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Left Coast honky tonker does his own thing

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 1998

Gary Allan enjoyed success the first time around with "Her Man" off his "Used Heart for Sale" debut CD, but he sure wasn't resting on his laurels when his follow-up disc surfaced in May.

The West Coast honky tonker thought his career was on the line when "It Would Be You" was released as the first single.

That's because nothing clicked on "Used Heart For Sale" except the one single. "I tried to put out something that was too country for the market," Allan says of failure of follow-up singles.

"I was really concerned when we released ('It Would Be You')," he says of the song co-written by the late Kent Robbins "I knew if that didn't work, we were really in trouble. But it did work."

"I think I tried not to think about that," Allan says about possible failure. "Nobody wants to be the one-hit wonder guy...I think I felt more crunched for time making this record because I had just come off the road for three weeks."

The song hit the Top 10.

"We knew we had to have a hit with the first," Allan says. "I'm real confident about this whole record."

Now, while he may wear a hat, Allan isn't part of the dying breed known as hat acts. He doesn't live in Nashville. He's a California native. Musically, he mixes it up between honky tonkers and ballads in a dozen songs - all country songs.

The disc also showed he could do it his way. To wit, the final song, "No Judgment Day."

Now, you're not going to see it listed on the album. It's a hidden track rolling in a bit after the last strains of "Forgotten, But Not Gone" fade away.

The song, written by Allan Shamblin, is a far cry from much of what passes for country nowadays.

"We kept it real simple," Allan says. "Just me and a guitar. No reverb."

The subject matter - three youths who rob a convenience store and kill its owner - isn't exactly upbeat either.

The song is based on a true story from Crosby, Tex. about a friend of Shamblin's father. "So, it was a pretty close song to him," Allan says.

Allan says if he hadn't fought for the song, it would not have seen the light of day. He even took off one song, which he wrote, off the disc to make room.

"The hidden track was the biggest controversy," says Allan. "The label really didn't think should be on there. They thought it was a little too edgy, too out there...I had to pay for part of it." (Labels must pay publishers for songs)

Allan found the song when he visited Shamblin's publisher, looking for songs for the new album. "They were playing me stuff. I was trying to describe to them what I wanted because everything was fluffy. I said, 'don't you have anything dark, something that kind of moves me?'"

"No Judgment Day" was pulled out.

"They said, 'do you want to put it on hold?' Allan recalls, meaning that he would have first crack at recording it. "I said 'no. Nobody is going to cut that."

What appealed to Allan about the song? "I think it was just the honesty of it," he says. "To me, country music used to be about what happened during the week. It wasn't so much about party stuff. Now it seems to be about what happens on the weekends. That's what made country great - (songs about) what makes you laugh, makes you cry, pisses you off. That's what a good country song does."

"Every day on the news there's some kid killing some kid," Allan says. "I think that song really hits home for some."

While even he may have had initial hesitation, Allan made the push for including it. "I felt like it didn't fit the project, but somebody needed to put it on the record."

As for Decca, Allan says, "They don't argue with me too much. (Producer Mark Wright) said, "man, I think it's a mistake. I said, "I feel strongly it's not."

Allan is no stranger to dealing with labels. As a youth, he played in southern California with his dad's band getting weaned on The Hag, Horton, Frizzell, Jones, and Tubb.

He eventually stepped out on his own. At 15, he could have signed a record deal.

But his father nixed that idea, saying he was too young.

Allan enlisted for a few years, tried college and eventually started a successful contracting company.

He quit that when it seemed clear - to him anyway - he was going to sign with BNA Records. "It all fell apart," he says. "They cut everybody I knew there."

So he returned to the left coast without a deal, selling cars.

In walked in his guardian angel. He sold a stranger, Susan Dasai, a truck. She returned three weeks later to get it washed. Somehow - Allan says it wasn't his doing - the demo tape he had used was in the truck.

Dasai asked who was singing because she liked what she heard. Allan told her his story. He wanted to record a new demo since songs he had recorded were now on radio.

She asked how much a demo would cost. "Probably $10,000-$12,000 the way I want to do it. She said to her husband, "Write him a check."

Allan says he never took family money, but Dasai told him, "If it can make your life, you should take it."

"Now they travel," he says. "I don't see them at all. They have a gold mine in Alaska I heard. Crazy huh?"

Allan says the new album is different from the first vocally. "This time, I was in better shape," he says. "I played clubs five nights a week when they signed me. I sang maybe once a month for a year (afterwards). Then, they brought me in to record. So vocally, I was way out of shape. I came off the road and did this record...I feel it's a bigger picture of where I'm at. You can't get a picture of me with 10 songs."

"Sometimes worse than that was all they had was 'Her Man,'" he says.

Allan says he doesn't want to know the names of songwriters or publishers for fear of biases when picking songs to record.

"I don't let anybody give me an opinion until I have one," he says. "I went in and sat with a stereo for two weeks. I came back with 15 and whittled it to 11."

While Allan's sound is not ruling the airwaves in this day and age where much of what you hear is country light, he also has no intentions of changing his sound to fit the times.

"A lot of the format is trying to be safe," he says. "If you're doing something different, it's got to be good."

"I try not to read anything that pertains anything to it," he says of current sounds."I try not to get involved in that. It sort of keeps me being me. It let me do my job. When it totally doesn't work, I don't panic. Otherwise, I'd get too enveloped in it and affects what I do creatively."