Interview: Gary Allan Honors Roots While Embracing Change on New Album, ‘Ruthless’
Gary Allan is releasing his first full-length album in eight years on Friday (June 25), but that doesn't mean he's been sitting around idle. Though it's been nearly a decade since his last project, Set You Free, Allan says in a recent phone interview that he's been working on new music off and on for that entire time.
The veteran country singer, whose hits include "Nothin' on But the Radio," "Every Storm Runs of Rain," "Watching Airplanes" and more, has actually worked on three different projects over the last eight years, finally culling all of the tracks into a 13-song collection that features multiple producers and very different styles. The result is Ruthless, an unusually diverse album that touches on both contemporary and more classic country vibes, as well as some R&B and rock influences in spots.
The new album juxtaposes harder-hitting songs including "What I Can't Talk About," "The Hard Way," "Unfiltered" and more with somewhat lighter fare including "Temptation," "SEX," "Trouble Loves Trouble" and others for a tracklist that keeps the listener guessing with each new song. One unexpected highlight of the album is a lilting cover of a Jesse Winchester song titled "Little Glass of Wine," which shows off Allan's softer side.
On a personal level, Allan is strikingly different than his public persona might lead fans to expect. Far from the moody, aloof cool of his visual marketing and some of his darker song choices, Allan is easygoing and affable in conversation, which is punctuated by frequent laughter and an endearingly self-deprecating sense of humor. His mild-mannered speaking voice is markedly different than his rough-and-ready singing voice, almost startlingly so, which makes interviewing him that much more surprising.
Allan is set to promote the release of Ruthless with a headlining performance from Duck Jam at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, on Saturday (June 26), which will air live via Y2Kountry on SiriusXM at 10:15PM CT.
In the interview below, Allan opens up about the long road to Ruthless, how he spent his pandemic downtime and his hopes for 2021.
You're back in the full swing of things.
Yeah, I am, pretty much. I'm five shows in, after 462 days between shows. Not that I was counting! [Laughs].
How has the pandemic affected you? How did you get through that downtime?
You know, it put me in a funk. People ask me if I wrote all the way through it, and I didn't. I went up and down with my emotions about it. I live on a peninsula, and I was washing my vegetables and spraying down my groceries and hiding for the first part of it.
And then I got lucky the last few months; I have a buddy with a 100-foot yacht that's down in the Dominican Republic, so I went and spent the last three or four months down there, just surfing and being in the sun. So I kinda had some sunshine toward the end, which made it a lot nicer for me. I didn't have a horrible pandemic.
I told my manager, "I'll come back when there's a vaccine." That's why there's no picture on the cover [of Ruthless]; when it came time to take the picture, I said, "I said I'm not coming back. You wanna send someone down here, that's cool, but I'm not coming back until this thing is over." And that's what happened.
So did you go and get vaccinated as soon as it was available to you?
I did. As soon as they called and got the appointment, I flew back and got vaccinated.
Ruthless is your first record in eight years. Why so long between projects?
It's kind of an accumulation of three separate projects. Eight years ago, we went into the studio and I cut with my road band and my old engineer, Greg Droman. That's where "What I Can't Talk About" came from, "Little Glass of Wine" and "Pretty Damn Close." I believe that's the batch that "Hangover Tonight" came out of, and we released that as a single, but it didn't get a lot of traction.
Then we went back in and I cut with Jay Joyce, and that's where "Unfiltered" and a few other tracks came from. That was kind of in the middle of that whole bro-country thing, and we just decided maybe we should drag our feet a little bit until some of this goes away. And then lately there's been kind of a trend toward the '90s country, and I thought, 'How cool would it be if we out the whole band back together from Smoke Rings in the Dark'? And I went and talked to Mark Wright and Tony Brown and got them to come in and do it, and that was the last batch.
Somewhere in there, I had a conversation with [UMG Nashville CEO] Mike Dungan, and I said, "Look, I realize you guys want a Top 10 record for [the album] to be released, but there are so many outlets right now that I don't think that really matters. I'm hurting myself by not having music out there for the last five years, so we need to make a project and do it." And that's this album.
Obviously, the marketplace has changed pretty dramatically since you last released a full-length album. The whole means of delivering an album is different and focused on streaming now. How did that impact the way you approached this album?
That's what forced this album out. I went and talked to Dungan, and like I said, I told him, "Look, we can't just have a big blank space. We've got to put stuff out there." And there is so much now ... my kids don't listen to radio. They listen to playlists and streaming, and I listen to streaming. So I feel like there are so many outlets to be part of now.
When I first came to town, radio was the be-all and end-all. You either got on there or you didn't, and now there are lots of people having an entire career on YouTube and other avenues. So it's a great time to be part of music.
I think one of the hardest things about being around for a long time is not becoming jaded, and constantly looking and saying, 'Okay, how do I fit into this?' And I think there are just lots more avenues now. There are lots of things that happened out there that I think suck, but you've got to focus and say, 'Okay, how do we make friends with this?' [Laughs]. Music's a fickle girlfriend. It's gonna leave you. It's just a matter of when. [Laughs]. Nobody gets to do it forever.
Now that you've got shows on the books, do you feel like we're in the end stages of the pandemic? Do you see a return to normal touring by the end of the year?
I hope so. A lot of the rooms are still ... when I played Billy Bob's, the room was half capacity. And I know people are pent up and ready to get out. I know there are these [COVID] variants coming, and I hope they don't damage anything. But I really just wish we'd all get vaccinated. Then we could just move on.
In a perfect world, what would the rest of your year look like?
It's pretty much all mapped out. I'm going to play three or four days a week. I don't think I have another weekend off until the end of the year. That is perfect, to me. I've always made records so I can tour. I know a lot of people don't like to tour, but I love to tour. That's the whole reason that I do this, so hopefully, it just goes back to normal and I get to keep playing.