It’s safe to say it has been a road of ups and downs for country music veteran Gary Allan, both personally and professionally speaking. But after a drought of several years without much in the way of chart success, he’s set to break all personal barriers with his latest release Set You Free. With the record currently topping the Billboard 200 chart after only a week on the market, and the advance single “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” already achieving Gold status, it seems like the 45-year-old Allan is hitting his stride with a near-perfect combination of a strong, hooky single and a country audience who is ready to hear more from him. I, for one, think it’s high time.
Let’s be honest for a minute—I think I understand why superstardom has largely eluded Allan, despite his previous chart successes. Besides grabbing attention with a few catchy singles over the years, there is a lot in his catalog that is relatively lackluster among the competition. There’s nothing about his style or his voice that I’d consider to be negative—it’s all good country—but at the same time, in this market you need to do more than make good music: you need to stand out in some way. And I think that’s been Allan’s struggle—finding those stand-out moments that cause him to be noticed for more than a few minutes at a time.
That being said, I think Gary Allan is one of country music’s most underrated artists—not because of his musical style, but because of what lies just beneath the surface. What’s great about him, in my opinion, is a song choice that for the most part purposely avoids the well-trodden paths, clichés, and Nashville formulas. Set You Free has a number of great examples of this. Yes, you need songs like “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” to get chart attention—and don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic song—but for me, the real treasures lie in the deep cuts, the ones that aren’t as likely to make it to radio. This isn’t a record for honky-tonkin’, line dancin’ or getting drunk with the ball game in the background; it’s a record for reflection and introspection and depth.
Never was there a more poignant example than “It Ain’t the Whiskey,” a moving ballad describing a guy standing up at an AA meeting: “It ain’t the whiskey / It ain’t the cigarettes / It ain’t the stuff I smoke / It’s all these things I can’t forget…It ain’t the whiskey that’s killin’ me.” How many country songs do you hear that talk about the substance abuse being a symptom of a greater problem—let alone not celebrating the substance itself? Not your typical barroom fare, but believe me, country music needs more songs like this. Other lyrics worth diving into include “Pieces”, which talks about the fragmenting of our heart and soul among relationships, and “One More Time,” a song about making the most of our lives.
Not that there aren’t a few missteps on Set You Free, because there are. While we definitely need the emotional break that “No Worries” provides, the reggae stylings make it sound a little trite and out of place. Likewise, “Bones” has a catchy blues-rock feel, but is a little predictable and even more forgettable overall.
Even so, speaking personally, there’s a lot more that I like about this record than that I dislike. Set You Free will hopefully give Allan the top-shelf exposure he deserves, but even more than that—I hope people will stop and take a deeper listen to what he has to say. Not always a lot of style, but definitely a good deal of substance.