Deborah Allen: “it’s one great big journey and lesson”

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deborah allen with gibson guitar
Deborah Allen - photo provided courtesy of PR

In 2019, it seems a given that women in country music are singers and songwriters, but before the likes of Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and many others, and even before the star power of talents like Shania Twain, there was Deborah Allen — singer, songwriter, guitarist — whose career remains strong decades after her Music Row debut.

She’s the first to credit those who came before her — Dolly Parton, Bobbie Gentry, and Loretta Lynn among them — but when Allen arrived in Nashville, she had goals in place to establish herself as a multi-faceted artist and build longevity as more than a new face behind a microphone.

She is constantly at work on new material and performs regularly at songwriter showcases and on her own. To date, she has recorded twelve albums and charted fourteen singles, a trajectory that was launched in 1983 with the crossover hit “Baby I Lied,” which remains a staple in her concerts. A two-time Grammy Award nominee with over 1600 compositions published, her songs have been featured in movie soundtracks and recorded by a who’s who of artists, including LeAnn Rimes, Brooks & Dunn, Patty Loveless, and Sheena Easton.

Allen was in her teens when she moved to Nashville. She was wide-eyed, enthusiastic, brimming with talent … and hiding a dark but thankfully short-lived secret: domestic violence. She spoke openly to Guitar Girl about her career, Music Row, reclaiming her life, and finding peace and happiness.

It’s been a while since you released a new album: Hear Me Now, in 2011, and a Christmas album in 2013. Is this a decision in light of the current state of the music industry, a change in direction to focus solely on songwriting, or are you planning another release?

I am always working on new material, and I have a couple of projects in my mind right now. I’m anxious to get in the studio and do it. I’ve just had a lot of things going on in my life, plus I’ve been performing and doing a lot of different projects, but it’s time for me to put something new out, so I’ll be doing that in the near future.

I don’t think about the state of the industry that much because I’ve been around for a while, and I’ve experienced the ebb and flow of what the industry is like. I feel, as an artist, that you should always produce more material and write more songs that will end up on a recording project. Another thing is that even though the industry has changed a lot, in some ways, it may be a hindrance for some people, but in other ways, it’s leveled the playing field, because if you are creative and inventive, there are lots of great outlets for your music. Again, I don’t think about it that much. I just think about being creative.

The songwriter showcases seem to keep you quite busy.

I enjoy doing those. I love being out there with my fans and the energy that brings. It’s so much fun. Since I am a songwriter at heart, I’ve always enjoyed those shows because I feel like the crowds that show up come to hear the songs, come to hear the music, and when it’s you and a guitar, people can hear the songs and maybe find a deeper meaning than they found before.

Do you also find that deeper meaning when you strip the songs down to just you and a guitar?

Yes, I’ve found new joy in singing the songs and new ways to express myself in them. And when you’re up close to the people, you feel that connection.

Shel Silverstein was my songwriting mentor. He lit that fire in my heart and made me think in an instant that it was all possible. I wrote a couple of things and sang them to him, and he said, “I think you’ve got a way with words.” He said, “The sun doesn’t shine on the same dog’s back every day,” meaning, you can’t be Number One every day. He said, “When you get off the stage, that wonderful feeling goes away, but a song is forever.” I think it’s a personal treasure, and I know if I hadn’t devoted so much time to writing and become so immersed in it, I might not be doing music right now because I wouldn’t have the vehicle. You can have hit songs, but unless you have a career that’s consistently up there — and some do, but they’re not as frequent as those whose careers ebb and flow — songwriting is a great foundation, and it can carry you through.

I also believe that the more you do, the more opportunity comes your way, because it’s not going to just come knocking on your door. People need to see that you have a passion and a desire to grow. I have always been surrounded by great musicians. Even though I wrote the songs, once they were recorded, I had great musicians around me, so it was always a big step for me to go out and do my songs, but I did it. And it keeps me demanding that out of myself. It’s important to be self-sufficient. I love co-writing, but I think it’s important to write by yourself, too, so that you know that when you co-write, you’re pulling your weight and doing it because you want to, not because you have to.

How many guitars do you have?

I always carry my Gibson J-200, which was hand-painted black with a beautiful flower on it. Gibson gave it to me at a summer NAMM show during their 100th anniversary. That guitar has been around the world with me. It is my favorite guitar, and it has such a big sound.

