Born Gary Allan Herzberg on December 5, 1967, in Montebello, CA, to Mary and Harley Herzberg; twice divorced; children: Dallas, Tanna, Maggie. Addresses: Record company--MCA Nashville, 60 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203, website: http://www.mca-nashville.com. Management--11245 183rd St., Suite 103, Cerritos, CA 90703. Website--Gary Allan Official Website: http://www.garyallan.com.
Southern California native Gary Allan emerged in the mid-1990s as the successor to country-and-western, honky-tonk legends such as Buck Owens, George Jones, and Allan's longtime idol, Merle Haggard. In addition to echoing some of the same themes of lost love, heavy drinking, and hard work in his songs, Allan shared an uncompromising approach to the music business with the country music veterans. He battled with his record company to include a song on his second album that criticized violence in American society. Later he fought to maintain his artistic integrity despite the demands to make more commercial, radio-friendly records. As he told Michael McCall in an April of 2000 Country Music profile, "I don't let anybody tell me what to do. I don't like to be told what to wear, how to play, or how to do anything. I know record companies have a whole committee of people who talk about what an artist should look like. But I've always told 'em, 'I don't need to be developed. I need to be marketed. I'll make my music. You go sell it.'"
Gary Allan Herzberg was born to Mary and Harley Herzberg on December 5, 1967, in Montebello, California, and grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of La Mirada. He shared a love of music with his father and older brother and sister and grew up playing the guitar and singing with his family. When he was 12 years old, Allan walked into a local country-and-western nightclub after seeing an "Entertainer Wanted" sign in the window. The manager laughed off his offer to audition, but Allan insisted on playing for him. He ended up securing a regular spot playing with his father and brother at the club, even though he had to wait outside between sets due to his underage status. By the time he was 15 Allan was getting offers of recording contracts, which his parents opposed. "Actually, there were two [offers], one on an independent label and one on a major label," Allan recalled in a 1996 Billboard profile, "and they just decided it was [for] too much time. I believe it was a seven-album deal ... so my folks said, 'You just can't sign ten years of your life away.' I'm happy about it now."
In addition to gigging at local country-and-western honky tonks in his teens, Allan also explored the Southern California punk scene. "In the car with all my buddies I surfed with, mornings before school, I listened to Black Flag and stuff like that," he explained to James Hunter in a February of 2002 Country Music interview. "But if I drove, we were all listening to Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. I'd played in some punk-rock bands when I was younger--covers of Suicidal Tendencies. My dad would open up the garage and just shake his head." Although his choices of music might have seemed incompatible, there was nothing incongruous about being a fan of both punk and country in Allan's opinion. "[People] still want honest songs about life," he told Hunter about the two different genres. "And punk, like country, was blatantly that way."
After completing high school, Allan entered the U.S. Army for a one-year hitch. He then married and started a family that grew to include three daughters. Although he continued to play small clubs throughout Southern California, Allan also cofounded a construction company, Church and Herzberg, which took up most of his time. With his wife's encouragement Allan gradually started playing more dates and eventually formed a new band, the Honky Tonk Wranglers, along with guitarist Jake Kelly. Around 1993 Allan decided to sell his part of the business to make another attempt at entering the music business. Although he came close to securing a recording contract in his first trip to Nashville, the deal fell through, leaving Allan disillusioned. He also got divorced during this period and his former wife and children moved to Utah; Allan married a second time, to Danette Day, in 1997, but the second marriage lasted less than a year.
After his disappointment in 1993, it was another two years before he made another try at getting a record deal; in the meantime, he worked as a car salesman. Helped by two fans who funded an audition tape, Allan made a four-track demo in 1995 that resulted in a deluge of offers. He decided to sign with Decca, which was eventually absorbed into MCA-Nashville. "We went with Decca because they didn't want to change anything," he told Deborah Evans Price of Billboard in September of 1996. "They really liked the traditional stuff, and I'm into traditional music. Some of the labels, you ask them what they want to change and they have their own little cookie cutter they want you to be. I remember telling people from other labels, 'I'd rather work here for $50 than have you people turn me into something I hate, because, in my head, that would be taking my favorite thing in life, the coolest thing that I have, and screwing it up.'"
