100 Greatest Men: #96. Gary Allan

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He started off as a new traditionalist with only his raspy voice making him distinctive.  But when he embraced his California country roots, he became one of the defining male vocalists of the early 21st Century.

Gary Allan Herzberg hails from California. He grew up in a musical family, and by age thirteen, he was playing honky-tonks at night with his father.  His talent was evident even at that young age, and at age fifteen, he turned down his first opportunity at a major label record deal, opting to finish school instead.

He quickly became a big draw on the local concert scene, playing to overcrowded rooms but refusing to move up to bigger venues that wouldn’t allow him to play the traditional country covers that made up a big chunk of his set. He cut some demos in a small California studio in the early nineties, and the tape caught the interest of BNA Records in Nashville. But restructuring at the label prevented him from being signed.

So Allan continued with his day job: selling cars.  In an incredible act of fortune, he left a demo tape in a car that was then sold to a wealthy couple. They enjoyed the tape so much that they gave him $12,000, which he then used to make professional demos in Nashville. Soon, there was interest from several major labels, but Decca offered him a contract first, so he signed with them.

He was an immediate critical success, though radio would bite on only the lead singles of his first two studio albums. “Her Man” from his 1996 debut Used Heart For Sale and the title track from his 1998 follow-up It Would Be You each peaked at #7.   Both albums were heavy on the traditionalism but didn’t fully embrace the California country sound that he’d fully explore on his third album.

Smoke Rings in the Dark, released in 1999, struck a deep chord with country music listeners.  The title track, reminiscent of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”, only made it to #12, but it sold him more records than his previous two top ten hits combined.  As the album powered its way to platinum, radio finally embraced Allan, as the final single from the set, “Right Where I Need to Be”, became his first top five hit.

Thus began Allan’s hit streak at country radio, which continued unabated despite him embracing a sound that was nothing like the rest of country radio.  His next two albums, Alright Guy and See If I Care, produced three #1 hits between them, but as the final chart-topper “Nothin’ On But the Radio” was climbing the charts, tragedy struck.

On October 24, 2004, Allan’s wife Angela committed suicide.  The tragedy devastated Allan, who briefly suspended his music career in the wake of the event.  When he returned to the studio, he crafted his masterpiece to date, Tough All Over, which fully explored his anger and grief over his wife’s death.  Interestingly, the album’s lynch pin was a cover of the Vertical Horizon pop hit, “Best I Ever Had.” The lyrics of love lost took on new dimensions with Allan’s haunting performance.

Since that landmark album in 2005, Allan has continued to be a regular presence at country radio.  A subsequent hits package and the 2007 studio album Living Hard were both certified gold.  “Watching Airplanes”, from the latter set, is his most recent top ten single, but additional selections from that set and the 2010 release Get Off On the Pain, have reached the top twenty.  He is currently touring the country in support of this album.

Essential Singles:

  • Smoke Rings in the Dark, 1999
  • Right Where I Need to Be, 2000
  • Nothin’ On But the Radio, 2004
  • Best I Ever Had, 2005
  • Life Ain’t Always Beautiful, 2006

Essential Albums:

  • Smoke Rings in the Dark, 1999
  • Tough All Over, 2005
  • Greatest Hits, 2007

Next: #95. David Allan Coe

Previous: #97. Collin Raye

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

How To Get My Ex Back But He Is Dating


  1. I just have his greatest hits. Checking my i-tunes, the songs I’ve played the most are “Tough Little Boys” (even though no one would have ever called me tough) and “Smoke Rings in the Dark”. Next are “Her Man”, “Songs About Rain” and “Nothing On But the Radio”.

  2. I’d have dropped “Right Where I Need to Be” for “Songs About Rain,” which I think has endured more, but great piece.

  3. I thought his earlier material was stronger than his last two records, which have been disappointing for me.

    I’ll particularly recommend No Judgment Day, the hidden track at the end of his second album, and his cover of A Showman’s Life, alongside Songs About Rain and Smoke Rings In the Dark.

