Seven years after his debut single hit the charts, Gary Allan’s career was showing serious signs of heating up. His previous two studio albums had gone platinum and he had the year before scored his first #1 on the Hot Country Songs chart. Consequently, he was nominated for the CMA’s Horizon Award just before his fifth album, See If I Care, hit stores in September 2003. Like its predecessor, See If I Care would give Gary another platinum frame for his wall, and would spawn 2 chart-toppers and another top 15 hit. The album debuted at its peak on the Billboard Country Albums chart at a respectable #2 slot, meanwhile scratching the top 20 in the all-genre chart.
‘Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey’, the rocking album opener finds the singer drowning his sorrows with black label whiskey while telling all his friends and fellow barflies white lies about how happy he is. The Steeldrivers would later record a bluegrass version of the tune.
‘I Can’t Do It Today’ is a John Rich co-write with fellow Muzik Mafia members Vicky McGehee (a member of the Gretchen Wilson posse) and Rodney Clawson. Gary slips into falsetto vocals perhaps a little too often in the bluesy kiss-off number, and the melody is a little clunky. It’s placement at the beginning of the set is awkward as it is definite filler.
Gary would earn his second consecutive #1 with the album’s lead single, the poignant ‘Tough Little Boys’. The almost-saccharine lyric is a bit of a departure from the material we’re used to hearing from Allan. It’s a neat, three-act story song revolving around the story of a little boy who grows up and hurts and cries again when he becomes a dad. The message of just how much macho men love their families, but can’t put their feelings into words, has always resonated well with the country audience and this is certainly one of the better attempts at tugging at country fans’ heartstrings.
The disc’s title track is more akin to the sound Allan had crafted for himself in previous albums. ‘See If I Care’ finds the singer hiding his heartache with mock sarcasm. The burning delivery from Gary gives real character to the brilliant Jamie O’Hara lyric.
Second to radio is one of my favorite Gary Allan singles to date. I guess you could call this a list song if you want to classify tunes that way. The chorus is made of up of a loose patchwork of other country songs with rain in the title, while the verses tell the story of a long gone wrong. The narrator is lamenting the fact that instead of all the happy songs there are, his radio station is playing a line of heartbreak classics. This is not a complaint that many people would be making about today’s country radio playlists. It stalled just outside the top 10 at a #12 peak on the country singles chart.
A pair of similar-sounding ballads are cleverly placed back to back and compliment each other well. First is ‘I Can Love You’, a tender love song where the narrator confesses there are lots of things he can’t do, but he can offer love. The theme is not original, but Gary carries the song with his gravelly and believable vocal. Next is ‘Don’t Look Away’, written by Sean Locke and Hardy McGee. The basic concept of trying to overcome obstacles in their way, and the narrator wanting his lover’s undivided attention is not unlike the Keith Whitley classic ‘Don’t Close Your Eyes’, but with a few notable differences. The couple aren’t in an intimate setting in this song, and the lyric doesn’t make clear whether the problems in the relationship stem from another man.
The pace is picked back up and Gary’s Bakersfield-influenced background is in full swing on the fun ‘Guys Like Me’. A cool guitar riff opens this rhythm-driven number that considers the downside to technology and its effect on the music scene:
All that’s left in Bakersfield is a jukebox,
And it’s haunted by old songs and memories
It’s getting hard to find a place to play my guitar,
And they’re trying to put an end to guys like me
Still kicking is the second #1 and final single from the album, ‘Nothing On But The Radio’. I admit, I detested this song when it was a new release. I thought it was beneath Gary’s talent as a singer, but it has grown on me in the five years since its been a regular recurrent on country radio. The playful song was written by Brice Long, Byron Hill, and Odie Blackmon. It is Gary’s last #1 hit to date.
Gary co-wrote one song for the set with Jamie O’Hara and Odie Blackmon, ‘You Don’t Know a Thing About Me’. It’s a groovy song with a sweeping melody that finds the narrator pouring his heart out to the love he lost. Assuming she knows how much he misses her, he surmises if she doesn’t then she doesn’t know anything about him. A steady drumbeat is the most interesting part of the tune, aside from the lyrics, to me.
Closing the set is Jesse Winchester’s ‘A Showman’s Life’, which features Willie Nelson as a duet partner. The sharp and stark look at the life of a touring performer tells about the side of stardom that those who dream of it don’t usually think about. Of course, he heard about the pretty girls, the money, the fame, and the good times. But the singer never thought about all the phony smiles you put on when you just don’t feel like smiling, the lonely hotel rooms and all the time away from your family, all for that dazzling hour on stage every night.
With this set of songs, Gary Allan continued to solidify his position as one of the premiere artistic holdouts in country music today. While there are a few soft spots, the song selection and production make it evident that Gary wasn’t chasing radio success or platinum sales but was setting his sights on making music that he wanted to. That way of thinking doesn’t work for those artists without a definite idea of their sound and persona. And taking his seat in the co-producer’s chair for the first time alongside Mark Wright allows See If I Care just a little more of the personality that has maintained Gary Allan’s star in the sometimes stale world of mainstream country. As Willie Nelson once said, “True talent, when it finds an audience, will always shine through.” Gary Allan is a great example of that.
Stream the entire album at last.fm or buy it from amazon.