Singer-guitarist Chris Allen has tried to dodge the alt-country label for his entire career. Rosavelt, the band he's fronted since the '90s, often draws comparisons to Tom Petty and Wilco and is regularly lumped in with Americana. And the albums he's released as a solo artist have been called alt-country too.
"To me, so much of it sounds like bad country music," Allen says over a few beers at Rocky River Brewing. "There's a certain phony genuineness. I've never related to it."
And yet when it came time to record his latest solo effort, Everything Changes but the Rodeo, he took his backing band to a cabin to record. Even the album title reeks of alt-country-ness.
"The cabin was in upstate New York, and it sounds so nauseously alt-country to say that," he says with a laugh. "But there was no studio time to pay for, and I wanted to get out of town. We did a Rosavelt album in [producer] Mitch Easter's studio in North Carolina, and that went really well. It was nice to get out of town, and cell phones and computers didn't work up there. You can get a lot more done when people can't check their emails."
Allen and songwriting partner Austin Walkin' Cane started writing the songs in January. The two had collaborated together on Cane's blues album that came out earlier this year and have been songwriting pals for some time now.
"He has a credit on almost everything on the album," Allen says. "The only older song is 'Dead Letters' and me and [bassist] Tom [Prebish] wrote that about five years ago in Tremont. Austin first got involved on my Acetate record. He's a great sounding board. We love getting together and blocking everything out for four or five hours. As we got closer to the time we had blocked out for the studio, we had to really get the songs written quickly."
Allen worked again with producer Don Dixon (R.E.M., the Smithereens), a singer-songwriter in his own right who's collaborated with him on Rosavelt albums as well.
"I wanted him to mix Rosavelt's second record," he says when asked about how he first met Dixon. "I knew he knew about us. I called him, and he said he didn't want to mix something he didn't record. I thought he was blowing us off, but he mixes as he records. He's organized in ways that make sense to me now. We were on the verge of breaking up and we were a three-piece and opened for him at a gig in Akron. He came up after and said he wanted to magnetize us in the studio. We did a four-song demo and he helped get a label involved. We did that record with him and then every record since."
Divided into a "side a" and a "side b," Rodeo starts with somber ballads such as "Summer Never Came" and "Waiting on the Night to Come." Allen sheds the tenderness on the first side with that side's final track, "You Gotta Run," a track he wrote for his baby daughter. The second side features more up-tempo tunes including a garage rock track written by Happy Dog co-owner Sean Kilbane who passed away earlier this year after a tragic accident. The album is dedicated to Kilbane, but Allen says that doesn't necessary mean the songs are thematically linked.
"I started the album and my friend Sean had died," he says. "I can't say that that didn't affect things a little bit. Yeah, it was present when I was writing. Those things are hard to understand. It's tough to talk about. With every record, you just see where you're at. It's a real stream-of-consciousness thing."
For the rowdy call-and-response rocker "Only One First Love," he received a little help from Rosavelt bandmate Kevin Grasha, who helped him finish the song.
"It's one of my favorites on the record," he says. "A week before we recorded, I didn't have any lyrics. I had the title for months. I didn't want it to be a story about some girl. I had a different set of shit lyrics. We stayed up one night after a gig and bashed it out in 30 minutes. If Rosavelt had made a record this year, that would have been on it."
The album's stripped down approach is intentional. Allen wanted to capture the songs live and even when he tried to add overdubs, they didn't quite work.
"The album was rejecting everything that didn't happen at the cabin," he says. "Everything was done in the three days we were there. My bandmates are such good players, that made it possible."
The title is a reference to a book he found while he was recording.
"The husband of my dad's cousin had built the cabin where we recorded," Allen says. "He loved dime store cowboy novels. When we got done, I opened this one book up and it was the description of the novel. I couldn't get it out of my head. I saw it in big, bold letters. The title was going to be that or Summer Never Came. I thought the Rodeo title was better."
Allen has had record deals in the past but he's recently taken to self-funding his albums — earlier this month, he hosted a special release concert/pressing party at Gotta Groove Records to thank the sponsors who helped fund the recording. He says he's not getting rich but is able to make enough to get by.
"Since the beginning of 2000s, I left my job and haven't had one since," he says. "It's great. It's a lot of work. I set up my own company and there are a lot of long hours and there's never a day off unless you want to have a unpaid day off. Mondays are my Saturday nights. I like living on a different schedule than the rest of the world. I do my shopping on Mondays. We play a lot of dates but if I get fed up with it, I think about the fact that I get to play guitar for living and I'm grateful for that."
Chris Allen & the Guilty Hearts
9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, Happy Dog, 5801 Detroit Ave., 216-651-9474. Tickets: $8, happydogcleveland.com.