For Allen, that also meant he made history: He became the first black artist ever to launch his career with a No. 1 single on country radio. (Darius Rucker kicked off his country career with a No. 1 in 2008, but he was already famous from Hootie and the Blowfish.) As Allen’s team announced this fact and it got picked up in the media, Allen had mixed feelings about seeing the headlines.
“It was cool. But at the same time, I was sad about it,” Allen, 32, said during a recent interview in Nashville. “Because it sucks that I’m the first. You know what I mean? I was excited and sad at the same time. I was glad I did it and got it done. But I want it to be where it’s not a thing anymore.
“Hopefully a few years from now … a black guy comes into country music, it’s not ‘the first black guy to do this.’ It’s just, ‘Cool, you’re another country artist,’ ” he said.
While Allen listed inspirations and other talented artists of color in the genre — Rucker, Charley Pride, Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Tony Jackson, Aaron Vance, Tiera — it remains no secret that the country music world is overwhelmingly white. It was one of the many challenges Allen faced when he moved to Nashville almost 12 years ago with a nearly empty bank account and spent a stint sleeping in his car while dreaming of becoming a country singer.
Now, Allen is coming off a big breakout: He signed a record deal with Broken Bow Records in summer 2017 and, buoyed by the success of “Best Shot,” released his debut album, “Mercury Lane,” in October 2018. He toured extensively across the United States. Last week, he was anointed one of the five “New Faces of Country Music” at the Country Radio Seminar, a prestigious industry honor bestowed by radio programmers. This week, he was nominated for new male artist of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards.
As Allen tries to repeat his radio success with his second single, “Make Me Want To,” released this month, he is thrilled, grateful and somewhat in disbelief at his career trajectory. His struggles taught him perspective.
When he embarked on a long radio tour to promote his music, some warned him the hours and travel would be grueling. He didn’t mind.
“Living in your car, being broke, being homeless, being hungry — I’ve seen grueling. Compared to what I went through to live in Nashville, it wasn’t grueling at all,” he said. “People get up 6 a.m. and go to work. I get up at 6 a.m. and get to play songs I wrote. … I always try to compare, because I feel like sometimes we can really lose focus on where we’re at and how blessed we are.”
A native of Milton, Del., Allen knew barely anyone when he moved to Music City in 2007. After growing up singing in church, playing the drums and listening to country radio with his dad, Nashville seemed like the natural place to go. He got a job at a local gym and spent every spare minute playing music, writing songs or going to places he knew songwriters, producers or publishers would be.
At first, it was rejection after rejection. When the trailer he was living in went on the market and he was forced to live his car, he still refused to move back to Delaware: He was certain that if he worked hard enough, things would fall into place.
“I really got to figure out how bad I wanted it,” Allen said. “Struggle is what builds character, so it was cool to dive in. It helped me figure out who I was as a man as well as an artist.”
He eventually caught a couple of breaks. First, a friend moved to town, and Allen saved enough money to split the rent on an apartment. Later, Allen performed at a songwriters event at a restaurant where a producer named Ash Bowers introduced himself. Bowers liked what he heard and wanted to know if Allen might be interested in working together.
The two have been collaborators ever since; Bowers became Allen’s producer, publisher and manager. He was the one who convinced Allen to rerecord “Best Shot” with more emphasis on the vocal. (The original version, Allen said, was “Matchbox Twenty meets Florida Georgia Line,” with big drums and guitars.) Although conventional wisdom says a new singer should start a career with a fun, up-tempo song, his label executives thought “Best Shot” would connect with listeners. They were correct.
“People were like, ‘How far do you want to get it? Top 20? Top 10?’ And I said, ‘I want to get it to number one!’ ” Allen said. “Why would I want to settle for anything less than as high as it could go?”
Allen has a busy tour season ahead, opening for Kane Brown and, later, Rascal Flatts and Chris Young. He’s also trying to capitalize on Oscar-season buzz with a cover of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s “Shallow,” collaborating with new singer Abby Anderson. That record debuts Friday.
And although Allen sometimes introduces himself in concert as the black country singer “who’s not Darius or Kane,” he hopes his breakthrough can inspire other artists of color who are trying to make it in Nashville. He addressed this idea in the final track of his album “All Tractors Ain’t Green,” in which he sings, “It might go against the grain of that country boy motto / Sometimes what you get ain’t always what you see / All fields ain’t corn and all tractors ain’t green.”
“I remember growing up, people would say, ‘You could be president!’ Well, for a black kid looking at that, it wasn’t until Obama became president that you were like, ‘Maybe it can really happen,’ ” Allen said. “I feel like the opposite side of that is whatever career you’re chasing, no matter what it is — if you don’t see anyone that looks like you, you should step up and be the representation so someone else can see it.”