of vodka that was the taster. I never got to be part of something like this so it is interesting and a lot of fun.”
A project tied into the Weed Cellars Brand is Weed at the Spot, a tasting lounge located on lower Broadway in Nashville. “The tasting lounge will be downstairs, and upstairs will be all private memberships. Right now I’m thinking it will open in November. We are currently in the process of building it out.”
Singer, songwriter, entertainer, musician, all packed into a 25-year career, but that career really goes back to almost a lifetime if you count the years he played in his father’s band. “I used to joke and say I wanted to be here 10 or 15 years and now we’re at 25. It’s crazy to think about.
“I think each album feels the same to me, equally exciting to put it out there. I love to play live, I love the road, I love having the records to play live,” Allan reminiscences, adding, “I will continue to make music that will allow me to get out to play for the people.”