Allan's first single, "Her Man," hit the top ten on Billboard's country singles chart and his debut album, Used Heart for Sale, became one of the critical favorites of 1996. Although he was urged to let the Nashville music industry guide his career and to record more romantic, uptempo songs, Allan refused to go along with the dominant trends. "We went through this phase ... well, like I said, they were releasing really light songs on the radio.... We got labeled a 'hat act,'" he recalled in an interview with That's Country website in April of 2000. "Then I think that the more people that came and saw our show, figured out what we were about."
The struggle to maintain his integrity extended to his second album on Decca, It Would Be You, released in 1998. Despite his record company's opposition, Allan insisted on including the song "Judgment Day," a track about a murder by three out-of-control, small-town youths. The two parties eventually reached a compromise on the issue: although the song ended up on the album, it was included only as an unlisted twelfth track. "I find I walk a fine line getting material that's true to my heart and also works in the commercial machine," Allan told Jim Patterson in a SouthCoastToday.com review. Among the commercial standouts was the album's title track, which hit number five on Billboard's country chart.
Despite the success of It Would Be You, Allan's career faced a potential setback when Decca was brought to the verge of bankruptcy. The label was sold to MCA and Allan was one of the few artists to be retained on the company's roster. Allan's third album, Smoke Rings in the Dark, was his most successful to date and debuted in the top ten of the Billboard country albums chart. Helped by the hit single "Right Where I Need to Be," the album eventually sold over one million copies and earned platinum record status. "I think it's the first time I totally got to do my own thing," Allan told That's Country about Smoke Rings in the Dark and its honky-tonk feel. "I like [the songs] to feel live. That's what I shoot for.... It was just very much a workshop atmosphere, everybody doing their own thing, everybody had opinions.... It was a fun way to make a record."
Allan's fourth album, 2001's Alright Guy, lived up to the commercial and critical expectations raised by the success of Smoke Rings in the Dark. A Billboard review in October of 2001 hailed it as "one of the best--if not the best--country albums of the year." Selling over a half-million copies in the year after its release, Alright Guy earned a gold record, and the singles "The One" and "Alright Guy" became hit tracks. After four albums, Allan was pleased that he had emerged as a country star with his integrity intact. "I just learned to make music in a different way," he told Bob Harris in a BBC Radio 2 interview in September of 2002. "I'd never heard the term 'radio friendly' until I went to Nashville. I was writing with somebody and they said, 'They're never going to play that on the radio,' and I was thinking, 'Well, who cares!' I've never written like that."
by Timothy Borden
Gary Allan's Career
Played in Southern California clubs as teenager; served in U.S. Army; operated construction company; signed record contract, 1995; released first album, Used Heart for Sale, 1996; released platinum-selling third album, Smoke Rings in the Dark, 1999; released Alright Guy, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Used Heart for Sale , Decca, 1996.
- It Would Be You , Decca, 1998.
- Smoke Rings in the Dark , MCA, 1999.
- Alright Guy , MCA, 2001.
September 30, 2003: Allan's album, See If I Care, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/country.jsp, October 1, 2003.
October 25, 2004: Allan's wife, Angela Herzberg, died at their home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She was 36. Source: USA Today, www.usatoday.com/life/digest.htm, October 26, 2004.
- Billboard, September 14, 1996, p. 38; October 27, 2001, p. 29.
- Country Music, April-May 2000, p. 36; February 2002, p. 78.
- "Country Features: Bob Harris Meets Gary Allan," BBC Radio 2, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/country/features/pbk_allan.shtml (January 21, 2003).
- "Gary Allan," WIXY, http://www.wixy.com/viewartist.asp?ID=82 (November 20, 2002).
- "Gary Allan Interview," That's Country, http://thatscountry.com/Artists/gary_allan_interview_041300.htm (January 21, 2003).
- Gary Allan Official Website, http://www.garyallan.com/bio.htm (November 20, 2002).
- "Hardcore Gary Allan and His Dream J-200 Guitar," Gibson.com, http://www.gibson.com/magazines/amplifier/1998/7/feature.html (January 21, 2003).
- "Hidden Song Breaks with Country Tradition," SouthCoastToday.com, http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/07-98/07-04-98/b03ae087.htm (January 21, 2003).