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Estes hopes "Breakin' Even" leads to break

By Jon Weisberger, October 1997

"Bicoastal" means living and working on both coasts.

Unfortunately for Allen Estes, there's no word for living and working on one coast and in the Midwest, so the Maine native can't use a single, snappy phrase to let folks know that he works and lives both in Gloucester, Mass. and Nashville.

In the same way, his music defies easy description; part country, part rock 'n' roll, part folk. His music is on display on his recent CD, "Breakin' Even," put out on an indie label.

Lately, Estes's been spending most of his time in New England, though he still keeps his hand in Nashville. Back at home in Gloucester, Estes was following up the release party for "Breakin' Even" with what he called "worthy gigs."

"Playing in bars is fine when you're young and honing your craft," he told me.

"But at this point it's not especially helpful," says Estes, 46 this month. "I've worked in the New England area for most of my career, so I'm not just starting out. I enjoy playing concerts and colleges, because that's where I'm finding people who want to listen to music with a little depth to it."

Estes has indeed worked in New England before. As a young man, he grew up playing in his family's bluegrass band, and the musical influences of those days are still with him. "I used to go to sleep listening to the Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Bill Monroe and the rest," he says. "My brothers and I learned all the old bluegrass tunes and cowboy songs, and even though I was listening to the old rock and roll, I wasn't playing it. That didn't come until later."

Estes points especially to Grand Ole Opry members the Osborne Brothers as an important influence.

"The way they'd weave those tight harmonies - without a doubt, that's carried over into my music," he says.

But beyond the purely musical, he sees a further way that the bluegrass experience shapes his work. "It's a double-edged sword," he says, "I really appreciate the kind of values you hear in early bluegrass, the family values, the combination of sadness with deep devotion. Even when I started listening to more 'trashy' kinds of rock, I still sort of liked those values, and that deep feeling - but they're not always what publishers, record labels and audiences are looking for."

Every performer learns what audiences are looking for, but Estes has some real insight into the demands of publishers and labels as well. In 1984, he says, he had "reached a plateau in my career here, and I needed to move on."

That led him to Nashville, where he kicked around for a couple of years before finding songwriting work on the staff of Merit Publishing. The combination of his work and his timing put him in a good position to watch the changes that the industry was undergoing in the mid-1980s.

"When I moved to Nashville, people like T.G. Sheppard and Janie Fricke were having Number One hits and selling only 30,000 to 50,000 records," he says. "The money in songwriting was from performance royalties, not from record sales. That started to change when folks like Randy Travis began to hit; he was really what moved country to a platinum status as far as sales went, and that paved the way for the Garth Brooks, line-dancing era, when country's popularity really took off."

Estes witnessed that change first-hand. "The record companies were making big money, and where Music Row used to be mostly little buildings, they started building skyscrapers and doing what they're famous for - loading up the bandwagon with the same thing, with sound-alikes."

On the songwriting front, Estes says, "I had a lot of ropes to learn; I went there with some raw talent and some good songs, but I wasn't thinking commercially - though in a way I still try not to be. I've always written from the heart, and that made it a little harder."

In contrast, he says, "one of my co-writers told me, 'I want to write fluff, not something deep.'" That approach fits in well with today's country radio, says Estes, but it wasn't what he wanted to do.

While he was learning the business, Estes fell in with two other musicians, and in 1987 a demo tape of theirs was picked up by producers Norro Wilson and Jim Malloy, who encouraged them to form what he says was "a sort of Eighties country version of Peter, Paul and Mary." That was Trinity Lane, and the group managed to release three singles on the Curb label before being swamped in the big boom that accompanied the success of artists like Garth Brooks.

From there he moved on to working with Grand Ole Opry tours. "We worked in the little town in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, playing county fairs, fraternal order events and the like. I played guitar, harmonica and occasionally some mandolin, working in the backup band behind artists like Jeannie C. Riley and Jimmy Newman."

Tiring of the grind, Estes returned - at least in part - to New England, putting together his Massachusetts-based band as an alternative to exclusive reliance on the Nashville scene for building his career - and, he says, "we started getting calls."

Estes continues to visit Nashville on a regular basis - he was just there in June - to pursue his writing career, and more recently to pitch "Breakin' Even" to labels and distributors.

Though he's far from discouraged, he says it isn't easy. "What I keep hearing from different record companies is that it has "too many different styles," he told me, "and sometimes I hear the same thing about my writing, too. I'm more aware of my influences when I'm writing. I feel that it's a blessing to have the background I do, because it gives me some versatility. On the other hand, if I wrote in just one style, I might be better off presenting my material; I could say 'this is what I do,' and it would be clear."

Still, he says, he knows what he wants to do. "I've always come from the place of writing my feelings, and in that sense I follow writers like Merle Haggard, or the Beatles, or Jackson Browne. I was never a Monkees fan. If that makes things tougher, so be it."

As for the future? Estes says he's going to keep pitching his record, keep pitching his songs and keep performing around New England with his band. "At this point," he concludes the interview by saying, "I've got a lot of irons in the fire. It's just a matter of which iron heats up the most."