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JIMMIE ALLEN: LOOKING BACKWARD, PRESSING FORWARD

Jimmie Allen recently tore it up on the Grand Ole Opry, country music’s longest-running radio show, which remains the standard for true country. For Allen, whose voice embodies that same believability that marks those of Merle Haggard and Alan Jackson, it’s about being grounded in the genre’s traditions and protecting the roots as much as it’s about creating a future for country music that’s more expansive and inclusive. Bettie James Gold Edition, the 17-track collaborative update on his seven-song 2020 EP, pairs him with some of the biggest names across the musical spectrum, including Babyface, Noah Cyrus, Pitbull, Monica, Keith Urban, Nelly, Little Big Town, Tim McGraw, The Oak Ridge Boys, Darius Rucker, Rita Wilson and Mickey Guyton.

A high-energy individual who was once told he was “too country for pop and too pop for country,” Allen kept leaning into who he was, refusing to relinquish any part of his self or music. If his path to becoming the first Black winner of the ACM Top New Male Artist was tangled, he’s not complaining—he’s got too much music to make.

You’re really country.
I grew up in a 650-person town. Milton, Del., where we used to go to the grocery store on a farm. The King Cole Farm had this little market that was our grocery store. Later, we got an IGA—really coming up in the world [laughs].It was such a small town, everybody knew everybody or you were related. If you did something wrong at someone’s house, their parents would spank you—and my parents would do the same.

Who was listening to country in your family?
My dad. It was all he listened to. Aaron Tippin, Randy Travis, Little Texas, Brooks & Dunn, Garth, Alan Jackson. In ’99, when Montgomery Gentry hit, he was all about them.

Your mom?
She was all gospel. Kirk Franklin, Frank Hammond, The Gaither Family.

And you?
I loved it all. Prince, Michael Jackson, Usher, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, plus Matchbox 20, Three Doors Down, U2.

You’re creating a sound that’s true to all of them.
Growing up, it was me, two white kids and a Mexican— and we’d go down to the pond or out on this boat fishing, and we’d listen to mix tapes. We’d go from Brooks & Dunn to Kirk Franklin to George Strait, Matchbox 20, Biggie. We all got to know music and listen in its purest form, not about what you look like, or some idea what we were supposed to want. It was pure, not who it’s marketed to—and there were things in all of them that we liked.

Most people hear with their eyes. They see a Black guy and then tell me they hear Charley Pride and Darius, when the song is probably more Keith Urban or Pitbull. When skin color comes into play, people focus more on that than the music.

I hear pieces of everything.
That’s what I’m trying to do. I want that vocal delivery that’s R&B, the dynamic and smooth texture of Luther Vandross that can make you feel any emotion; the groove of hip-hop that gets people moving, even if they don’t realize that’s what’s doing it. I even want that over-intensity of how it hits you like Sevendust, Slipknot, even Puddle of Mudd.

Which is why you have Pitbull, Monica and the Oak Ridge Boys on the same album.
What I told each artist was “Be you.” Brad Paisley asked me what I wanted [on “Freedom Was a Highway”], and I was like, “I want you to be Brad Paisley.” There’s only one Brad Paisley—that’s what I wanted. When Brandi Carlile was producing Monica’s vocal, I wasn’t even there. I said, “I want Monica for everything that means.”

That’s an interesting way to approach things.
If country music is a barrel of 1,000 fish and everyone’s fishing the same barrel, it’s one thing. But if there are all these other barrels of 1,000 fish, why wouldn’t you fish those too? If you want to build your tower higher, you have to build your foundation broader or it’ll fall over.

Does your audience reflect that?
I literally stand onstage and really take in the diversity. I see Black people in cowboy hats, in dreads, in Timberlands. I’ll see Asians and Mexicans looking like they’re going to the rodeo or just anywhere, and white guys who look like they’d never go to a country show, just Kanye and Jay-Z.

I’ll pick out two, three people every night. A white person who looks like “a country fan” and one who doesn’t, a Black guy in Jordans and one in cowboy boots; I’ll ask them how they got here. For some it was “Good Times Roll” with Nelly, or “Made for These” with Tim McGraw, or something that was more Christian. That’s what they come for, but then they like so much more.

You’re bringing people together.
We all say we want the world to be a better place, but then they don’t want to do the work. My ultimate goal is harmony. I love music and entertaining. Bringing people together like this is the first step.

Bettie James, too.
Well, it’s like making a smoothie. When you have things raw and uncoated, zero filter, they mix better. You have an apple wrapped in plastic, you’re not gonna want to eat that. It’s not gonna taste good.

If you chase the music—what’s important—you’ve got something that lasts. Social-media platforms, that’s not real. It may look good for a week, but there’s an expiration date. What is there to that?

I’m starting to see country music getting back to the roots, storytelling and the blues. Back in the ’20s, there was a harmonica player named DeFord Bailey who was on everybody’s records. Take off the fiddles and steel guitars, just a piano and vocal, and you’ve got the blues.

If you’re chasing things like Country radio or awards or endorsements, that’s not music. When we had The Oaks on “When This Is Over,” I purposely wanted them to have their moment. They’re my grandma’s favorite. Someone said, “But that won’t get on Country radio,” and I said, “This is about being something special.” Because a great country song that moves you, that’s what I want.

Any other dream teams?
Me, Shania Twain and Usher. All they can say is no, but it’s beautiful when they all come together. What makes a rainbow special is all those colors. If you had yellow running through everything, it’s not every color being what it is. To me, that’s what beautiful. Blue, green, red, orange and yellow.

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