The announcement that country artist Gary Allan would play in Riverton, Wyoming, created quite a stir. This isn’t a place where that kind of thing happens very often: Most folks just look forward to the yearly “Rendezvous” and country fair—or going to the new Super Walmart. Located in central Wyoming, Riverton has an economy largely based on agriculture and tourism. (If you’ve been to Yellowstone National Park, there’s a good chance you’ve driven through town.) Although Riverton’s population of 10,000 may not sound like much, this is in a state with a population of roughly, 450,000, so those numbers translate into one of the largest cities in Wyoming. Allan’s stop en route to Laramie was part of a fundraiser to rebuild Tonkin Stadium, a venue that seats about 3,000.
His visit was a welcome rain in a lengthy country music dry spell. In fact, the last major country performer through here was Tanya Tucker a few years ago—and that doesn’t really count because right before her performance, a wind blew through, knocking down some stage lights. She promptly claimed her money, got in her bus, and left.
Gary Allan is one of the more compelling performers in contemporary country, a musical landscape cluttered with well dressed divas (and sometimes their husbands), Hat Acts, and an unsettling new interest in “boy bands”. A native of California and avid surfer (hence his nickname “The Surfing Cowboy”), Allan began playing honky-tonks at the age of 12. His dad was even in the band. By 15, he’d been offered a record contract, though he turned it down to wait for something more suited to his style. Allan has long aligned himself with the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. His music is liberally laced with fiddle and pedal steel while the guitar moves between country and rock; moreover, he’s got a great honky-tonk voice, one that sounds like late nights, bourbon, and cigarettes, breaking at the most vulnerable moment but strong enough to pull through. In 1995, he signed with Decca Records, releasing two Bakersfield-esque albums, Used Heart for Sale (1996) and It Would Be You (1998), each yielding a few minor hits. When Decca closed, he was one of a handful of artists picked up by MCA-Nashville, a major label which took some of the edge out of Allan’s sound and put him in a spiffy retro suit, making him more “radio friendly” with 1999’s Smoke Rings in the Dark. The album gave Allan more exposure and snazzier videos. In fact, the disc scored two major hits-the title track and the single “Right Where I Need To Be”, which has stayed on the charts for some 40 weeks.
All that, and he was coming to Riverton.
The question was this: Would Gary Allan have that Decca edge back in his live show?
The answer: Absolutely.
For the two-hours-plus that Gary Allan and the Honky-tonk Wranglers were onstage, the audience was treated to a healthy shot of Allan’s past, present, and future as well as a chaser of classic country history.
Often when touring, a country artist at this career stage draws heavily on the album being promoted, throws in some hits, and perhaps adds a cover or two. Allan, however, was his own man, leaving behind the fashionable suit for jeans, a T-shirt, and cowboy hat, returning often to his first two albums, and certainly not limiting his show to hits. In fact, he kicked things off with two fairly unknown numbers from Used Heart for Sale, “Living in a House Full of Love” and “Send Back My Heart”. Throughout the evening, the audience was treated to other relatively unknown, neo-traditional Allan songs: “Red Lips, Blue Eyes, Little White Lies”, “I’ve Got a Quarter in My Pocket”, and “Don’t Leave Her Lonely Too Long”. Also included were minor hits like “Her Man”, Allan’s first charting single, and “It Would Be You”, effectively illustrating that Allan’s career was built on more than recent hits.
Smoke Rings in the Dark was well represented, too, especially with the title track as well as with “Bourbon Borderline” and “Right Where I Need To Be”, which evolved from its Hot Country form into an all-out jam, highlighting the Wranglers’ musicianship.
He threw in a couple of cuts from his upcoming album as well. The title track, “Alright Guy”, Allan introduced by saying, “My mom hates this song, for whatever it’s worth.” (Given that the number opens with the narrator’s confession of getting caught by his girlfriend while looking at nude photos of Madonna and ends with his being thrown in jail after insulting some police officers, the odds are against this one seeing much airplay in Nashville’s current conservative environment.) In addition, Allan performed the disc’s first single, the raucous “Man of Me”. If these songs are any indicator, Alright Guy will follow Nashville’s growing trend into “country machismo”.
But a consistent show highlight was the covers of classic country songs. As Allan put it, “I’m kinda getting in a Haggard mood here, if that’s alright”—and it was. He covered four Haggard songs, including “That’s the Way Love Goes”, “Swinging Doors”, and “Working Man’s Blues”, though the best was “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”, which segued nicely into the guitar riff from “Cat Scratch Fever”. Add to that Bob Wills’ “Miss Molly”, Johnny Horton’s “One Woman Man”, Guy Clark’s “LA Freeway”, and Faron Young’s “Wine Me Up”. All the years Gary Allan spent working in California honky-tonks showed: Here he was covering country classics instead of promoting his own material. At a time when too few country singers are aware of their musical past, Gary Allan had clearly paid his dues and done his homework.
The California sound wasn’t limited to Bakersfield and western swing, however; Allan also threw in liberal doses of the beach with surfer guitar riffs showing up throughout. One highlight of the evening was Del Shannon’s “Runaway”, which appears on Smoke Rings. Before performing the song, Allan, who had an easy rapport with the audience, had given warning: “Ya’ll realize with this high, thin air, I’ve got about a 50-50 chance of hitting that note.” He paused good naturedly, “But we’re all friends here, right?”
“Hitting that note” wasn’t a problem; indeed, Allan’s vocal skill was apparent. He’s not a performer constructed in a Nashville studio. Moreover, his version was a fascinating fusion of Bakersfield Sound meets surfer music with some country rock added to the mix, a true California hybrid.
The Honky-tonk Wranglers were also first rate. The fine pedal steel work of Mike Fried and the fiddle of Ollie O’Shea provide a solid honky-tonk base. Adding to that is Allan’s own guitar work, but especially of note is the guitar playing of Jody Maphis and Allan’s longtime bandmate Jake Kelly. Kelly’s Gretsch guitar provided the twangy country (and occasionally surfer) grounding while Maphis would step up to the mic on the more overtly rock songs, melding the Bakersfield Sound and its country-rock progeny.
Present throughout was Gary Allan’s clear sense of his place as a musician-even if he might not be so well versed in the Wyoming outdoors. During some off-time, John Gabrielson, the KTAK disc jockey largely responsible for the concert, showed the crew some of Wyoming’s scenery-though obviously surfing was out of the question. As Allan explained, “John took 12 of us fishing yesterday, and we only caught four fish. Clearly no one’s giving up their favorite fishing holes.”
We should have though, luckily, he didn’t hold it against us. Given the high quality performance of Gary Allan’s show, it seems like the least we could have done.