It wasn’t long ago that Jimmie Allen was living in his car. Today the 36-year-old country singer-songwriter is nominated for Best New Artist at next month's Grammy Awards. While his success might seem rapid, Allen’s road has been a long one.
Growing up in Milton, Delaware, Allen moved to Nashville in 2007 to pursue a career in country music. After gigging around the area for years and getting cut from the 10th season of "American Idol," he was signed to Stoney Creek Records. Songs like "Home to You" and "Blue Jean Baby" were his first releases in the fall of 2017. A year later Allen dropped his debut album, "Mercury Lane," carrying the singles, "Make Me Want To" and "Best Shot." But things really kicked into high gear in 2020 with the release of "Bettie James" followed by a revamped version, "Bettie James (Gold Edition)" in 2021 featuring collaborations with country A-listers like Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, Tim McGraw and Keith Urban. He even competed on the 30th season of "Dancing with the Stars" with Emma Slater and co-hosted this year's Academy of Country Music Awards with Dolly Parton and Gabby Barrett.
Newsday’s David J. Criblez spoke with Allen, just ahead of his March 18 concert at Mulcahy’s Pub & Concert Hall in Wantagh, about why he chose country music, how he got discovered and what he learned from his "American Idol" experience.
How are you dealing with all this massive attention?
Honestly, I don’t feel any different. I’m still just doing everything I love whether it’s on a massive scale or a small scale. The only thing that’s really changed is the lens that’s been put on me. I’m just the same guy who used to live in his car from Delaware.
How did you come about living in your car?
I was living in a trailer in Nashville with no electricity. The lady wanted to sell the trailer, but I couldn’t afford it … so it was either move back to Delaware or stay in Nashville and live in my car. I did that for five months and stayed focused on my goal.
What was it like growing up in Delaware?
It was cool. I grew up in this town of 700 people. Our big thing was fishing, dirt biking, shooting guns and setting stuff on fire.
Was there a specific career-making moment when things turned around for you?
In 2016, I played this little venue in Nashville called Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant. I got discovered by my now manager Ash Bowers. He came up to me, said he liked the music and wanted to work together.
When did you first get exposed to country music?
When I was six, my dad used to listen to Aaron Tippin, Sawyer Brown, Little Texas, Jo Dee Messina, John Michael Montgomery, Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson. But I didn’t play guitar until 2010 in Nashville. I was a drummer first, then piano player, then I started singing. I just wanted to try it out. I do it because I love it and things just kind of happened.
Why country over rock, pop, hip-hop or R&B?
It’s a genre of music where you could just go and be yourself. I can talk about my small town, put on my boots, chew my tobacco and still wear my chains. People can listen to my style of country music and take away whatever they want to take away from it.
On your latest album, "Bettie James" you collaborated with a variety of country stars. How did that concept develop?
Each time I wrote a song I’d go home, sip a little whiskey and listen to the song over and over again. I’d let the song tell me whose voice I heard on it. For "Freedom Was a Highway" I heard Brad Paisley’s voice. With "Made For These" I heard Tim McGraw. Me and Nelly actually wrote "Good Times Roll" together. I just reached out to each one, but I had no idea they’d say yes. I was just hoping they would.
You won two Country Music Association awards and are currently up for a Grammy for Best New Artist. Was it shocking to get those accolades?
For sure, it definitely was. Whenever you get an award or even a nomination, it’s shocking. I never really cared about them and I still don’t really put that much attention on them now. I just do what I love. You can worry yourself to death saying, "I need to win this award! I need to win that award!" But, you can’t control the voting and I can’t worry about stuff I can’t control. But I’m thankful for the awards I won and for those I’m nominated for.
How would you describe the atmosphere at your live shows?
It’s a mix of everything — high energy and there’s motivational parts. No matter what genre of music you listen to or how your day is going, there will be a moment in the show for everyone. We have a good time on stage.
What did you learn from your "American Idol" experience?
I learned that there’s a lot of great singers from small towns. You have to do more than be a great singer. It’s about working hard, writing better songs and putting on a good show. There are so many things you have to do to be successful. Being a good singer isn’t enough.