If the old adage that Nashville is a ‘ten-year town’ is correct then Jimmie Allen is the living embodiment of the phrase. He moved to Nashville back in 2007 from his native Delaware, only to be told he was too ‘pop’ for Country and too ‘Country’ for pop. Determined to make his name in the music industry he took jobs in restaurants, in clothes stores and was even the janitor at a school for a while whilst he waited for the music industry to broaden its mind and accept his style of Country for what it is. Allen even endured a five month stint living in his car behind the gym he was working in at one point before the likes of Taylor Swift, Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett began to push the parameters of Country music into places that record labels and executives began to buy into as being commercially and artistically viable. Debut album, ‘Mercury Lane’ is the culmination of eleven years of hard work for Allen: of banging on doors, of being asked if he knew Darius Rucker and of being held at arm’s length by a traditionally conservative and narrow minded genre.
Allen says of the album title, ‘Mercury Lane is where my journey began. All of the fundamental life lessons that make me who I am today, I was taught on that street.’ That authenticity, that personal touch is in evidence all across this album and the strongest songs on ‘Mercury Lane’ are the ones that Allen himself and his life story are part of. He was involved in co-writing 8 of the 15 songs so this isn’t some puff piece album that has been curated together by a record label, this is the story of Allen’s life, the highs and lows, the good times and the bad. At 15 tracks the album is way too long, and this is an issue I have with any album over 11 or 12 tracks. We lead such busy lives these days that it is often hard to sit and digest 15 tracks in one sitting, meaning that some tracks get a little pushed into the background and would have been better served rolled out ahead for an EP and not included on the album or saved for a deluxe version a year down the road. ‘Underdogs’, the strongest chorus and probably best song in Allen’s live repertoire is placed right in the middle of ‘Mercury Lane’ at track 8, so it takes quite a long time to arrive and then it’s impact is fading into memory by the end of track 15. This album would have been even better than it is with at least 3 of the tracks being ‘parked’ for a future project.
‘Mercury Lane’ opens with the infectious ‘American Heartbreaker’ with its ‘Lady A’ or ‘Darius Rucker’ kind of upbeat, up-tempo, funky guitar riffs and sing-a-long chorus. Lyrically, it’s tropes are all familiar ones rooted in American imagery like apple pies and the 4th of July but it’s a great opening track and potential future radio single. There are further standout songs, placed at strategic intervals throughout ‘Mercury Lane’ that serve as guides and touchstones for the heights that Allen is capable of reaching and ‘American Heartbreaker’ kicks things off brilliantly. The next touchstone comes at track 4 with ‘How to be Single’ – a track written by powerhouse writers Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally and Jimmy Robbins. ‘…Single’ features a simple, stripped back guitar sound with Allen’s vocals slightly higher in the mix. The song is a restrained, tasteful and funky one featuring, as you will come to see during repeated listens to ‘Mercury Lane’, Allen’s trademark ‘infectious chorus’. In fact, all the choruses of the 15 tracks on this album are so infectious that they should come with a warning from the World Health Organisation!
Tracks 6 and 8, ‘High Life’ and the aforementioned ‘Underdogs’ are your next stepping stones through ‘Mercury Lane’. Both of these songs feel personal to Allen’s own life experiences and begin to flesh him out a little as both as a person and a performer. The former is a reference to his childhood and upbringing in Delaware, referencing familiar small town images and ‘Norman Rockwell water towers’. Another earworm chorus replete with ‘woh oh!’ backing vocals brings it on home in what should be a radio single somewhere down the line. The latter, ‘Underdogs’ is Allen’s big ‘live’ moment – it’s a bombastic, drum driven anthem dedicated to all the ‘I’m going to make it one-dayers’ and ‘benched third stringers’ with big dreams and a desire to succeed. It’s the story of Allen’s ‘ten years in the making’ and is a song that should stick with him throughout the rest of his career.
Our journey down ‘Mercury Lane’ is completed by one of the strongest finishes to any Country album produced in recent times. Tracks 13, 14 and 15 are a massive reward to those listeners who have made it this far, again, it’s almost symbolic of Allen’s career to date – long time in the making but worth it now it’s here! ‘Best Shot’ currently a top 20 and climbing hit for Allen on national radio is a delightful, intimate and urgent ballad about being true to your cause and the ones you love that works because of its quietness and the pauses and silences within it rather than the bells and whistles of some of the production on the album and I feel the same about track 14, ‘Warrior’. Another very personal song about the two most important women in Allen’s life, his mother and grandmother. The lyrics are beautiful and the vocal delivery top notch, which brings us to album closer, track 15 and statement song, ‘All Tractors Ain’t Green’.