  4. Gary Allan’s first two albums (released on Decca) were likable, but missing the gumption on display once his label wa$s absorbed by MCA. Smoke Rings in the Dark was more cohesive and had more punch, and it was here that I got a sense that Allan wasn’t just a singles artist. I first saw him in concert in 2001, and have gone on to see him on five more occasions (including the 2002 Brooks & Dunn Neon Circus & Wild West Show).

    Seeing him do a solo set at Coyote’s Music and Dance Hall in Louisville where he played one song after another, be it a top 20 hit of his own, a Haggard cover or even one of his own album tracks, was everything that has ever been right with country music.

    Fun fact: The first fight I ever saw during a concert was at that 2001 Louisville show of his that I saw. Two guys literally fell right beside me. Somewhere I took note of which song he was playing at the time and if I can find it, I’ll post. Don’t know why, but that always amused me.

    I take umbrage at the inclusion of his Greatest Hits as an “essential” album. Typically, I balk at any such compilation being recognized as an album, but especially here when it comes at the expense of 2003’s killer See if I Care. From “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” and “Can’t Do It Today” to “Guys Like Me,” there’s nary a weak spot to be found. [2001’s Alright Guy has a lot of highlights, but it’s easily the most uneven of his top albums.]

    Since the release of Tough All Over, Allan’s music has held little appeal for me. I don’t know if it was a result of being the opening act for Rascal Flatts, his wife’s suicide or what, but it seems that he just doesn’t have the focus that he once had. The last few years have seen one watered down single after another, clearly meant to be radio friendly but too generic to catch an ear. A shame, too, but I still contest that few modern-era artists have a sequence in their discography as strong as Allan’s running from Smoke Rings to Tough All Over.

  5. Gary Allan at 96? Are you kidding me? He should be in the top ten somewhere! I can’t think of 20 male country artists who are better than him, let alone 95 of them. My favorite songs of his include “Right Where I Need to Be,” “Man to Man,” “A Feelin’ Like That,” and “Learning How to Bend,” just to name a few.

  6. He is my favorite Male artist so while as a fan of his it’s disappointing to see him only in the 90’s, I do know in the history of country music there’s so many male figures who have influenced the genre that are more important than Gary. If he was competing in the female list his career probably woud’ve netted him a top 20 entry, so I expect some stiff competition ahead.

    My top ten most played songs by Gary just for fun….

    1) Man To Man
    2) Best I Ever Had
    3) Alright Guy
    4) Right Where I Need To Be
    5) Lovin’ You Against My Will
    6) Nothing On But The Radio
    7) Today
    8) Learning How To Bend
    9) It Would Be You
    10) No Man In His Wrong Heart

  7. …i enjoy most of gary allan’s music, but the song that’s probably played most often around here is “dont tell mama…” from the great “smoke rings in the dark” album.

  8. I think Gary is properly placed in your countdown – as others have noted, his last two albums have lost the edge of his earlier work, but before that he put out some terrific material

  9. Leeann I’m surprised myself that it’s there. I’m not sure how it got that high to be honest. “Don’t Tell Mama” would’ve been next and I was sure that was in my top 10. I think I’ll just listen to that song along with songs 8 – 10 until they have a higher play count than Today :P

  10. Gary should have been in the top 20.His music is what country music is all about.He shares his feelings and emotions through each song.I think he is amazing.I have been a devoted fan since 1996.Gary is so under rated.

  11. I deliberately refrained from commenting on Gary’s ranking, trying to instead discuss my thoughts about his work to date than where he stands in this list. That said, there is an important question being raised and that’s the relationship between recognized “great” works and disappointing releases in evaluating an artist.

    In Gary’s case, there’s a fairly obvious bell curve of quality. The first two albums were decent, but lacking. The next four are easily the highlight of his career to date, and then it drops back off again. That’s my sense of it, and it strikes me that most Allan fans concur. Now, the question is do we concentrate on the segment inside or outside the peak?

    Personally, I feel we’re better off praising the good and holding up his 1999-2005 run rather than penalizing those albums for the disappointment of the others. That’s just me, of course. I really loved those four albums and Gary Allan personifies my taste in music for the first half of the last decade so I’m willing to overlook the rest in a way that a more objective listener may not.

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