The Ride Of A Dark Horse: Whatever Happened To Gary Allan?

(Editor’s Note: So, I heard you like deep dives…how about two in one week? Today’s suggestion comes from Taylor, who wanted to hear more about a West Coast artist known for his darker material:

For this one, I decided to call in an expert: Zackary Kephart, the founder and author of The Musical Divide and a longtime Gary Allan fan. Zack graciously agreed to write a guest post examining Allan’s career and analyzing where things went wrong with his career, and we’re excited to share it with everyone!

If you like what you see, go check out Zack’s other pieces at TMD—he writes song/album reviews and some other great features, including his “Pop Goes The Country” series breaking down classic country hits. Without further ado, let’s go to the deep dive!)

Gary Allan
Photo credit: Eric Adkins

When Gary Allan released his debut single in 1996, country music was changing rapidly. For one, while Allan was beginning to make a name for himself, several performers, including Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith, were already fully-developed artists; let’s not forget, too, that the “class of ‘89” was starting to grow up. Allan didn’t just face competition from fellow newcomers – he faced it from artists in their prime.

Perhaps that’s why his early success was scattershot and inconsistent, or perhaps it was because of some approaching stylistic changes. Just one year later, in 1997, program directors requested a remixed version of Patty Loveless’s “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me,” featuring harmonies from George Jones, declaring Jones as out of step with the current format. In other words, and to recap the events outlined thus far, veteran artists exited the format, artists in their prime dominated the format, and newcomers faced their own challenges. Country album sales declined approximately 20 percent in 1996, a dip that some in the industry saw as evidence that the Garth Brooks boom was over.

Yet it’s hard to completely judge whether or not Allan was affected by any of this. His debut single, after all, was a cover of Waylon Jennings’s “Her Man,” and even while country radio cast aside legends like Jones, that single managed to give Allan his first top 10 hit. His follow-up singles, however, for both his debut and sophomore albums would fail to reach the top 40, for unknown reasons; one of the singles, “From Where I’m Sitting,” even featured a co-write from the aforementioned Brooks.

It wasn’t until his third album, 1999’s Smoke Rings In The Dark, that Allan would find consistent success. Whereas his previous two projects fell heavy on the popular neotraditional sounds of the time period, his third album saw him embrace his California country roots. The difference was notable: Smoke Rings In The Dark sold more units than Allan’s previous two projects combined, eventually achieved platinum distinction, and gave Allan his first top 5 hit with “Right Where I Need To Be.”

Again, it was on that project where Allan embraced his roots. He grew up in a musical family, playing honky tonks at night with his father by the time he was 13, and turning down the opportunity for a record deal two years later. He quickly became a big draw on the local concert scene, but refused to move up to bigger venues that wouldn’t allow him to play the traditional country covers that made up a big chunk of his set. He cut some demos in a small California studio in the early ‘90s, and the tape caught the interest of BNA Records in Nashville. But restructuring at the label prevented him from being signed.

Allan continued to sell cars for a living, at least until, in what can only be described as an incredible coincidence, he left a demo tape in a car that was then sold to a wealthy couple. They enjoyed it so much that they gave Allan $12,000, which he then used to make professional demos in Nashville. Several labels were then interested in Allan, but Decca Records offered him a contract first.

Again, Allan seemed isolated from the events happening in country music at the time, embracing a sound that was familiar, but unlike anything else on the radio at the time. His hit streak continued with 2001’s Alright Guy and 2003’s See If I Care, both of which, in total, gave Allan three No. 1 hits. The timeline of Allan’s run at radio includes events like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the rise and fall of the Dixie Chicks (and subsequent feud with Toby Keith), and the rise of the Muzik Mafia – yet even if the winds of country music changed, Allan seemed to only focus on his personal artistic growth. Like fellow contemporaries Dierks Bentley, Shelly Fairchild or Joe Nichols, Allan stood as a performer who, while not in the same league as the aforementioned Chesney or Keith Urban of the time, still carried a solid streak of hits that combined a solid sense of tradition with a contemporary flair. Allan even said the title of his See If I Care album reflected his attitude toward the music business.

