Album Review – Gary Allan’s “Ruthless”

The last eight years of Gary Allan’s career have unfolded like a cautionary tale of the pitfalls and trappings of making music in the mainstream of country. It all started when Gary Allan had the audacity to tell the truth—something that generally speaking, is strictly frowned upon in the top echelons of country music.

When put on the spot by Larry King on if he considered Taylor Swift and other pop artists of the time in country music as country, Gary answered, “You know, I would say no. I would say they’re pop artists making a living in the country genre. I also feel like we lost our genre. I don’t feel like I make music for a genre anymore, and I did, you know, 15 years ago. But I think since … the big [radio] companies bought up all the chains, now it’s about a demographic.”

Of course, Gary Allan was completely right. In fact now it’s fully accepted Taylor Swift is pop, including by Taylor Swift. But at the time, such pronouncements made in public were scandalous. And chased with an indictment of radio, Gary Allan quickly fell out of favor with the format, despite apologies and backtracks by Gary that everyone knew were just efforts to save face. After all, all he did was tell the truth.

In reality, Gary Allan had never really been a big radio country artist. That’s what was cool about him. Sure he’d landed a couple of hits: “Smoke Rings in the Dark,” “Nothing On But the Radio,” and “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” in 2012 right before everything went to hell. But he did things his own way. He was a maverick in the mainstream. That kept him solidly in the 2nd tier, and out of awards show contention and arena headlining gigs. But he also wasn’t a tool like so many of his contemporaries.

That all began to change when Gary Allan was faced with staring into an abyss of not having radio behind him at all, and trying to hold onto a major label deal, which is all he’d ever known since the mid 90’s. So Gary Allan swallowed his pride, and started throwing whatever he could up against the wall to see if it would stick. Next thing you knew, the singles he released probing for some renewed acceptance in the mainstream were more indicative of what Thomas Rhett was doing as opposed to what Gary Allan was famous for.

Even worse for Gary, it wasn’t working. At least if you sell out, you get to reap the spoils. Gary Allan was cashing in his scruples and still failing to garner traction, with four straight singles stalling outside of the Top 40, which put any prospects for an album release in peril.

Over this time, Gary Allan made no less than three complete albums, and utilized five different producers, including himself. He recorded an album with his road band. It was mostly scrapped aside from two songs. He recorded an album with the infamous Jay Joyce, known mostly for working with Eric Church. According to Gary, “…the label didn’t really hear it,” meaning it was vetoed by the suits, apparently because this was during the Bro-Country craze, and it didn’t fit the bill. Only one track survived from those sessions.

And then Gary finally started working with Tony Brown who’s best known for producing George Strait, and Mark Wright who’s known for working with Clint Black. The sense at that point was Bro-Country had passed, and the 90’s sound was hot again, so they would try to work in that direction.

So what you finally get with Ruthless eight years later requires color coding to navigate the respective producers and tracks, and frankly, it feels like that, with noticeable differences even in the timbre of Gary’s voice, and the mixing and mastering approach on certain songs. It feels like a patchwork album because it is one. And if there is a 90’s country influence, it gets a bit lost in the weeds.

There are some cohesive themes to pull away from the record, though. They’re just not particularly favorable. The first few songs feel like the 53-year-old Gary Allan trying to get into the whole young adult club dating scene similar to Keith Urban and others in mainstream country who struggle to act their age. Some of the songwriting is actually decent, but the themes don’t fit the rugged Gary Allan persona of the past, and the production is too contemporary for his signature style.

There’s an effort to be sexy on this album that just feels a little … well, slimy in places. “Slide” is a song that basically asks for permission to cheat premeditatively. Who does that? The song “SEX” (yes, that’s the title) is about as bad as you worried it would be when you fist saw it in the track list. There’s also a couple of these “I’m a little ‘this’ and I’m a little ‘that'” songs like the track “Unfiltered” that are all the rage in the mainstream right now—sort of a soft-peddled version of Bro-Country. But again, Gary Allan can record this stuff all he wants. Radio’s not going to play it, so who exactly is he serving?

With all the messiness behind how this album came about, you can’t regard this as the album Gary Allan wanted to release, if Gary Allan even knows who he is anymore. Eight years of in and out of the studio, working with a revolving door of producers and songwriters—some decent like Josh Kear and Kyle Jacobs, and others like Shane McAnally and busbee—and all while trying to keep a label happy. Where was the direction, or compass?

There are some decent tracks that made the final cut, whether by design or accident. “High As I’ve Ever Been” and “The Hard Way” give us glimmers of the Gary Allan we know, which is a guy that puts a little grit in his country. We should also be glad they kept Gary’s cover of Jesse Winchester’s “Little Glass of Wine” on the record.

It’s not that Ruthless is terrible or anything. And if you’re a hardcore Gary Allan fan—of which there are a few—you will probably find enough to enjoy to think of the effort as satisfactory. Compared to everything else we’re hearing come out of the mainstream at the moment, it’s probably pretty decent. Still, Ruthless is full of compromises and half measures, and it’s only country in spurts. Even Luke Combs is more country at this turn, and probably has some better songs.

You don’t want to hate on Gary Allan. He’s a guy you root for in the mainstream. But ultimately this album just doesn’t muster up much of a defense for itself. It’s like in football: if you have three quarterbacks legitimately competing for the starting job, ultimately you don’t have any. In this case, three albums with three philosophies compacted into one just leaves you with a collection of songs that even though none are godawful, a couple more are salvageable, and a few are pretty decent, you just wish Gary Allan would have told radio and his label to shove it, and he’d recorded whatever the hell he wanted to. It would have been a lot better than this no matter what it was.

What you have here is an album tooled for radio that radio won’t play, for all the reasons Gary Allan laid out so honestly eight years ago. After eight years, you don’t feel any relief or satisfaction at the delivery of this record. You have more questions that answers about where Gary Allan goes from here. Hopefully where he goes is away from worrying or laboring to keep Music Row happy, and towards what has earned Gary Allan a strong fan base, and a reputation for being one of the few in the mainstream to stay true to themselves, and tell it like it is.

1 1/4 Guns Down (4.5/10)

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