After some rough-and-tumble years, Gary Allan is finally looking at clear skies ahead.
On the personal front, Allan is forging ahead after mourning the loss of his father and undergoing surgery to remove a polyp on his vocal cords. For the first time in five years, he's roared into the Top 5 at country radio with "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)." And he's patched up a rocky relationship with his longtime label, MCA Nashville, for the album Set You Free.
"We took them all champagne and we had a toast," Allan tells CMT.com. "I've gotten to know a lot of them. It's a good thing. I tell you what, I've never had such a good team."
CMT: How does the first song, "Tough Goodbye," set the tone for this album?
Allan: The whole record, if you read the song titles when you get it, reads like a breakup. It starts out with "Tough Goodbye," then goes through all of the emotions of a breakup and the healing process and rounds itself out with "Good as New."
There's a lot of energy in "Tough Goodbye."
Yeah, we just started playing that song live. It's a great song. Josh Thompson and Tony Martin wrote it. That was a "first listen" for me. I would be surprised if that's not a single.
How often do you pick a song to record based on the first listen?
It's pretty rare for me. Sometimes if a song hits me really good the first time, I get sick of it. And by the 10th time I've heard it, it's just candy, and I don't like it anymore. I usually get out all of my songs and wear them out myself before I even start deciding what to record. Some of them weed themselves out.
And sometimes you get sick of them as you record. That happens to me on every record. At the end of the record, there are songs that other people are jumping up and down about. Then I say, "I don't think that's even going to make it on the record." There was one for this album called "Sleeping Like a Baby" that had everybody flipping out, and I said, "I don't like it." (laughs)
What were you hoping to capture when you wrote "Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)"?
We wanted a song about hope. I wrote it with Hillary Lindsey and Matt Warren. I remember Matt Warren brought the hook. It was from an accident he had earlier that week while he was weed-eating. He said a rock hit him on the head, and he wrote on a piece of paper, "Every storm runs out of rain." He brought that into us.
And I can remember Hillary doing this gospel stomp sort of thing. It took off that way for a while, then we ended up writing a different song, which is how we work together. Then as she was walking out the door, she sat down at the piano and started playing a riff. She does this once in a while and says, "Everybody just make something up." I started singing, and I think I sang the first verse and the melody in the chorus. Then when we came back next time, it was almost done. We just had to finish it.
I read that the song "One More Time" was really touching to your mother. What response did you get the first time you played it for her?
I had just lost my dad, so to me that is a funeral song. It's a really introspective song, and that's how it hit her. She called and said, "It just makes me think of your dad and it makes me cry." I always send her the work tapes, then she tells me what she likes.
How do you send her the music? Just drop a CD in the mail?
I'll email her MP3s. I usually do all of the pre-production stuff in my house, so she gets all of that stuff.
Does she like the Internet and using computers?
She does! You've got to keep it really simple. I sent her an iMac and the Geek Squad set it all up. Then a week later, she said, "Ah, I can't play my solitaire on this." (laughs) That was pretty much the killer -- the solitaire. So we went back to a PC. (laughs)
You've said before that your dad wouldn't let you sign a record deal when you were a teenager. Was that a point of contention at the time?
Oh, yeah! I was offered a deal, and he wouldn't sign it. So I quit playing with him. I was young and didn't want to play in his band anymore. He used to tell me that I imitated people, and that's why he didn't sign it. He'd say, "You need to play for the people who love you, the people who hate you and the people who couldn't care less. And that's how you learn to play for yourself."
Actually, I didn't even get what any of that meant. I was just pissed off as a kid. But when I was 23, I remember a distinct year where I didn't have to think about how I played a song. I just played it in my band and the song became ours, whatever it was. I think then it clicked, what he meant. I think I did imitate people.
And he said, "If you get a deal too young, they're going to mold you." He said, "I don't want them to mold you." That was his deal.
Would you say he was right?
Oh, yeah! In hindsight, all the way. I wouldn't be the person I am if it wasn't for him.
Have they tried to mold you over the years?
Yeah, but I'm pretty stubborn. (laughs) Shoot, there's a committee to tell you everything at a record label. You definitely have to know who you are if you want to look like you at the end of the process. We've all seen people get record contracts, and by the time they're spit out by the machine, we don't even recognize them.
How do you respond to those attempts? Do you just say, "No, I'm not going to do that"?
Totally. The whole hat thing was because they told me to take it off. I hardly ever wore a hat. But they told me to take it off, so I wore it every day, everywhere I went, for 10 years! (laughs) There is always a committee to tell you what to do. But until what I do doesn't work anymore, let's not try to fix me.
Was that stylish look from the "Smoke Rings in the Dark" era your idea?
Yeah, that was my idea. That was part of them telling me not to. So I just went more hardcore into that.
What did they want? T-shirt and jeans?
Well, they were trying to get me out of the hat, so I came back with hats and suits. I think it worked, but they were still saying, "You need to lose the hat." I think it wasn't until they blew out that part of the label, and those people stopped talking to me, to where I came in without a hat. (laughs) Just as long as nobody's going to tell me I have to do it, I'll do it.