Legendary songwriter Harlan Howard used to tell Gary Allan, "You can write. You just ain't got nothing to say."
That was a long time ago.
"Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)," which he co-wrote with Hillary Lindsey and Matt Warren, is nominated for song of the year at the 2014 ACM Awards.
Although he appreciates the nomination, Allan says the opportunity to help fans possibly heal through their own tough times is what's "huge" for him.
"It sort of justifies all that you're doing," he says. "That's the biggest compliment, I think, when you write something like that, and it helps somebody."
With more than 7 million albums sold over the span of his 18-year career, Allan cites a combination of factors which have led to the development of his songwriting.
"I've gotten a lot better, both learning how to write, and I've just been through a lot more," he says.
On the topic of co-writers, Allan admits he's selective.
"I pretty much don't write with anybody new -- just cold," he explains. "Like, if you hit me up at a bar and was like 'Hey, we should write a song' ... no, we wouldn't do it. With me, you have to come in with somebody that I've written with, that I've been writing with."
Part of the issue is simply a matter of forming creative connections with other artists. With a steady stream of concert dates, Allan uses his time wisely.
"If I can have somebody else that knows both of us in the room, it breaks that down really fast and we're able to get a song written fast," he says. "So I feel like if you're going to start with somebody fresh that you don't know, it's going to take me a couple of days where we really start getting past the surface and getting some grit."
Allan's grit is on full display in the music video for his latest single, "It Ain't the Whiskey." Singing from the viewpoint of a man dealing with the aftermath of a failed relationship, he filmed the video at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville and says he was very involved in picking the location of the shoot and how the video would look.
"I thought the video really fit the song," he says.
The black-and-white video follows Allan through an AA meeting, solemnly singing with his band. What appears to be a funeral ultimately turns out to be his ex's wedding ceremony.
"I thought it was edgy. It was everything it needed to be. I was proud of it," he says.
Along with co-writing five of the 12 tracks on Set You Free, he co-produced seven songs and played lead guitar on some of the sessions. The album also marks the first time he's co-written with women. Lindsey, Sarah Buxton and Rachel Proctor all nabbed songwriting credits alongside Allan.
He says there's a huge difference in co-writing with members of the opposite sex.
"I really like the down, dark songs, and I think it helped put a positive spin on stuff for me," he says. "Like 'Every Storm.' It's about something bad, or it insinuates heartache, but there's not one negative line in the song."
Allan hasn't recorded anything for his next project just yet, but he's in the midst of a tried-and-true process.
"Right now, I'm sort of harvesting," he explains. "I'll write all year, then I'll harvest it, and I'll start making demos. Then I'll take those, and I'll go search the town and see what songs I come up with."
Getting a taste of what others are writing allows him to compare the quality of his original material.
"And if I got my ass kicked, then I'll go back and rewrite and keep writing longer until I didn't get my ass kicked," he laughed.