Jimmie Allen Brings New Shades to Country Music

Andy Downing

6 Min Read

Rising country musician Jimmie Allen is no stranger to overcoming adversity.

In 2011, he appeared on “American Idol,” finishing in the top 41 but failing to advance to the Hollywood rounds of the televised singing competition. A decade later, in 2021, he won both New Artist of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards and New Male Artist of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

More recently, Allen, 36, has worked his way back from the grief he experienced following the death of his father, James “Big Jim” Allen, who died in September 2019 at age 65, transforming the loss into the heartfelt country ballad “Down Home,” which served as the emotional high point of a June 3 concert filmed at the Wind Creek Event Center in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and streaming now at The Coda Collection.

It’s a level of resiliency further tested by Allen’s standing as a Black artist within country music, a genre that has a complex, often troubling history with issues of race. Allen hasn’t shied from addressing issues of race in his own music. On “All Tractors Ain’t Green,” off of his 2018 debut “Mercury Lane,” Allen subtly challenges the stereotypes associated with country music while staking out his own place within it. “Can’t judge whiskey by the bottle,” he sings. 

Aspects of Allen’s biography might pitch him as a country music outsider, but the songs he performed on stage at Wind Creek have helped him find a willing home both among audiences and on modern country radio. Exuding natural charm, Allen tended toward anthemic, pop-leaning country songs that often centered life’s small pleasures, be it the joys of retreating to a favorite fishing hole (“Get Country”) or the thrill of hitting the open road in a new ride, girlfriend buckled alongside in the passenger seat (“Boy Gets a Truck”). 

As familiar as he is with country music’s past, Allen never appeared beholden to it, increasingly stretching to find new shades within the music. Onstage in Pennsylvania, his songs incorporated elements of reggaeton (“Flavor,” featuring piped in vocals courtesy of Armando Christian Perez, aka. Pitbull), hip-hop (“Best Shot,” presented here in glossy, remixed form) and, most impressively, gospel, with the soaring, piano-laced “Pray” serving as a stirring showcase for Allen’s soulful vocals.

Though some of the themes in Allen’s music might be familiar – elsewhere he lauded the charms of small-town life and got lost in his feelings after knocking back a few drinks – the musician brought a welcome perspective not often heard within country music, and one which tended to reveal itself in subtle ways. On “Down Home,” Allen recalled his father spinning records by a beloved country legend on the family stereo, going on to name the often-overlooked Charley Pride rather than more well-worn touchstones like Hank, Johnny or Merle.

Pride, country music’s first Black superstar, landed eight No. 1 singles on the country charts in just two short years between 1969 and 1971, finishing his career with 29 chart-toppers  and becoming the second Black member of the Grand Ole Opry, following DeFord Bailey. And Pride managed this while navigating a country music landscape that was even more unforgiving to Black artists. When RCA released the musician’s early singles to radio, for instance, the label did so absent promo photos, advertising that “the music can speak for itself,” wary of the message white station programmers might glean from a record accompanied by the picture of a Black country singer.

Like Pride, Allen has experienced early success on the country charts. The musician’s debut single, “Big Shot,” from 2018, made him the first Black artist to begin his career with a No. 1 single on the Billboard Country Airplay chart, a feat he repeated in 2019 (“Make Me Want To”) and 2021 (“Freedom Was a Highway”).

Also like Pride, Allen has occasionally sidestepped some of the conversations centered on race that have taken place around him, discussing his challenges openly when asked, but largely keeping a focus on the music and homing in on commonalities. “There’s more love than hate out there,” he told Taste of Country earlier this year.

Regardless, even by his presence Allen has made an undeniable impact – a reality that hit home earlier this year when “American Idol” contestant Mike Parker, who is also Black, performed Allen’s “Best Shot” on the program, sharing how Allen had inspired him to pursue a career in country music as a Black artist.

Allen’s rise coincides with country music going through a larger racial reckoning that flared up in February 2021 when country superstar Morgan Wallen was captured on video using the N-word. After the footage surfaced, Wallen temporarily lost streaming and radio support, in addition to being temporarily suspended by his record label. When Wallen started his comeback with a guest appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in January, a number of marginalized artists spoke out against the organization, saying the famed stage had undercut recent anti-racist messaging in allowing him to perform.

In the aftermath, a growing number of folk- and country-adjacent Black artists have pressed the industry to abandon the established (and false) cultural narrative that country music is the domain of white people – both in terms of performers and audience – including the likes of Yola, Rhiannon Giddons, Mickey Guyton, Adia Victoria and Allison Russell, among others. 

Collectively, these musicians have drawn attention to the Black roots deeply entwined with country music’s history. In a 2018 TED Talk, musician Queen Esther traced the origins of bluegrass, country and Americana to the blues and West African musical traditions.

In April 2021, writer Holly G harnessed this growing energy with the launch of Black Opry, an organization and online community for Black country music artists and fans that she created in part to heal her strained relationship with the genre.

Jimmie Allen is among the artists profiled on Black Opry, and in the past he’s discussed the difficulties he’s experienced coming up as a Black performer in an overwhelmingly white field. (A 2021 study by musicologist Jada Watson revealed that over the past two decades just 1.5 percent of the artists with songs on country radio were artists of color.) After moving to Nashville in 2007, Allen said he spent the better part of a decade struggling to gain the industry’s attention. “At first, things weren’t going my way,” he said in a 2018 interview with The Guardian. “I was something new – no one was going to take a chance on a Black artist from Delaware.” 

Onstage in Pennsylvania in June, it was clear how much things had changed for Allen, particularly as he launched into “Best Shot,” which felt somehow more celebratory here than when it first surfaced four years earlier. 

“I’ve been knocked down more times than I can count,” Allen sang, bathed in flashing lights and standing at the center of a massive stage far bigger than some of the rooms he started his career playing in. “But that don’t matter now.” 

Andy Downing is the editor of Columbus Alive in Columbus, Ohio, and has contributed to the Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone and Spin, among other publications. He’s also a diehard Boston Celtics fan and is elated the Cleveland Indians finally made the long-overdue decision to change the team name.

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