Old school in new country class

FISH GRIWKOWSKY

, Last Updated: 1:38 PM ET

Gary Allan's career suggests an interesting paradox.

Weaned on the classic Bakersfield, California, sound that brought us such artists as Merle Haggard, Allan is a lot more interested in old-school country music than your average new hat act.

He's a divorced surfer, dad of three girls, has places in Orange County, California, and in Nashville and his music sounds like an alternate universe answer to the disco country we've endured for the last decade.

It's like he's invented something akin to, but entirely different from, alt.country, all on his own.

But we were talking about paradox here, and, the thing is, Allan is signed to a big label and rubs shoulders with some of the most mainstream producers in the business, people like Tony Brown and Mark Wright.

People responsible for that same sound we just snickered at.

So what gives?

Well, let's let Allan answer, talking about his decidedly retro approach to country music.

"I think you can be starting an uphill battle when you try to play that kind of stuff. You come to the point where you make something really retro, that I think is totally cool, and I can hang it on my wall and love it. It may not be what they want, but they end up liking it a lot."

Which means, really, he's fighting the good fight ... FROM THE INSIDE. Fascinating.

What's even more interesting is he's one of only four country acts to survive the label Decca being swallowed up whole.

"I think it was a cool factor with us. What we had done all had integrity and we'd been around long enough to have proven we were in the game."

Smoke Rings in the Dark, Allan's third and latest album, is his best, eliciting images of old-time TV country, Dwight Yoakam and even Chris Isaak. He covered Del Shannon's Runaway, a song he'd been playing on stage since he was 12. The song is No. 1 in Australia right now and a month from now he'll be at the Gympy Muster Festival over in Oz, one of only a few international acts on the bill.

"I went there on an acoustic tour over Christmas to feel things out and ended up making a lot of friends. Sure enough we got booked as a full band eight months later. We do good over there. The Gympy Muster, it's like 60,000 people up in the hills, getting wild and high. There are two huge stages and these giant fires burning. It's crazy."

But having three daughters must keep him somewhat responsible, yes?

"They live with my ex-wife. I just had them for five weeks and they wanted to go to Nashville, of all things, and I only have a little apartment there. But we hung out, swam in the pool, went canoeing. It's fun."

Yeah, but what's it going to be like ...

"What, when they start dating? Lord! I don't know. I guess I'll tell whoever they're dating, don't you do anything to them that you don't want me to do to you when you bring them back."

Ouch! Be warned, potential dates.

Meanwhile, check out Gary Allan at Nashville's Wednesday. He sometimes plays for three hours, but only when he's begged.


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