Gary Allan has recorded for the same company — the Universal Music Group Nashville — since his first single, “Her Man,” was released in 1996. That’s a rare feat of stamina, considering he doesn’t even know how to find their shiny new office. “I couldn’t even really tell you where it’s at,” he sheepishly admits. “It’s near the Ryman, right?”
In other words, the native Californian remains somewhat of an outsider in Nashville, even though he’s earned about a dozen Top 10 hits, several platinum albums and prime opening spots for Brooks & Dunn and Rascal Flatts, among others. All the while, he’s earned precisely one CMA nomination — for Horizon Award in 2003 (yes, seven years into his career).
Naturally, the non-conformist message of his new single, “Get Off on the Pain,” suits him well — enough so that he named his new album after it.
“I liken it to us,” he says. “We’ve always been on the outside, just doing our own thing. I think any time you’re doing your own thing, you’re never going to be the latest, greatest thing. Those things never last anyway, so I’ve always wanted to be the guy who’s here for 20 years.” When he’s reminded that he’s almost reached that milestone, Allan replies with a laugh, “I know! We’ve got 15 down. And then I’m done!”
In the first half of this two-part interview at CMT’s offices, Allan talks about music from his new album, Get Off on the Pain, along with the dynamics of a song, the tragedy that inspired “No Regrets” and the hardcore influence of Waylon Jennings.
CMT: What went through your mind when you first heard “Get Off on the Pain”?
Allan: It sounded like those guys [Bill Luther, Brett James and Justin Weaver] wrote it right at me. And that’s a hard thing to do. For me to cut somebody else’s song, it’s got to be something I want to say and it’s got to be phrased the way I would say it. I think this one was right down the pike. “Get Off on the Pain” describes the road life. It’s relentless, but I get off on it.
I think that it would require a lot of skill to sing the melody of “Today,” another song from the new album. What are the challenges in capturing the power of a big song like that?
Making sure you get dynamics. That was one we really had to finesse. It came with a really cheesy demo — sorry, Brice Long [who wrote the song with Tommy Lee James]. The lyric was so good, though. I was amazed that no one had written that song. It just seems like such an obvious one, to be standing there in the moment while somebody’s getting married that you wanted or thought you might want, but it’s too late now. I loved the lyric of that song. I was surprised nobody had ever written it.
Which emotions that you were hoping to capture when you wrote “No Regrets”?
That one was about my ex-wife who passed away. [Editor’s note: Angela Herzberg took her own life in 2006.] It’s about sleeping good at night. That was actually Jon Randall’s hook. When I write with him and Jaime Hanna, they always bring in two lighthearted hooks. I wrote “She’s So California” with them. He had a couple that were pretty deep, and it’s just whether you’re willing to go there that day. Whether you feel like crying or not and digging through all that. That day, we did. I’m really proud of that song. I really like it.
Growing up, were there a lot of musical instruments in your house?
Always. There was always a PA in our living room, always set up. My dad had this philosophy that if you put the guitars in the closet, nobody plays them. They have to be out where you can touch them all the time — and that’s very true. My house is the same way. There’s obviously a piano and always four or five guitars on the walls and there are amplifiers plugged in, so all you have to do is pick something up.
Do your kids pick them up, too?
They do. My younger daughters especially. I’ve got a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old, and they both play guitar and piano. In fact, when I played the Ryman, my 16-year-old came up and accompanied me on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
What impact has Waylon Jennings’ style had on your music?
Huge! All those guys on that Wanted! record. That was a staple in my life for a long time. In fact, that Highwaymen tour [featuring Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash] was a tour that changed my life. I was always in punk bands and rock bands. I always played country music with my dad and my brother in their bands. I was 14 when I saw that concert, and that was when country music took on a rock ’n’ roll edge to me. It was all about lyrics. It was very cutting and very hardcore.
I played bars for a few years, and it gave me a lot. It was like, “Wow, you can just stand and deliver truth and have it be chilling.” I miss those days. There was always a cool factor to country music back then, that no matter what genre you were in, you drew from it — whether you were in rock or whatever. And I think we’re lacking depth right now.
What do you mean when you talk about “depth” in the music?
Songs about life! “Sunday Morning Coming Down” — that’s the truth that they were able to say. Now it seems like everybody’s worried about tempo and how it sounds between the commercials. There’s a lot of stuff that shouldn’t be mattering that people in suits bring to music.
Do you think they bring too many happy songs?
Yeah! There’s too much bubblegum. Not everybody chews bubblegum. (laughs)
Did you know that Waylon Jennings had also recorded “Her Man” when you cut it?
Yeah. That was actually on his The Eagle record. Killer. It’s very Waylon, too. In fact, I listened to it for a while and it really messed up the way I sang it. It made me start singing like him, and it took me a while to shake that off.
At what point did you get away from trying to sing like your heroes and finding your own style?
I think that kind of evolved. I was offered a record contract when I was 15, and dad wouldn’t co-sign it because I imitated people. That was his whole deal. He said, “You still try to sing like George Jones.” He used to have this saying that you need to play for the people that love you, the people that hate you and the people who couldn’t care less — and eventually you start playing for yourself. I don’t think I knew what that meant until I was 23. At some point, when you play so long in a bar, if someone gives you a song or you sing any song, you no longer have to think about how you sing it. It’s just the way you do it because you’ve done it for so long.
Did you have that drive to get into the music business when you were 15?
I think after I got offered the deal, even though he said I couldn’t do it, that’s when I said, “Wow, this is attainable.” That’s definitely what set the fire. … I was 25 when I got my deal, but I was 23 before I really felt like I knew how to record and sing. It’s its own different beast, like when you’re recording stuff and singing in clubs, just to get to where you’re not imitating whatever it is that you learned.
How many nights did you play clubs when nobody was there?
Probably one or two nights a week. We even learned how to clean out a bar! (laughs) We’d play ballads. We’d be ready to wind down, so we’d play slow songs purposely so you could put people to sleep and push them out of the bar. Yeah, for years we did that.
How did playing in those clubs prepare for that moment when you got the deal?
It’s exactly what my dad said — you play those nights when nobody’s listening and you play those nights where everybody’s listening and you play for people you don’t know, and eventually you carve out your own thing. You walk out with authority, no matter what crowd it is.