Simplifying the Neo-Neo-Bakersfield Honky Tonk Signifiers
“It was very raw so you could feel like you could reach out and touch it . . . To me the music was pure voice and everything else was behind. To me that’s what the Bakersfield sound was. The voice was most important and the band was just accompanying, adding to the purity and rawness of it.”
—Bonnie Owens, quoted in Nicholas Dawidoff’s In the Country of Country.
As I write this, Gary Allan‘s song “Tough Little Boys” is #5 on the Billboard Country Singles chart, right under another massively sentimental song about being a father, “Help Pour out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)” by Buddy Jewell. Whether either one of them can ever get to #1 is pure speculation—and Tim McGraw’s boring cult-of-personality boastfest, “Real Good Man”, will probably rule for the next two months anyway. But it’s an interesting study in contrasts anyway, so let’s make it.
“Help Pour out the Rain” makes me laugh every time I hear it. It’s tacky and it’s corny and it’s cynical; it’s got all the flourishes you’d expect from a song about a daughter asking a daddy about heaven and God and death and all that stuff where the girl doesn’t sound like any girl ever born; it’s just ecch. In contrast, Allan’s song is a wonderful piece of songcraft that happens to be about the fears of being a father. “Tough Little Boys” is certainly better written and better conceived and simpler than the other tune, but that’s not the reason I love it so much more than the one about little what’s-her-face. So what is it?
It’s Gary Allan’s voice. He’s not really a songwriter, only helping to write a couple of songs per album since his debut a few years ago; he’s not trying to impress anyone with his guitar pickin’ or fancy dancin’; he’s never going to drive a Ford truck onstage and jump out of it to sing patriotic anthems just to suck up to the country demographic. Gary Allan is from Southern California, yo, and he grew up surfing and listening to country music. He fits right into that Bakersfield sound thing that started with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard back in the 1960s and got revived in the late 1980s with Dwight Yoakam—a tough sound, a hard and sweet sound, a sound that is about as far from “California” as it is from “Nashville”. A sound that is best described by Bonnie Owens up above, and she should know—she was married to, and sang with, both Buck and Merle.
Gary Allan is a honky-tonk singer, and a hell of a honky-tonk singer at that. He sells this song, makes you believe every bit of it, from “I never once / Backed down from a punch / I’d take it square on the chin” (establishing the singer as a real man, even as a boy—very important) to “Your first day of school / I cried like a fool / And I followed your school bus to town” (establishing sensitivity and commitment to family—also very important). The father who dreads his daughter’s eventual marriage is a common stereotype, but there’s just something about the way Allan undersings it, a particularly Bakersfieldian catch in the voice perhaps, that sells it: “Well I know someday / I’ll give you away / And I’m gonna stand there and smile / But when I get home / And I’m all alone / I’ll sit in your room for a while”.
Maybe that’s the key, the understatement of it all. He’s been trafficking in this his whole (short) career so far, and getting closer each time. But 2001’s Alright Guy, Allan’s last album, while quite good, wasn’t quite Bakersfield enough—even its #1 single, “Man to Man”, had all kinds of little extraneous things happening all over it. Anyone with a tenor voice like Gary Allan doesn’t need incongruous congas and sighing Beach Boys backing vocals to get his message across. It was like he was searching for how to work his Californianess into his music, and not really discovering how to do so without a touch of the old Brian Wilson. But it didn’t seem to mesh all the time; in Bakersfield, remember, it all comes down to the pure raw voice, up front where the people can hear it.
Well, he’s apparently learned that on See If I Care. His voice is right up front where it belongs. The title track, a Jamie O’Hara number that should have been a huge hit two years ago, is finally going to get its due. It’s slinky and self-pitying at the same time, a great combination: “Go on and run your fingers through his hair / Go on and lay by his side / Go on and wrap him in your dark surrender / And all your tender lies”. He works that magic again with the strut of “Nothing on But the Radio”, in which there is absolutely nothing between his sexual urgency and the listener.
Allan is also getting better about his song choice. He wasn’t really made to do goofy stuff like “Alright Guy” and “What Would Willie Do?”; his palette is better served by the songs here, and he does them more justice too. Uptempo pieces like “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” and “Guys Like Me” have a real hard edge to them, but all the easy-Cali-pop signifiers are country signifiers now. “Can’t Do It Today” careens back and forth between tough country-rock sounds and sweet country-pop singing in the chorus, which makes the bitterness go down easy: “I’ll forgive you tomorrow if the sun doesn’t shine / Let you back into my life when the oceans are dry / Take you back when every shade of the rainbow turns gray / But I just can’t do it today”.
And when he slows it down, the results are sublime. The great power-ballad “Songs about Rain” hits hard, even with its glacial tempo and its meta-musical chorus, because Allan is front and center, and because he’s stripped away everything that’s not the song, and because everyone needs a great, weepy power-waltz every once in a while, and if it happens that that song is both a tribute to and a criticism of sappy, wonderful, despondent country songs—how they don’t really help when you’re really and truly despondent yourself—then all the better: “Now there’s all kinds of songs about babies and love that goes right / But for some unknown reason nobody wants to play them tonight / Hey I hope it’s sunny wherever you are / That’s sure not the picture tonight in my car”. And then he lists a bunch of country rain songs, and we all smile through our tears right along with him, we know it’s bad but it’ll be better tomorrow, when the radio plays those baby songs (“Tough Little Boys”, probably) and those good-love songs again.
Gary Allan’s always been searching for how to be both Californian and country, and here he’s found it. It’s Bakersfield, baby, with a beautiful, heart-worn country tenor front and center—no frippery, no trickery, no other signifiers but honky-tonk and the truth—nothing but the pain and joy of life right up front where we can all touch it.