I’ve got a Baby Taylor, and I’ve written a ton of songs on it, a Martin gut-string guitar, and I have a really cool acoustic guitar that was made by Jerry Jones in Nashville. [Note: Jones closed his factory in 2011.] It has a small, cutaway acoustic body and he put an electric neck on it.

I have a gold metal flake Epiphone Emperor and a white Epiphone Sheraton, both with F-holes, which are great guitars, and a beautiful Lily of the Valley Dobro that Gibson also gave to me.

I still have my first guitar, a Washburn parlor guitar from the 1800s with abalone inlay around the soundhole and curly maple sides.

I have three Jerry Jones electric guitars: a custom electric semi-hollow-body with a curly maple front, black back, and red pinstripes along the sides, a black baritone, and a red Longhorn.

In my kitchen, I have an Ibanez and a Fender amp. I keep them there because I keep telling myself that this year I’m going to play more electric guitar. I am more of an acoustic guitar player and more of a songwriter guitar player. I’m not a lead player, I’ll never be a shredder, but I like to find grooves and licks that inspire new songs.

When people think of you, it’s probably safe to say that they still immediately think of “Baby I Lied.” Is it accurate to call it a career song?

It is a career song, and I needed a career song at the time. I was writing furiously to try to come up with something I thought would stand out. I’d had some songs that had done well, like “Don’t Worry’ Bout Me Baby,” for Janie Fricke, and other cuts for artists here and there, but I knew I wanted to be an artist. It’s human nature for writers to want to pitch their songs to the hottest artists, so if you don’t have a record out at the time, you aren’t going to be hearing the top of the line songs; they’re going to be pitching them to other artists. So I was so thrilled when we landed on “Baby I Lied,” and that it got the opportunity that it did.

It almost didn’t, because I recorded it for Capitol Records, they had an executive changeover, and my champion at the label was no longer there. I was allowed to take it with me to anybody that wanted to purchase it, and that afternoon I played it for Tony Brown at MCA Records, and he and Joe Gallante fell in love with it. Joe was determined to get it a great shot. It was a pop record that crossed backward into the country charts, and it was on the AC charts at the same time. So even though it never did actually hit Number One on any of those charts, it had the perception that it was bigger than that because it was on all the charts. The promotion people called it “The record that wouldn’t go away,” which was all right with me!

This year it earned its 2 Million Airplay award with BMI, and it’s halfway to 3 million, so I call it my signature song or career song. It’s definitely the one people think of me with, and I always feel blessed that my signature song is one that I still love singing to this day. It’s so dramatic and has so much dynamics to it that it’s like stepping into a little movie every time I sing it. I’m thankful for it.

You have always been a prolific writer — for yourself and other artists — during a time in the industry when that wasn’t necessarily the case for women in country music. Today, it’s almost expected that women write and record their own material, but that’s thanks to women like you, who paved the way.

Thank you for saying that. There were great female artists before me, of course, who opened the door for artists like me. My first Number One as a songwriter, “Don’t Worry’ Bout Me Baby,” I wanted to put it out on Capitol, but the executive said, “It’s not cool for artists to record their own songs.” So Don Gant, Kieren Kane, Bruce Channel, and I got in a car and went to Audio Media on 19th, where we knew Janie Fricke was recording and Jim Ed Norman was producing her.

Don had a cassette of the song — that tells you how long ago this was! — and we barged into the session, and Don said, “Jim Ed, this is a hit.” Jim said, “Let’s hear it.” It was a demo we’d done at Don’s publishing company, and Jim said, “You’re right. That is a hit.” They cut it that afternoon, and it was like a fairytale. Janie went to Number One, she had another Number One with “Let’s Stop Talking About It,” and both those songs are million airplay songs for me. 

You were 18 when you moved from Memphis to Nashville. Was that your first time leaving home? Who was that young girl?

Unfortunately, I got married to a drummer who used to practice on me. That didn’t last very long. I had broken up with my real boyfriend that I really cared about, and when this guy asked if I’d marry him, I thought it would be fun to be with a musician because we could make music together. It got me out there in the world, but it was destined to fail because of the way he was.

