Gary Allan Recalls Pivotal 'Smoke Rings in the Dark,' Says He's Cutting New 'Throwback' Music

Country music had a particularly important and diverse year in 1999. The Dixie Chicks released the country-rock of Fly, Faith Hill put out the polished Breathe, and George Jones reclaimed his legend status with Cold Hard Truth. Gary Allan touched on all of those elements on Smoke Rings in the Dark, a consequential record in the California country singer’s career that helped transform traditional country into something contemporary and approachable with well-produced songs like “Right Where I Need to Be,” the title track, and “Don’t Tell Mama.” “It sounded so modern, but it was just old country music,” Allan says now.

Last year, Allan marked the 20th anniversary of the album with a special deluxe release. The updated edition marks the record’s first time on vinyl and includes an unreleased bonus track, the live fan favorite “Long Year.”

We asked Allan to reflect on Smoke Rings in the Dark and share his next move — as it turns out, he recently reassembled the band and producers behind Smoke Rings, Tony Brown and Mark Wright, to record his first new music in three years.

What do you most recall about the sessions for Smoke Rings in the Dark?
It was the first time I had worked with Tony Brown. I worked with Mark Wright a lot, but we felt we needed something to freshen it up a little bit. It was interesting. Tony listens to music a little different than I do and Mark had this Eagles sound in his head. Rivers Rutherford wrote the title track and Mark had asked him to try to write something for Glenn Frey.

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This was your first album to go platinum.
It was pivotal for me. It started to define a sound, and we had that sound before, but this record put a stamp on it. That was our thing after that. It was cutting edge, but now you listen to it and it sounds so long ago.

Things couldn’t sound more different today.
Amen. Especially on country radio.

“Right Where I Need to Be,” the album’s biggest hit, was co-written by Kendell Marvel, who is having his own success now with his solo albums.
He said that was the first song he wrote when he came to town, and he thought, “Wow, this is going to be easy!” [Laughs] We close the show with that right now. It remains a huge one for me, still. That was the big song to play in colleges too — all the other bands covered it, and it’d be cool to walk in and hear that everywhere.

You chose a left-field cover for the album in Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Why that oldie?
I covered that song since I was a kid. We were done cutting and I turned around to Mark Wright and said, “I always wanted to cut this. Let’s one-pass it.” I played the intro, and my guitar player, Jake Kelly, played the solo and it was one pass. We loved it and Mark did too. He said, “Wow, that just made the record.” I had played it a thousand times before like that.

“Don’t Tell Mama,” your classic country car-accident ballad, is nothing but twang, and you say fans still request it at shows. Do you think country listeners today are looking for something organic and traditional?
I do. And our live shows are increasing every year. We haven’t had a single in quite a bit, but I just went in [to the studio] to make a Nineties record, with “throwback” in mind. I think I got some good stuff that will be legit for today. I just cut six sides with Mark and Tony, so I’m trying to capture that sound again right now. We put the same band together, and we really got it too.

Luke Combs is making big moves with that sound.
Totally. There is a lane right now opening up and I’m going to step right into it.

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