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"Just another hat act."
Those are words Gary Allan has heard whispered before. Debuting when he did in 1996, at a time when Nashville was scratching a rash of suburban cowboy hat-wearing newcomers, it was perhaps an inevitable response. But he had the edge of experience. Having honed an individual style on the honky-tonk circuit in his native California since age 12, Allan is nothing if not resilient, and like the long line of honky-tonk icons whose music has inspired him - Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Johnny Horton, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens - he's learned that the best way to meet a challenge is head-on. With a smile.
"There were these guys at Buck's place last night," Allan says, the day after giving a by-invitation performance at a Bakersfield birthday celebration for Buck Owens. "I was signing their Gretsch guitars. They were way into punk, and they said, 'Man, we thought you were just another hat act out of Nashville, and you rawk!' When people see you're real, they're so impressed, and they so want something like that. I've had those guys at my shows since I was 15. Our shows are different that way - I don't worry about politics too much. I go in and I have fun."
If Allan sounds relaxed, he's earned the right. After playing countless smoky bars with his dad as a teen, he led his own band through the clubs and fairs of Southern California for several years before signing with Decca Records and releasing two albums that each generated Top 10 hits (single "It Would Be You" climbed to #5). His just-completed third album, Smoke Rings In The Dark, is by far his most honest and rewarding release to-date.
Allan calls the region around Orange County, California home, an area rich in country music history. It's one of the few places in Southern California with working cattle ranches, where cowboys still rope and brand and go two-stepping at night.
"We get asked a lot at shows, 'What's a guy from California doin' playin' country music?'" Allan says. "There's a lot happening on the West Coast. And it's different than Nashville. I never heard the terms 'radio-friendly' or 'commercial value' until I got to Nashville. When we were writing songs in California, we wrote 'em for how we thought they would come off in a club-y'know, 'How's this gonna be to sing live to people?'"
Soul was a priority for Gary Allan while hunting for songs for the new album. For Allan, it's the live moments connecting him to an audience through song that still define country music.
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