It's raw and emotional. It's freight-train-to-nowhere lonely. It's hard-rockin', no-apologies country music that has traded in its twang for a gravelly growl millions of fans recognize as the voice of Gary Allan
. And with Living Hard
, his latest release from MCA Nashville, Allan once again proves that, though times may change, the thread of truth at the center of his music remains the same.
"I think the fans are gonna feel that this record is different," he says, "but the most important thing is that what I do is authentic. I've never pushed for a certain image. I've just always done my own thing."
This time around, Allan says, that includes letting listeners ride along through his personal landscape over the past year. "The record has taken about a year to make," he says, "and I think the whole thing reflects change. I think every record sort of reflects where I'm at, and I've made a ton of changes this year, just mentally and in how I'm approaching everything. "Oh," he adds with a grin, "and I think it's much more rockin' than anything I've done."
Allan decided to crank it up musically. "I just felt like I was growing so much and wanted the music to reflect that. I think the result has more of an edge." More edge, from the man who's already got a reputation as a bit of a Nashville outsider? "Hopefully country music feels like they need somebody like me in the fold just to shake things up," he laughs.
Not that this was all his idea - Allan feels some of the changes come from the fans themselves. "It's not like I was trying for a new direction, it's almost audience driven, too. l feel like I've got this young crowd with me now, I've got these rocker kids in my audience. And I grew up with that music, too," says the California-bred singer, "so to me that stuff is right alongside Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. The people really dictate the music, too. I feed off the audience, whatever they're really wanting is what they drag out of me. I've got the edgy side of the country crowd -- and I want to keep them."
No danger of losing them - "Living Hard
" is an all-out rocker with a heavy Rolling Stones influence, and in "Like It's a Bad Thing" he lets it rip with a song that reads like a Gary Allan bad boy manifesto. "That song does sound like me, doesn't it" he says. "I think if anything that sort of renegade spirit is even more prevalent on this album. We've always danced to our own tune."
Allan, whose life is a whirlwind of hard-driving touring, also made a conscious decision to carve out more songwriting time for this album than ever before. "It's the most I've written on any album," he says. "I usually only write on my time off because I'm going so much that I hardly have time to ponder and sit around enough to want to write. Last year I sort of forced myself into it early so that I could write more for the record."
He was pleased with the result: "I'm usually more critical on my stuff," he says, "but I feel like I'm writing better, and obviously the more you've been through, the more you've got to say and the deeper you can express those emotions."
If you've been to his shows, Allan says, you know that when he sings about "baring my soul for the price of your ticket," he's not just blowing smoke. Since his last studio album, 2005's Tough All Over
, which drew on his experiences coping with the death-by-suicide of his wife, Angela, in 2004, Allan has become known for putting all his emotions on the line in his songs. "I'm exactly the same on the stage as I am off the stage," he says, "and what I found is, the bigger the arena, the more you're standing in the middle of those people, the more transparent you are. You can tell when somebody's not authentic or they're trying to be something they're not."
In songs like "Learning How to Bend," he admits he's still exploring some rough terrain as he makes his way back into everyday life and the possibility of a new relationship. "I think my favorite song that I wrote on this album is 'Learning How to Bend'," he says. "I woke up one day with that title. And it's me, you know -- I'm still learning, learning how to bend."
And in "We Touched the Sun" he moves forward while looking back at the beautiful times he shared with Angela. "There's a small circle of us that write songs together, and it's like group therapy," he says with a chuckle. "And the result is it's real. We rented a house in Costa Rica just to write, and 'We Touched the Sun' is one of the songs that came out of that session. It's a very reflective song, looking back at Angela. But it could be anybody you loved, just all the fond memories."
Thanks in part to all of that musical therapy, says Allan, these days "I'm in a good place, definitely happy."
And, he assures his fans, if you've been through tough times yourself, or you're just wondering how he's coping these days, all you have to do is listen to his music. "I don't really talk to people about my situation," he says, "but I feel like since I do write about my life and where I am, you can watch me heal through my music. It's lots easier on me, and I do hope that the music speaks to you."
With Living Hard
, Allan is sure to find his music speaking to an ever-growing number of fans. "I want to reach even bigger audiences," he says. "I feel like I've got so much to say and so much to do right now and things are moving so fast. It's great to have something new to throw at people."
Most of all, he says, he just wants people to come along for the ride -- and hear the sounds of a life in progress. "It's a good listen, I think," he says. "I'm excited for people to hear it. It'll take you through a whole range of emotions, and I think it's going to take you on a journey. That's my goal."