NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Gary Allan’s Tough All Over

His New CD Is an Eloquent Musical Statement in the Face of Tragedy

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

When the best albums of 2005 are being discussed later this year, I think serious attention will be paid to Gary Allan’s new CD. It’s his sixth album, and it’s a long way artistically since his first, 1996′s tentative-sounding Used Heart for Sale. This is the mature voice of a serious artist who is going about serious business.

His new Tough All Over is a great country album — and he has recorded a couple of those — but it also has meanings on other levels.

Allan has pretty much always let his music do his talking for him — which is not a bad trait at all these days — and he has quietly built up a very strong body of work. He came out of Southern California and drew from and built on the Bakersfield Sound reminiscent of Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, but he also draws from the rock-based West Texas raw guitar sound harkening back to Waylon Jennings. After Used Heart for Sale, his next four CDs were solid musical statements, highlighted by 1999′s Smoke Rings in the Dark.

His new work follows by a year the suicide last October of his wife, the mother to six children. The only overt mention of her that he has made to date appears in his liner notes here, in which he writes: “Angela Herzberg was a beautiful wife and an awesome mom. We miss her very much. Maggie, Dallas, Tanna, Ty, Stormy, Cole and Gary.”

Allan has always had a dark musical vision, but it stands him in good stead. It especially shows here, right down to the logo on the physical CD itself: a skeletal bronco rider atop a skeletal bucking horse.

But some of his original songs here are heart wrenching. “Puttin’ Memories Away,” which Allan co-wrote with Matthew Warren, is a gorgeous expression of sadness, with Hank Singer’s eloquent fiddle lines echoing and reinforcing Allan’s mournful vocal delivery, as he sings, “I threw our rings into a box/Filled with broken memories and fool’s gold/And I woke up again last night in this lonely bed without you to hold/And I walked around this house pullin’ pictures off the walls/Just like I’ve done a hundred times before/Makin’ sure I’ve got ‘em all.”

“I Just Got Back From Hell,” which he co-wrote with Harley Allen, is pretty much self-revelatory. Allan sings, “I just got back from Hell/And I’m standing here alive/I know it’s really hard to tell/Don’t know how I survived/But I can’t say that I’m doin’ great/But I think I’m doin’ well/That devil’s gonna have to wait/’Cause I just got back from Hell.”

He didn’t write the current single, “Best I Ever Had,” (Matthew Scannell did) but he totally occupies and inhabits that song of romantic disillusionment and despair. Allan is increasingly elevating himself to the level of great country singers.

“Putting My Misery on Display,” the only song here he wrote by himself, is exactly what the title implies. It’s a stark, gut-wrenching statement of despair from a man who nonetheless keeps his head about him and knows that he must stay on course. He sings, “I live in my own world on 18 wheels/Playing music and writing songs about the way I feel/Tonight I’ll play my guitar for you/I’ll pour my heart out and tonight it’s blue/So gather round and watch me play/I’m putting my misery on display.”

The song becomes increasingly confessional and vulnerable as Allan says, “Tonight I wish someone would hold me/A woman’s touch and put my mind at ease/Her lips, her breath up against my skin/Spread her wings and take my body in/I’ll be gone by the break of day/Putting my misery on display.”

I like this guy. He’s got considerable talent and a sure instinct for the core of country music, but more importantly, he’s got a hell of a lot of heart and soul and guts.