Gary Allan is the same age as the likes of Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, who have not had to wait eight years to release new music and perhaps don’t need the money.
Born in California, his actual surname is Herzberg and he turned down a deal as a teenager so he could finish school while playing bars as a semi-pro in the 1980s. His break came when he left a demo in a truck bought by some rich people who became his benefactors. Shockingly his third wife committed suicide and suffered from depression, which informed Gary’s Tough All Over album which followed his big pop smashes Nothing on But the Radio and Songs About Rain. The likes of Watching Airplanes and Every Storm Runs Out of Rain went to radio but, after three songs tanked between 2015 and 2017, Gary is definitely a legacy artist.
Those three, by the way, included Hangover Tonight which he wrote with Chris Stapleton among others. Using his contacts and the best songwriters in town – Nicolle Galyon, Jon Nite, Rodney Clawson, James T Slater, the Warren brothers,– he’s put together a 13-track album called Ruthless out on MCA Nashville, who have stuck by him rather than drop him. The investment in him must be enormous.
The tracks that stand out include the impact track SEX, the McAnally-by-numbers song with the lyric ‘even at its worst it’s still the best’. Waste of a Whiskey Drink is Hardy-by-Numbers, which is not a slight on Hardy (nor on McAnally on the last sentence) as the standard is so high.
I also like the punchy rhythms of opening track Temptation, closing track The Hard Way (the two are a country-rockin’ pair) and the staccato guitars of What I Can’t Talk About (‘Sometimes the melody’s the only thing that knows what I’m feeling’). Trouble Knows Trouble, a song Blake Shelton could have a smash with, is very mature, as Gary and a femme fatale have a one-night stand. ‘We both win and no-one’s gotta say I’m sorry’ is a good line, followed by some pedal steel.
Over the course of the album, Gary settles into a very samey groove. Mindful of this, the executives who have put this album together include some variety in the album’s second side. As you’d expect from a song written by Hillary Lindsey, Ryan Hurd and the late busbee, the title track has an elegance about it, coupled with a brass-assisted arrangement and a really great vocal. Gary’s cover of the old Jesse Winchester tune Little Glass of Wine has a great fiddle accompaniment in the second verse; I would have moved it up the tracklist.
Elsewhere Gary’s vocal comes off like that of Rob Thomas from Matchbox 20, and there are soft guitars which surround him on melody-packed tracks like Till It Felt Like You, Slide and High As I’ve Ever Been. They don’t say a great deal but they are sung expertly. The only track written with Gary in the room is ballad Pretty Damn Close, a sequence of compliments paid to a woman.
Ultimately, I feel, the aim of Ruthless is to provide Gary with new songs to sing alongside the hits, like when The Rolling Stones crank out some new songs that sound like the old songs people have paid good money to hear.