But while Allan stood isolated from other events in country music happening at the time, he would not escape personal tragedy. On Oct. 25, 2004, Allan’s wife, Angela Herzberg, committed suicide. Allan initially put his career on hold, but soon returned to music as a coping mechanism. His 2005 Tough All Over album explored the tragic situation, and, in the wake of the tragedy, gave Allan his first No. 1 album.

Allan remained a consistent presence at country radio for the remainder of the decade, but his chart success slowly grew more inconsistent. 2007’s Living Hard brought Allan the top five, platinum-selling “Watching Airplanes,” but it also brought him “She’s So California,” his first song to miss the top 20 since “Lovin’ You Against My Will” in 2000. Still, Allan pressed on. While touring with Rascal Flatts in 2006 (yes, the same tour where Eric Church was fired and Taylor Swift was brought in as his replacement), the New York Times praised him as “the anti-Rascal Flatts: one of country music’s most stoic figures.”

Stoicism, however, implies a sort of nihilistic approach to dealing with the pain, and one listen to any of Allan’s work in the latter half of the decade would refute that statement. Truthfully, it’s hard not to hear how Allan spent years processing his wife’s suicide through his work, and whether country radio was growing tired of the somber nature of Allan’s work is all up to speculation. But with 2010’s Get Off The Pain, both “Today” and the title track only made it to No. 18, and those were the biggest hits from that album.

As country music transitioned into the 2010s, Allan remained silent after the unfortunate flop of “Kiss Me When I’m Down.” On Sept. 17, 2012, Allan released “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” to radio following his short hiatus, and it ended up being the biggest hit of his career. Again, one can only rely on speculation as to why it became his first No. 1 in a decade, but the song was better for mass radio consumption than some of Allan’s heavier material. Plus, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Allan wanted the song to resonate for those victims, and the music video reflects that.

Unfortunately, while Allan stood independent from country music trends throughout his early career, there’s one trend he wouldn’t be able to escape – yep, I’m referring to bro-country.

“Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” was released just one month after Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” and honestly, any later timing might have hurt Allan’s comeback. It’s not that Allan was too old for radio or to compete with the bro-country copycats that emerged from Florida Georgia Line’s success, but it’s not like he and happy (and sleazy) party music ever really went together anyway.

Now, it’s technically not clear if Allan ever criticized bro-country specifically, but in 2013, he joined artists like Kacey Musgraves and Alan Jackson by offering pointed criticisms of country music’s new direction. In an interview with Larry King (linked below), when asked whether or not he considered Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood country, Allan replied, “You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since the Clear Channel’s and the Cumulus’s and the big companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic. You know, so they’ve kind of sliced everything up, feeding it to the public in demographics.”

“It’s an amalgam then?” King asks.

“Exactly. Like if you want to get to the young kids, you put it on the alternative station. We’ve sort of ended up in this…we’re nicknamed the soccer mom, like 35 to 45 year-old woman I think is what our demographic is. So it’s very different. You used to be able to turn on the radio and you knew instantly it was the country station just by listening to it, and now you’ve got to leave it there for a second to figure it out.”

King then asks, “Do you like it or don’t like it?”

“You know I personally don’t like it because I loved the character of country music and I loved what it is and the lifestyle of it…. To me, country music is still Monday through Friday, and pop’s about what happens on the weekends.”

And, as is the spirit of Allan’s demeanor throughout his career, he didn’t concede to current trends in mainstream country music, though this was starting to take its toll on him. After all, he wasn’t a newcomer anymore, and though he was on the verge of a comeback, the charts said otherwise. Allan’s third single off his Set You Free album, “It Ain’t The Whiskey” stood in stark contrast to what got popular that year – a whiskey-soaked country weeper that begins with creaking organ and sounded as dark and howling as Allan’s best material. That’s not to say “sad songs and waltzes weren’t selling that year,” but the depressing onlook of small town life in Kacey Musgraves’s “Merry ‘Go Round,” the regret of Eli Young Band’s “Drunk Last Night,” the pain of knowing what’s to come in Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Her Eyes” and the fiery, Gothic rage of the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” all were exceptions, rather than the general rule in 2013. It’s no surprise, therefore, that despite stemming from the same album that launched Allan’s big comeback single, “It Ain’t The Whiskey” peaked within the top 40 at radio.

