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Singer leaves behind the surf (sometimes) for honky tonks

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 1996

That may be a black cowboy hat sitting atop Gary Allan's head, but don't think of him as your latest hat act.

Far from it for a California native, more of a honky tonker than anything else. Unless you throw in his love for surfing.

"It's pretty much it," when asked if he doesn't care for today's crop of hat acts. "It's probably not the politically correct thing to say. I don't listen to much other stuff. I listen to the old stuff."

And that's pretty evident based on his debut disc, "Used Heart for Sale." Aside from his current single, the acoustic-tinged ballad "Her Man," moving up the charts, the disc wreaks of influences like Ernest Tubb, George Jones and Mark Chesnutt. David Ball is another singer who comes to mind.

That's clear from the lead-off "Send Back My Heart," co-written by George Ducas. The songs tend to have a lot of twang in them with a rockabilly feel underneath often thanks to piano and the sure-handed drumming of Owen Hale.

Allan's vocals have the requisite heartache, lived-it quality from the down-in-the-dumps love songs that dominate the disc. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Allan doesn't oversing, exchanging charged-up vocals for bathos.

Allan, 29, left little doubt where he was coming from before he signed on the dotted line with the Decca Records label. In September 1995, Allan flew out to Nashville with a $1,000 in his pocket, cut a demo and watched a bidding war ensue among seven labels.

The California native asked lots of questions. He wanted to make one thing clear - he wasn't about to change his honky tonk style to fit into some flavor-of-the-month category.

"I asked a lot of questions - what do you want to change about me?" Allan says he asked a Decca Records executive. "She said, 'what do you mean?' (I said,) 'for me to change into something I hate, I'd rather stay here and play the bars for $50.'"

"I think they got it," Allan said of Decca. "It just clicked. It wasn't so much of having control. It was just that everyone had the same goal, so we got along better."

Mark Wright, best known for his work with Mark Chesnutt, served as co-producer along with Byron Hill. Chesnutt, however, had split with Wright prior to his last regular disc, "Wings," because he felt Wright was taking him into too commercial a direction.

Allan says he talked with Chesnutt about that and thinks the split may even have worked to his advantage. "I kind of went gearing up myself up for battle, but I had never had to," says Allan. "I psyched myself up, but there was never really a battle, which makes me feel that whole Chesnutt deal loosened him up."

Although Allan writes, the only song of his among the 10 on the CD is the title track, co-written with a member of his band, Jake Kelly, among the 10 making the final cut on the CD.

That didn't bother Allan one bit. "I wanted to make an album that I would like to listen to. That was my biggest goal...I wanted to try to make sure the album had some depth. Some albums, you get burnt out on real fast. "

"I'm probably harder on my songs than I am on any others," Allan says.

To some extent, familiarity bred contempt. "Some of the stuff, I've played in bars the last six years, I was kind of burnt out on it. I'll probably put more on the next one."

"You get too close to it, and you can't really tell whether it's good," he says.

"I would say a good song is a good song, whether I wrote it or not," he says. "I don't think I give things much weight because I wrote it. I think that will help me in the long run."

Allan went on the usual in-depth song search. He visited a different publisher daily for a week and heard close to 2,000 songs. "I took anything I remotely liked. I probably took home about 200 songs and then I really sat and listened to them and was able to weed it to 20 or 30 really quick."

"I really listened to the songs for a long time, months just making sure they had some staying power with me...There was a song that had gotten cut and hadn't put on the album."

Allan ended up with a mix of honky tonkers and ballads. He used two co-written by Jim Lauderdale ("Forever and a Day" and the slow burn "Wake Up Screaming") and a ballad written in part by Garth Brooks ("From Where I'm Sitting").

And he covered Faron Young's "Wine Me Up" and the blazing fast "Living in a House Full of Love," a hit for the late David Houston in 1965.

The inclusion of the former was a fluke. A musician friend played him a song his band had cut, hoping Allan might record it. A version of "Wine Me Up" was on the flipside.

"He was kind of pissed off because he pitched me one of his songs," Allan says, adding, "I just like it. It had that old honky tonk feeling to it. It's just straight ahead, and it's a great song."

As for "Living," Wright suggested the song to Allan, who hadn't heard the original until after he cut it.

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