By William Michael Smith
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By Sonya Harvey
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If the Good Whoever didn't intend Jason Allen to be a country music singer, then the master control for legacies, legends and the fickle finger of fate must be out of whack. The 27-year-old not only looks, sings and writes like a classic C&W artist, but comes fully equipped with a Texas-fried "Coal Miner's Daughter" -- in this case, bricklayer's son -- life story. And he's been married four years now to the daughter of a country singer. Then to cap it all, this traditional country acolyte ends up on Houston's storied D Records, the label that helped launch Willie Nelson and released George Strait's first album back when he was still billed as merely the lead vocalist in the Ace in the Hole Band.
And now with his second album, Wouldn't It Be Nice, ready to enter the chute for release, "it's finally starting to take." So says Allen with the "aw shucks" modesty that was a trademark manner among many of the hardworking, jus' folks country singers of yore. And unlike many singers who brand themselves or are branded as country today, Allen has been making his sole living or contributing to the family income pot as a country singer since he was 13 years old.
The youngest son of a father who "listened to Hank Williams religiously" and a mother who danced to Ernest Tubb and was a fourth cousin of Bob Wills's, Allen was born in Pasadena and brought up in various spots on the Texas map, including Oak Ridge in the Houston area. Allen was raised in a family that would get together every Friday night and eventually "gather around the piano and start singing a gospel song." Four hours later they'd be singing the same song -- drunk.
"We had a lot of alcohol and gospel music in our family," Allen explains with a chuckle. So naturally, when his parents went out to bars, they took young Jason and his guitar in tow. "I'd take my guitar in with me. They'd order 'em a beer," he remembers. "And the people there would say, 'Whatcha got there, boy?' 'Oh, I got my guitar.' Then they'd say, 'Sing us a song.' So I'd whip the guitar out and sing 'em some Hank Williams or some Elvis. And they liked it. And my dad would say, 'He'll sing for you as long as we're here if you tip him.' I'd open my guitar case up and they'd throw money in there. It got to where I was making $100 at a bar just walking in and singing with my guitar."
Spending time in the bars as a young'un also taught Allen some lessons. Lessons he quickly forgot. "It was good because I got to see all the drunks at an early age, and I said, 'I just don't want to be this way.' When I got old enough to drink, that all went to hell and I went and did it anyway," he says with a gentle laugh at himself.
Allen spent his teen years torn between two career paths, though both were musical. His parents tried to position him as a country teen idol. "Then I get a little older and saw LeAnn Rimes come out, and I saw we were trying to do the same thing." Simultaneously, Allen was in a band -- an Elvis-inspired rockabilly outfit called the Tearjerkers -- that was making him a living. Still, Allen was souring on the whole thing. "The music business that I thought I was in got as old as dating girls that were dead-end roads," he says. "The one-night stands -- you're just thinking, 'I won't get anywhere because I can't find one that's right for me.' And I was singing in these honky-tonks and expecting [star producer and top executive] Tony Brown from Nashville to walk in and hear me and sign me up. And that wasn't happening, because I was only drawing 50 to 100 people at these clubs."
Then at a gig one night he met Holly Moore, the daughter of Larry Moore of Houston-area country favorites the Moore Brothers. After ten weeks of dating, they embarked on what they told everyone was a week's vacation but was in fact an elopement. And when the married Allen returned, he quit his band and started singing straight country under his own name.
Allen made a few pilgrimages to Nashville. Every time, he discovered that Music City isn't much interested in country music anymore. Each time, Allen would return to Texas, a little more humbled and a little more doubtful about his future. One night at a gig here in Houston, in came Wes Daily, grandson of Pappy Daily, who started Starday and D Records and produced early classics from George Jones. (The Daily family also owns Cactus Records.) Over the next year, as Allen continued his fruitless search for a Nashville deal, he and Daily eventually became client and manager.
Finally, at a meeting he and Daily had with an A&R man at a major label in Nashville, Allen had an epiphany forced upon him. The executive asked Allen what kind of music he sang -- an odd question to hear from a Nashville record exec, or at least one might expect.
"I said, 'I sing country. But if you want me to alter it a little bit to fit your needs, whatever you think the market's calling for, we could probably meet in the middle somewhere.' At that point, I'd have taken anything. If it was a major deal, let me in. And he just said, 'Well, that shows me right there you don't know what you want to be.' And that pissed me off so much that I just said, 'You know what? From now on, I'm country, and I'm traditional country. And if you don't like it, you can kiss my ass.' "
So it was back to the Lone Star State, which was okay with Allen. "Why go to Nashville when we've got our own nation here in Texas?" Allen recorded his first album, Something I Dreamed, with veteran singer and hit songwriter Clay Blaker producing, and Daily put it out on the then-newly reactivated D Records. The CD yielded a No. 1 single on the Texas Music Chart in "Lucky Arms."
You could say he was cashing in on the moment -- the Texas Music movement -- but Allen wouldn't agree. For him, there's nothing new about it. He's says it's "been going on since Willie."
For his second album, Allen returned to the same Cherry Ridge Studios south of San Antonio -- these days most of the best true country albums in Texas are being cut there -- where he recorded his debut. And while his first outing had but one Allen composition in the clever bar singer analogy "Body and Fender Man," his new album features ten of the singer's own tunes. And it's all still as country as the countless dance halls across the state where Allen plies his trade.
Though many of the young singers and songwriters in this state are more countrified than country -- Kevin Fowler, Rodney Hayden and Ed Burleson being notable neotraditional exceptions -- Allen says, "I'm going to stand my ground." And who says the old-school style can't still succeed? After all, he and Daily have a rule of thumb for career decisions. "We always tend to fall back on what George Strait would do. He's really country and he's not going to change."
And neither will Allen, or at least not for the worse, as his second album proves. Long ago, back when he was still playing rockabilly because he thought it was cooler than country, his father told him something that has since come to guide him. "My dad finally told me, 'You want to make any money in this business, you sing country music. Everybody'll like it,' " Allen remembers. "And I did and I finally figured it out. Everybody likes it.
"And now, growing up and looking back, it's like, of course you like country music," he concludes. "It's in your blood. You can't not like it."
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