It’s hard to judge, though, whether Allan’s comments about country music’s direction are what hindered his momentum. Sure, the aforementioned Musgraves and Jackson made similar comments, but Musgraves only ever had one single catch on at radio, and ageism was certainly a factor for Jackson (it sadly was for George Strait during this time). But artists like the aforementioned Brown and Jake Owen both made similar comments about the country music climate, and their chart success remained in tact (yes, Owen’s momentum would slightly falter soon, but not because of this) .

“It Ain’t The Whiskey,” however, was the beginning of the end for Allan. Alongside bro-country, one other country music industry trend in the 2010s was the infiltration of EDM and R&B influences into the format. Songs like Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down,” Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down,” Thomas Rhett’s “Crash & Burn” and multiple singles from Sam Hunt, Old Dominion and Brett Eldredge (among others) don’t necessarily fit the bro-country moniker, but they do show those heavier pop influences. Jerrod Niemann went from mixing ragtime horns and trumpets on 2012’s Free The Music to going outright EDM with his comeback single, “Drink To That All Night.” Eli Young Band did the same with their 2015 EP, Turn It On. Instead of double down on any criticisms, Allan, too, fell in line with the trend.

Now, to be fair, Allan claims his 2015 single “Hangover Tonight” was a throwback to something like “Runaway” from his Smoke Rings In The Dark album, but whereas that song represented Allan finding his artistic identity on a breakthrough album, “Hangover Tonight” rang as rather, well … safe. The groove felt clunky and underweight, and the production was oversaturated as anything else in mainstream country at the time. Plus, the song was a sleazy, bar hookup track, which only made it blend in that much worse with other country radio singles of the time. Up until now, Allan really couldn’t be described as “trendy,” but in that instance he was.

Now, any followup single to something like “It Ain’t The Whiskey” would have a tough fight, especially with Allan’s aforementioned comments lingering behind him. But chasing trends proved to be the wrong move, as the single became Allan’s first to miss the top 40 since 1998’s “I’ll Take Today.” “Do You Wish It Was Me?” found Allan adopting his usual darker ambiance, but the murkier production still sounded too slick and dour to come across well, and it, too, failed to make much of an impact, ending with a No. 57 peak position. By the time Allan’s latest single, “Mess Me Up,” arrived, it all felt like too little, too late.

But as for assessing where and when it all went wrong, it leads to more questions than answers. As previously mentioned, Allan’s success never seemed tethered to trends, and while acts like Rascal Flatts or Lonestar made the sort of easy, agreeable pop-country that dominated the era, Allan somehow managed to find success with his own brand of moody, West Coast country music. The nontraditional movement had begun to fade, yes, but it was only after shedding any ties to that straight-laced sound that he found consistent success. His wife’s suicide certainly haunted him, and that shows in his work, but not to the point where it ever jeopardized his radio airplay or sales.  And while it’s easy to see why “Every Storm (Runs Out Of Rain)” caught on in hindsight, certainly no one could predicted it would be a double platinum-selling No. 1 hit upon release.

In other words, Allan is an enigma. I already compared Allan to artists like Dierks Bentley and Joe Nichols, and whereas both of them arguably have their trendier singles, it worked for them, if only temporarily. For Allan, moving away from what fans (and critics) had come to expect seemed to backfire for him, though it’s also possible that Allan’s dismissive attitude toward the genre soured him in the eyes of radio programmers, too.

Today, Allan is now on EMI Nashville (from MCA Records), yet there’s still no news on any upcoming music from him. Actually, it’s hard to know what to expect from Allan these days. In an interview last year, Allan both promised that new music was on the way, and offered criticisms for the country music genre (again).

“ ‘Organic’ is a good word,” Allan says. “I feel like somebody needs to stick out and turn this thing back toward something more organic. Country music used to be the most organic stuff out there, and now it’s become super pop-influenced. We used to influence pop. Now I feel like we’re being influenced by pop.”

