Tough Love 

Underrated country star Gary Allan shows how to turn pain into art.

All good modern, mainstream country artists are underrated. Like mainstream R&B or chart pop, it's a genre not taken seriously by non-fans. But Gary Allan isn't underrated like Brad Paisley is underrated. He's underrated within the world of mainstream country, where he plays small theaters or opens for lesser artists like Rascal Flatts, despite being one of the handful of the best record-makers that genre's seen in the last half-decade or so.

Allan grew up in California playing in country bar bands alongside his father and released four albums starting in the mid-'90s. 2003's breakthrough See If I Care finally established his country-music bona fides. One of the decade's better country albums, See If I Care embraces Allan's roots in Bakersfield-style country (à la Buck Owens and Merle Haggard) and flashes his skill and smarts at exploiting the genre's many tried-and-true tropes. The opening "Drinkin' Dark Whiskey" is solid, spirited honky-tonk, while the like-minded "Guys Like Me" name-checks the Bakersfield sound even as it embodies it. "Tough Little Boys" is a family-man tearjerker that, typical of Allan, doesn't strive too hard for effect. "Nothin' On But the Radio" is a slinky slice of calypso & western. Best of all is "Songs About Rain," a slow-churning but dynamic, intense but cool anthem. Allan ends the record with a duet with Willie Nelson on "A Showman's Life." He'd arrived.

Allan's most recent album, 2007's Living Hard, presents a different side. Twenty years ago, it would have been a rock record. It's an album from a guy who may have grown up around country music in California but also, like so many country singers of his generation, almost surely grew up on '80s rock radio, with echoes of ZZ Top and Bryan Adams filtering through his own music. There's a bit of twang here but little of the honky-tonk flair of See If I Care. More typical is the snarling power-chord rock leading to arena-ready anthem "Like It's a Bad Thing." Or "Trying To Matter," where the opening chords suggest a "Jessie's Girl" sequel. Or the title track, which is a musician's- lot testimonial that seems to have more in common with Bon Jovi than Hank Jr. (Of course, Bon Jovi is country now too, apparently.)

It's a decent but disappointing record. Considering what preceded it, Allan more than deserves a pass.

What preceded it was 2005's Tough All Over, a great record no one outside of the mainstream country audience heard.

At the bottom of the liner notes, in tiny white print, there is this simple statement: "Angela Herzberg was a beautiful wife and an awesome mom. We miss her very much. Maggie, Dallas, Tanna, Ty, Stormy, Cole and Gary." Just below that is a bit of information about a national suicide hotline.

Angela Herzberg was Allan's wife (his full name: Gary Allan Herzberg), who, suffering from depression and migraines, took her own life in October 2004. The six names listed before Allan's in the liner-note dedication: the six children they shared, three each from earlier marriages.

Allan put his career on hold for a while and, to his credit, rarely talked about his wife's death in promotional interviews. But the album he made in response to an unimaginable loss is astonishing and unsettling — brave and beautiful and, when you know the subtext, hard to take.

There's a restrained, stoic intensity to Tough All Over (a quality communicated in the very title) that emerges as heroic. And one of the things that is so remarkable about the record is that most of the songs that dig deepest into Allan's loss are not only not written by him but also not written about what he was going through. On Tough All Over, Allan corrals raw materials and fashions them — through musical guile and intensity of purpose — into some kind of definitive musical statement on coping with tragedy — remembering, honoring, working through, moving on.

The title track is written as a cold but hurt kiss-off to an ex who's making time "on the other side of town," but Allan directs the titular phrase back at himself while highlighting opening lines that serve as a statement of purpose: "Things are tough all over/And I'm losing badly/I wish you were still here/And I miss you sadly."

This opening sets up the album's two hit singles, which pack the most wallop. "Best I Ever Had" was a forgettable hit by a forgettable modern-rock band (Vertical Horizon). Allan owns it now, converting the simple romantic lament into a barely effable, meditative tribute, his deliberate phrasing lifting off from a calm, sure bed of guitar and fiddle riffs. The album's other big hit was the tough-minded piano ballad "Life Ain't Always Beautiful," which is not a great song as written but becomes a great record via Allan's delivery, which tamps down a would-be triumphant chorus and delivers emotional verses with a terse, knowing, nearly sardonic quality.

Those three songs are the core of Tough All Over, but nearly all the "filler" lives up to that spirit and purpose. And there's little in pop music quite like it. If you chose to hear it as such, you could make the case that it's a better 9/11 album than Bruce Springsteen's The Rising.

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