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Country star Gary Allan balances rootsy, mainstream music

He’s had his fill of all those songs about dirt roads with none of said dirt beneath the fingernails.

Gary Allan is talking about contemporary country music.

More specifically, Allan is explaining what he is trying to bring to the table, a table he has helped set since he was 13 years old, playing honky-tonks in his native California, going to school the next day with cement-heavy eyelids for his efforts.

“ ‘Organic’ is a good word,” Allan says. “I feel like somebody needs to stick out and turn this thing back toward something more organic. Country music used to be the most organic stuff out there, and now it’s become super pop-influenced. We used to influence pop. Now I feel like we’re being influenced by pop.”

To be clear, Allan is not some stodgy traditionalist bemoaning the evolution of the music he’s traded in for nearly four decades.

He knows that doing so is about as fruitful as complaining about the direction the wind is blowing.

To borrow a line from one of his tunes: “The rain falls where it wants to.”

So it’s not that Allan is griping about the modern country music money tree. He just wants the thing to recognize its roots.

‘Different kind of man’

He’s pretty much always been this way.

“I’m a different kind of man,” Allan explains on the title track to his platinum-selling, breakout third record, 1999’s “Smoke Rings in the Dark,” his voice rising above tendrils of lap steel that fade in and out of the mix like said smoke rings.

About 130 miles separates Allan’s hometown of La Mirada, California, and the West Coast country music capital of Bakersfield to the north, but you’d scarcely know it listening to his early works. Those tunes seem directly indebted to the rock-’n’-roll-influenced strain of rough-hewn, hard-swinging honky-tonk popularized in Bakersfield, first by Buck Owens and later by Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam.

When Allan first broke on the scene in the mid-’90s, his sound was refreshingly anachronistic, something new and vintage-minded at once.

“It was very progressive and very different. It makes me laugh now,” Allan recalls of his musical direction back then. “When we put out ‘Smoke Rings in the Dark,’ that was a super odd thing for the time, and it just stuck. We did really well with it.

“I’ve always found myself on the edge of Americana and the mainstream,” he continues. “When I get too far in the Americana side, I put one right down the pike and get back over into the mainstream. Then when you get too far into the mainstream, you try to pull those other guys. That’s been a dance my whole career.”

Winning ‘the lotto’

Allan is well-suited for the two-step in question.

His voice is supple yet lived-in, radio-friendly but shot through with grit and gravitas: Think of a rose blooming from a field of burlap.

Then there’s his blue-collar background.

Back in the day, Allan’s hands were callused from gripping hammers as well as guitars.

“I used to have a construction company, then I’d play music at night for free afterward,” he says. “When I actually got a record deal and started getting paid for (playing music), that was mind-boggling to me. It was like I had won the lotto. I never worked again.”

‘Bigger and bigger’

Still, success was not an overnight thing for Allan. He built his following gradually through a lot of roadwork, especially in Las Vegas. He’s moved from locals casinos to multiple-night engagements at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, which he’s done three years in a row during the National Finals Rodeo.

“It’s definitely getting bigger and bigger every year,” he says of his Vegas draw. “We first started out at the Stations, hitting the outside, just really swinging at the locals as hard as we could, built that up over time and kept them. That’s the cool thing about country music audiences: They’re really loyal. They’re not fickle. They won’t disappear when the next act comes up.”

It’s been five years since Allan’s last album, “Set You Free,” his ninth overall, though he says he recently submitted new material to his record label.

“I’m super proud of the stuff I just turned in,” Allan says. “Hopefully they’ll find a single out of that, and we’ll get a launching point and go. It’s all pretty feel-good; it’s all pretty in-your-face. It’s all just really different. I kind of went the opposite of what everybody else was doing.”

Will it be for you?

Allan’s litmus test is life.

“Usually if you’re really drawn to my stuff,” he chuckles, “you’ve been through a lot of (expletive).”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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