He wanted to play clubs, so we went to Florida and played there. He was from Tennessee, and he said, “We need to move to Nashville.” Shortly after that, I got a job at Opryland, where I gave them his picture so that they would not let him in. I also went on tour in Russia with Tennessee Ernie Ford, had amazing experiences, and got away from him. I’m an outgoing person, a people person, very loving and trusting, and I love to make friends. My ex-husband was very jealous. I couldn’t even look at anyone.

At one point during our marriage, I went home to Memphis, told my high school friends what was going on, showed them what he did to me, and made them swear not to tell my parents. One of them told her mother, and her mother told my mother. Then my mother and I talked, and she came to Nashville to help me move out while he was away from our apartment. After I left him, he wanted to have dinner and talk. I agreed, and when it was time for him to take me home, he threatened to kill me if I didn’t go home with him. He smacked my head into the car window so hard that I saw lights. I made it through the evening, and the next morning, I went to an attorney’s office and filed for divorce.

I am now married to a wonderful man named Raymond Hicks, who comes from the production and promotion side of the business. He was Mel Tillis’s first tour manager, and he worked with the Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Hank Williams Jr., and other artists. He gives me love and support, he’s down to earth, and we respect each other, so it works out really well. I am very happy.

The industry was very different when you signed with Capitol Records in 1980. By the time you signed with Curb in 2000, you had taken full control of your career: songwriting, video editing, everything.

I first had a singles deal with RCA. I did the two Jim Reeves records [Note: Allen recorded vocal tracks that were added to Reeves’ tracks on remixes.] with Bud Logan, who made great records, and I was thrilled to get to do that. RCA wanted to sign me to a singles deal, but I was already collecting songs that I wanted to sing. I wanted to be thought of as an artist of substance, so I presented myself to Capitol, and they wanted to do an album deal.

I signed with them, but they weren’t promoting my songs very well, so I began calling all the reporting stations in the country. I asked for the music directors’ and program directors’ names, and then I would call back to speak with them. I had a binder with all the stations and names, and I would make notes about what we talked about. I created relationships. I made so many calls that, one day, AT&T called and said, “You have a pretty high telephone bill. Are you going to be able to pay this?”

One program director told me, “Everybody likes you and they want to play your records,” but they thought Capitol had records in the can and were trying to ride the coattails of the Jim Reeves success. I said, “Not at all. I want to build on my songwriting.” I went to see the Capitol executives, and I told them that I had worked very hard, made friends with all these program directors and that they were interested in my records. Capitol told me I could come in and use their 800-line. I would show up early every morning and stay as late as I could get anyone to answer the phone. That’s how I got my forward momentum — and that was before “Baby I Lied,” which I recorded for Capitol. I had a dream that I wanted, and I had a lot of tenacity. It’s been an interesting ride. 

I feel like I got here with one foot in “old school” and one foot in “new school.” I’m thankful for the foot that got in old school because I got the chance to meet great people like Mel Tillis and Curly Putnam and Bill Anderson. I was introduced on the Grand Ole Opry for the first time by Grandpa Jones. I met so many great songwriters. I appreciate all of that so much.

You often speak about your faith. How big a part has that played in your career?

I feel dedicated to this journey because I really feel that God had something to do with me taking it. My faith is a very important part of who I am and everything I do. We live in an abundant universe with no shortage of creative ideas, and that’s the beauty of it: there is always something new to write about. Songs and music have so much impact on people’s lives.

There’s a lot of sacrifices that come along with following your heart and following your dreams. You make choices, and choosing this business is not always an easy way to go. You’ve really got to want to do this because it’s not always going to be about being on stage and all the good stuff that you see.

I feel like God has been with me from the beginning, and God is still with me today. I give all the credit to God for my singing ability and the fact that I’m still here and feeling good and excited about life. I think life is beautiful and wonderful, and it’s one great big journey and lesson, but without my faith, it would have all been impossible.

— Alison Richter

Note: Speaking candidly about her first marriage, Deborah Allen told us, “I lived with him in an upstairs apartment over an older home. You had to go up metal stairs and turn left to get there, and I remember thinking, If I have to get out of here fast, I have to remember to turn right really fast and run down those stairs.

If you are in an abusive relationship, get out — NOW. Your life — and the lives of your children and pets, if applicable — depends on it, because your partner will not change. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline [www.thehotline.org], intimate partner violence affects more than 12 million people each year. Remember: This is not your fault. Seek help and safety immediately. 1-800-799-SAFE [7233].

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