For Gary Allan, It’s Always a Fine Line Between Art and Commerce
Hit songs build confidence, but radio misfires make a star like Gary Allan nervous to try something new. The singer admits he works within a narrow lane, trying at once to please his demanding fan base while also staying true to where he’s at artistically and offering a sound that’s commercially viable. It hasn’t always gone great.
Compare the lead singles from his last two albums. “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” was praised for sounding different on its way to the top of the charts. A Top 20 single called “Pieces” followed, and then came one more in line with who he’s always been. “It Ain’t the Whiskey” was classic Gary Allan. Slow, deep, depressing … it was a dud.
In 2015 he released “Hangover Tonight,” the first single from an upcoming album. Again he turned left, giving fans and radio another way to think of him with a sexy, ‘70s soul-inspired love song. It peaked just outside the Top 40. A miss.
“Do You Wish It Was Me?” is safer. His latest single combines two things he’s known for in that it’s both sexy and sad. It’s something, Allan jokes, that’s difficult to do without being negative.
“This is how I explained it to them,” Allan says, speaking of his record label. “I said, ‘Look, if I step out and do something new and you miss, it looks like Gary’s trying too hard. If I step out there and do it then Gary’s got a brand new sound.’ So it’s all everybody else’s perception. I love it all. Because I loved ‘Hangover’ when I did it and all that stuff.”
Usually, if you’re a big fan of mine you’ve been through a lot of heartache or you’ve been through something similar that I have.
Allan’s frustration with MCA Nashville combines with his awareness that it takes a special mix to produce a song that wins at every level. He thinks of it as walking a tightrope. There’s a fine line between doing what he loves and what works on the radio. “And it always has been," he adds.
“I think my fans yearn for the old stuff, or at least the traditional kind of stuff. My fans are definitely lyric people. Usually, if you’re a big fan of mine you’ve been through a lot of heartache or you’ve been through something similar that I have. I notice those are the kind of people that attach to me.”
Andrew Dorff and Jonathan Singleton helped Allan write “Do You Wish It Was Me?’ Singleton had the hook and the song quickly came together last April. It was inspired by their own stories of heartbreak, but it kind of morphed into something non-specific to any of them. Fans are loving the message but also noticing there is something new to snack on. Sonically it’s very unique. A Beatles-esque bass line and pedal-driven guitar open the song. Allan says he brought his live band into the studio and asked them to be creative.
For a second straight album, his live band recorded with him. He actually turned in a version of this project to his label in Feb. 2015, but after “Hangover Tonight” was a non-starter he’s changed things up.
“I recorded two other songs that were kind of in that vein and I’ll probably move right on and pretend like none of that happened,” he admits. Don’t expect to hear too much new music during his live show either. That’s another tightrope he’s learning to walk.
“I went on a period there where I was like, ‘No, I wanna play these for me,’ and I tried to keep the show current,” Allan says, “but then I went to a Stevie Wonder [concert] and I watched him play for three hours … and he didn’t play anything I knew.”
“I remember I went back and changed my entire set list,” he adds, laughing.
See Photos of Gary Allan at the 2016 ToC Festival