In writing and producing ‘All Tractors Ain’t Green’ Allen, to my mind, has produced his ‘Living on a Prayer, his ‘Final Countdown’, his ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ on his very first album. This is the song that is going to define his career and live with him for the next twenty years in the same way that something like ‘I Hope You Dance’ has for Lee Ann Womack. It HAS to go to radio, it HAS to be the song that the record company pushes over some of the more experimental and R&B influenced tracks on ‘Mercury Lane’. It is a career defining song that given the right push and a prevailing wind has ‘CMA Song of 2019’ possibilities written all over it. The current success of ‘Best Shot’ will act as a guide and a door opener and I just hope that the ‘powers that be’ use that opportunity to give ‘All Tractors Ain’t Green’ the shot at fame that it deserves. The song is the story of Allen’s life, it’s the story of a black man living in a white world – the lyrics are beautifully uplifting and powerful and yes, similarly to most of the songs on ‘Mercury Lane’, the chorus is just bloody brilliant too. You’ll hear this song and fall in love with it from the get-go and if it doesn’t move you, if it doesn’t inspire you than I suspect you might be a little bit dead inside.
I knew the moment I heard ‘Girl Crush’ it was destined for ‘big things’. The moment I heard ‘Humble and Kind’ I knew it was bigger than the genre it was living in. Over a year ago I heard Chris Janson’s ‘Drunk Girl’ and called that one and I am doing it again for ‘All Tractors Ain’t Green’ – this song, alongside Eric Church’s ‘Some Of It’ will, if treated with respect and reverence by the paymasters at the record companies and radio stations, be huge in 2019 and I can’t wait to say to everyone who can be bothered to listen, ‘I told you so’!
Of course, I’ve focused on ‘Mercury Lane’s’ best songs, that seem to me to be deliberately placed as stepping stones through, what is, at 15 tracks, quite a strong current, a strong torrent of songs but there are other decent songs on the album too. It’s great to see ‘Boy Gets a Truck’ given a new lease of life after being criminally ignored by Keith Urban on his ‘Ripcord’ album. In Jimmy Allen’s hands it’s a little less rocky but still uplifting in its sound and storytelling. Early album tracks, ‘Make Me Want To’ and ‘Deserve to Be’ are smooth, R&B influenced tracks that have a very modern sound and programming style to them. The latter even has a 70’s ‘disco’ drum roll introducing each chorus! ‘21’ is a nostalgic, look back at youth and freedom that it represented whilst ‘Like You Do’ could almost be a Lionel Richie song if you close your eyes and think back to his jumper wearing days of the 1980’s.
Nowhere is the R&B influence more in evidence than on ‘County Lines’. Which could also make an impact, in a very different way to ‘Tractors’, if it was released as a single. Allen even references the iconic band, ‘BLACKstreet’ in a song that cleverly uses metaphors to explain all the places that ‘the girl’ in the song takes the narrator without them ever leaving the ‘County Lines’ but it is also telling Country fans that Allen is also taking you on a journey in the song, beyond your own limitations and genre boundaries too without you leaving the safety of the ‘County Lines’ of your own expectations.
As a debut album, ‘Mercury Lane’ is a very accomplished and very strong statement of intent. Jimmie Allen has poured his heart and soul into the making of this album and the results are there for all to see. His ten-year struggle to be heard, his willingness to persevere, his self-belief and determination to make himself heard – they are all here in the stories and songs on the album. For me, Allen is at his best when telling stories and relaying the experiences of his life on the simpler, less produced songs on ‘Mercury Lane’ but this is a complex, multi-layered onion of an album. It deserves time for all the 15 songs to breathe, it takes effort to peel back the layers and see the man underneath the production sometimes but when you do that the results are well worth it and in ‘All Tractors Ain’t Green’ Allen and the record company are sitting on an absolute monster of a genre song. Strap yourself in, Mr Allen, it could be one hell of a ride!