Since his introduction in 1996 with his debut album, Used Heart for Sale, and single, “Her Man,” Gary Allan has steadily built a career that now includes his new album, Get Off on the Pain.
In the second half of this two-part interview with CMT.com, he talks about how a chance encounter at a California car dealership led to his big break. Along the way, he also reminisces about the L.A. club scene and how he’s inspired by live DVDs.
CMT: I read that you slipped a demo tape into the glove compartment … .
Allan: It wasn’t me. I was working on a car lot. Actually, before that, I was offered a deal with BNA. I was working construction and had sold my construction company, thinking I got a record deal. The guy that was helping me out at BNA — Byron Hill — left, so my ’in’ was suddenly gone. I was working for my brother, and I remember I had just gotten divorced, and one of the salesmen was listening to one of my demos in the truck.
A lady bought this truck and came back two weeks later. I had sung the demo to “If I Was a Drinkin’ Man” by Neal McCoy, and the lady had gotten used to my demo for those two weeks, and then his version started coming out on the radio. I think you just love whoever you hear first, whenever you like a song. So she came back into the dealership, going, “Who is messing up your song on this CD?” I explained to her that it was a songwriting demo and told her my life story and that I wanted to go to Nashville and make a demo.
Her husband had asked, “Well, how much is that going to cost?” And I said, “Probably $12,000.” He kind of hit her on the shoulder and said, “Write him a check.” They wrote me a check for twelve grand. I remember I slid it back to them and said, “You know, I’ve never taken money from my family because I would never want to owe anybody anything if I didn’t want to play.” They laughed at me and said, “That’s not that much money to us. You should take it if it could change your life.”
I took that twelve grand, and I think within six months, I had a record deal. I flew into Nashville and we cut a four-song demo. All four songs ended up making the record. I ended up giving that lady back her twelve grand and a percentage of the first record. It turned out they had a gold mine in Alaska, so they were just digging money out of the ground and it wasn’t that big of a deal. (laughs) Great folks, though. I couldn’t make up a better story than that. And I’ve tried. (laughs)
How old were you then?
I was 22, and I was still playing at night. It was comical because I would sleep in those conversion vans during the day. I got caught asleep a couple of times. People would open those conversion vans, and I’d be all passed in there. I’d wake up and go, “Wow! Those are comfortable!” (laughs)
When you flew here to make the demos, was that your first visit to Nashville?
It was. I remember I didn’t know anybody and didn’t want to use any L.A. guys because I knew L.A. so well. I felt like that was my problem — because there was a rub between Nashville and L.A. So I thought if I could get in and use all of their players, that would make noise — and it did. I just wanted to meet the guys I’d heard on the different records. It was a good experience. Byron Hill helped me do it. We made a four-song demo and trucked it back home. The next thing you know, Joe Galante called and said, “Hey, I heard your demo, and I want to fly you out and have you play for our label.” And I said, “No, because you’re going to put me in a rehearsal studio, and you’re going to bring a bunch of guys in suits and watch me play a few songs. You can’t begin to get what I do by that, so you’re going to have to come out here.” He said, “Well, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do that.” I said, “OK” and hung up, thinking, “Oh, God, what did I just do?”
Where did you find the nerve to say that?
I just thought, “If you make me sit in a room like that, there’s no way you’re going to get it.” We were so big in L.A., I thought, “If he could just come down here and feel this.”
What was that L.A. club scene like?
Packed. Slammed. Every place we went was really packed. The place that I ended up playing the big showcase was at Crazy Horse, which is a really famous club, but I couldn’t play there [any other time] because I wouldn’t play Top 40 stuff. They wouldn’t let me play there on a regular night because we wouldn’t play all the “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” kind of stuff or whatever trend was going on. … They knew who we were. We just didn’t play the game with them very well back then, but it all ended up working out. I was able to go to the club owner and say, “Look, I want to do a showcase in here,” and he had no problems saying “Yeah.”
Did you sing the four songs from the demo?
I just played a regular night. They came in and watched a show. The nerve-racking thing, though, was that Bruce Hinton — who was the head of MCA back then — couldn’t make the show, so I had to go play for him, just by himself in a hotel room with a guitar. I didn’t play what was on the demo for him. I played “Lovesick Blues” and old stuff like that and then a couple of songs I had written. I remember asking, “Can I just talk to you for a while until I stop shaking?” It was probably a good 20 minutes until I was not nervous and stopped shaking enough to play.
For those fans who never seen your full set, what can they expect?
I think you get more dynamics. When we have a lot more time, I’ll come out by myself and play a couple of songs on guitar by myself. I’ll play with a stripped-down version of my band. Then you get the spontaneity of whatever you feel like playing that night. All of our shows are spontaneous in some way. We always like to force something in there. Otherwise, we’ll go nuts if my guys regurgitate the same licks over and over. It’s got to be different. It’s always got a twist. Otherwise I’d get bored.
I used to not like them, but we’ve gotten better at playing bigger rooms. Now it’s just fun to have a swing at their audience. You can watch your audience grow. We’ve gotten to do that with several people. Anytime you get a crack at 50,000 or 60,000 people, we can take some of them with us.
Do you feel like your set list was restricted on those bigger tours?
Yeah, but the weird part is, when we played with the Flatts, I would adjust my set list, trying to have the hits spanning over my whole 15 years, and then you could watch your merch numbers. And then I tried to keep it to all my hits within the last five years, because that’s mostly their crowd, and the merch numbers went through the roof. So it depends if you’re playing to my crowd or someone else’s crowd. You have to gauge what kind of career they’ve had. It’s cool because we have a good arsenal of songs, so we can see what you’re doing and go, “Oh, we think this will work with your people.” When you’re in a big room like that, you can directly gauge it off your merch. You can go, “This worked. We connected.”
Now that this record’s done, what are you looking forward to the most?
Seeing where I’m going to turn next. I like it to evolve constantly. I don’t know where it’s going to go next. I know that I want more … A big ritual for us, before we go onstage, is to watch a live DVD. The one that was a big hit last week was by Pink. I love the theatrics of her show. For me, that’s where I would want to take something next — not necessarily that direction, but something’s got to go to the next level. It’s just fun to twist it. We’ve been around too long to keep doing the same things.Read part one of the Gary Allan interview.