“I’ve always found myself on the edge of Americana and the mainstream. When I get too far in the Americana side, I put one right down the pike and get back over into the mainstream. Then when you get too far into the mainstream, you try to pull those other guys. That’s been a dance my whole career.”

Allan also says, “I’m super proud of the stuff I just turned in. Hopefully they’ll find a single out of that, and we’ll get a launching point and go. It’s all pretty feel-good; it’s all pretty in-your-face. It’s all just really different. I kind of went the opposite of what everybody else was doing.”

Can Allan pull off another miraculous comeback? It’s tough to say, especially when his competition has shifted from the likes of Hunt and Florida Georgia Line to Luke Combs and Kane Brown. Allan has, however, always found his greatest success from doing the opposite of what everybody else is doing, as he says, whether it’s come from finding his artistic identity, finding solace from grief, or finding personal salvation from the aftermath of a storm. His journey is a mystery, and while he’s never ascended to A-list territory, Allan has managed to forge a successful country music career by following his inner muse, and that’s a success story that’s always easy to root for.

Song Review: Gary Allan, “Mess Me Up”

Is it possible for a song to be too slick for its own good? If you’re a raw, hard-hitting performer like Gary Allan, it can be.

Allan has been kicking around country music for over twenty years now, and while he’s long past his commercial peak (he’s had one song crack the top fifteen since 2008), he remains a capable performer with a distinct rocking-yet-emotional style. “Mess Me Up” is unofficially the third single off of his upcoming album, and while it’s a decent song (and a clear return to form after his previous two Metropolitan-tinged singles, both of which bombed), it lacks that special something to really leave an impression on the listener.

The production here is undeniably modern, but reflects the movement back to a more-traditional sound in the genre. The melody is carried by an acoustic guitar on the verses and bridge, with an electric guitar emerging from the background for the chorus and some steel guitar stabs sprinkled throughout the track. The drums are mostly real and rise in prominence as the song progresses, but there’s a random drum machine thrown in halfway through the first verse that doesn’t add anything and is never heard from again. The mix creates a serious atmosphere, but it feels a bit overly polished for a Gary Allan song, and doesn’t quite reach the haunting, painful tone that it’s shooting for. Allan is at his best when his songs have a sense of raw power, whether it’s from the production (“Man Of Me”) or the writing (“Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”), and the production here just doesn’t have the intensity it needs to make its mark.

The lyrics feature the narrator asking a girl to remain in his life in some way regardless of the negative consequences he faces as a result (very similar to Dierks Bentley’s “Say You Do”), and while it’s not bad or offensive, it’s not as compelling as it could have been. The structure of the writing is looser than it should be, with some awkward syllable stretches and a chorus that unnecessarily (and jarringly) switches in and out of 4/4 time and completely ruins whatever flow the song had built up to that point. The track also goes overboard on listing the potential negative consequences while barely alluding to the positive aspects of the decision, leaving the listener to wonder what makes this relationship so great in the first place. When some of the imagery here is interesting and unique (the “get out my guitar around two in the morning” line is my favorite), on the whole it suffers from the same lack of power that the production does, and glides across the listener’s ears without registering a reaction.

To his credit, Allan himself sounds as good as he always did, and his delivery in the narrator’s role as is certainly believable enough. However, said delivery highlights his resignation at the fact that the relationship will never be what he wants it to be, causing Allan’s delivery to be more subdued and less powerful here than on his past singles. It’s a enjoyable performance, but not a memorable one, and not one that can stand on its own without support from the music and writing.

Overall, everything about “Mess Me Up,” from the production to the vocals to the songwriting, does not rise above the bar of merely existing, and leaves the listener with nothing to hold on to after it finishes. The most biting critique I can offer here is that the song inspired me to go back and listen to Bentley’s “Say You Do” and my collection of older Gary Allan singles instead of keeping my attention by itself. Allan is already fighting an uphill battle to gain traction on country radio, and this song won’t do much to help his cause.

Rating: 5/10. Ignore this song, and go check out some of Allan’s past work instead.