When it comes to gig venues, it’s not often you hear the words care home and The Cavern Club in the same sentence.
For US artist Jay Allen however, these are just two of the many highlights of his recent mini tour of England and Wales.
Well-known in the US as a philanthropist and major fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association, Jay hit the headlines after his 2018 hit single Blank Stares, written as a powerful tribute to his mother who battled early-onset Alzheimer’s, became a viral sensation, amassing almost two million streams on Spotify alone.
Since then, he has appeared on US Season 22 of The Voice – a stunning version of Cody Johnson’s heartbreaker ‘Til You Can’t earning him chair turns from Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani. Recently signed to ONErpm worldwide record label, his most recent release Jello Shot has gone down a storm.
It’s hard to believe that for a long time Jay doubted his ability to make it as a country music artist. But if he didn’t have faith in himself, plenty of others did.
Indeed, it is thanks to his ex-wife that he finally took a chance on moving to Nashville; it is thanks to the hospitality of a pastor and his family who housed him for his first four months for free; and it is thanks to Billy Currington who, when he was on the verge of giving up, told him to stay.
“I didn’t want to move to Nashville, I heard so many horror stories of it not working out, dreams crushed, time lost, having to turn around with your tail between your legs or wasting a good proportion of your life chasing a dream that’s never going to happen, so I told myself I’m not going to do that,” he says.
“I was working at churches as a music director and worship leader and I thought that was my path, until one day my then ex-wife (we got married very young and just grew apart) woke me. She did something very selfless and said ‘Jay, you should move to Nashville, otherwise you never will, you’ll always regret that if you don’t, I believe you deserve to be there’.”
“I am so glad, I would never have went, so it’s odd how things happen. It doesn’t really make sense when you’re looking through the windshield, but if you stop and look through the rearview (mirror) it all makes sense.”
Jay duly headed to Nashville, working a full-time job, writing every day and within two months started a band and was offered a deal, but his worst fears were realised when the deal fell through and the band broke up.
“I played what was going to be my last show to five people with their backs turned. I didn’t see, but the country artist Billy Currington was sitting at the bar. After I played, he approached me, shook my hand and put his arm round me and said ‘Jay, I just watched your whole set. I’ve never heard of you, I have no idea who you are – just stay.’
“He said ‘the last man standing wins’ and those are the words I live by now, that’s when I decided to start fighting for myself.”
Good advice, but although his career started to climb, Jay says he still felt “pretty empty” – then his Mum got sick. He wrote Blank Stares and the rest is history.
“Everything started clicking, I knew, this is my purpose,” he says. “It started out of fierce anger, I started saying yes to everything to fight for her and when she passed, I really went to war. I always say this on stage, we’ve turned a really sad thing into something beautiful, I’m really proud of it and I’m now in a really happy, good place.”
Off the back of the success of Blank Stares, Jay became known for his fundraising, admitting: “For a long time I was basically a philanthropist and I’ll always be that, playing charity events and benefits and galas to help raise money and awareness for the fight against Alzheimer’s and for care givers.
“But after I went on and did this little show called The Voice, other people saw me in a different light and I saw myself in a different light. I knew I was becoming an artist but I don’t think I fully believed until I watched myself on TV, surrounded by family and friends. I’m like, ‘you know what, I am an artist, I do have something to say, I am ready for this and I’m gonna fight for that.
“I got offered a record deal with ONErpm and one of the conversations was ‘you stand for something and you always will’, I think I did it backwards. Most artists would get deals and then figure out what they stand for. I did that first and thank God I took the hard road, which I’m thankful for now, even though it wasn’t fun in the beginning.”
It was the record company that had a word in his ear, telling him that while he has all those ‘heartfelt’ songs, they saw him as a fun guy covered in tattoos – which led neatly on to the release of Jello Shot (his manager Stacy now nicknames him Jello Jay) and the latest Heart Ain’t Going To Break Itself, released on August 4 while Jay was in the UK.
The latter came about after his buddy (Ben Stennis), who co-wrote ‘Til You Can’t, pitched him the song. Jay adds: “I was stuck in my ways of you’re not really an artist unless you create your own music. I came up in the community of songwriters in Nashville, I’ve been that guy writing two songs a day on Music Row for five years, it is an exhausting and relentless job and there is little reward, so I decided to start listening to outside songs.”
The fans certainly have taken it to their hearts and Jay was especially excited because, on the very day we met, he had been to BBC Radio Cambridge for an interview and, while waiting for a taxi afterwards, heard Heart Ain’t Going To Break Itself played for the very first time on the radio.
His first UK trip was courtesy of an invitation from Welsh charity Cymryd Rhan to headline its annual Party on the Porth music festival and he also took in a series of smaller gigs in Liverpool, London and Cambridge.
Together with his guitarist (and fellow songwriter) Hunter Bishop, the pair certainly made the most of their time. Asked about the highlights, Jay says: “Nick Evans, from the charity, made us feel like family, he didn’t just hire us to play a gig, we went to a care facility to meet the residents and that may trump it all for me.
“You know, we’ve played on so many stages across the States but when Hunter started playing a little lick on his guitar, an older lady sitting next to him said ‘I love that’. Imagine all the music she’s heard in her life and all the bands….we held the hands of complete strangers, it was very, very emotional.”
A self-confessed fan of The Beatles, Hunter says: “Playing at The Cavern Club in Liverpool was one of my highlights, first of all, the history of that place – for musicians it’s the closest thing to the Holy Grail. I love The Beatles and I know the influence they’ve had on music, not just in the West, but all over the world. It was very, very special and that was a bucket list time for me.”
Jay agrees and says it was “such an honour” to play there. “I’ve played at the White House and been on so many beautiful prestigious stages but that just about made the top of the list. I’ve never seen Hunter a little nervous, but I think he just cared a lot.
“You know in Nashville they’re like ‘oh, this is where Jason Aldean got founded’ but I don’t have any friends who can say they’ve played on the stage where The Beatles got started.
“Our new song only just came out and we walked through the door and these two ladies stopped us and said they’d been there for four hours waiting for us. They stood right in the front and sang every word – you don’t always get that in the States, especially for new songs.”
Jay calls it a “pinch yourself feeling” to know that something (his Blank Stares song) has reached so many. “You get messages or read comments online, but when you meet the people, and see how they respond, how they sing the words back and embrace you like they’ve known you for a lifetime…then it becomes a reality and for me, that’s the true power of music.”
He has teamed up with RaeLynn to write an ”awesome” duet, planned for release at the end of September and then he’ll be working on new music timed for the first quarter of 2024.
He’s planning a writer’s retreat in January to try and write a whole record in just a week and he’s certainly been practicing. On a rare half day off in Wales, he and Hunter sat down and “unexpectedly” wrote a song called Four Thousand Miles, which might well be on the record.
Fans of Jay on social media will know that he played it for his wife, fellow country singer Kylie Morgan. In a touching moment, he shares that actually it came from a “hard conversation” between the pair, something he blames on the fact they miss each other so much because of the time they both spend touring.
Back in 2020, Kylie was billed to take part in that year’s covid-hit C2C, but instead spent just 36 hours in the UK before having to head back home. I ask Jay if he sees them coming back together, to which he says: “If the stars align, it would be cool,” admitting that the number of requests are increasing and, while they are used to doing their own thing, they also have a story to tell and can be a “package deal”.
The couple first met at his publisher’s party in Nashville, when Kylie’s manager invited her on the basis that there would be “free red wine”. Fast forward to now and he proudly shows me the upside-down triangle which marks their story and became the emblem for their wedding. The three points represent the Iowa town where Jay grew up, Kylie’s Oklahoma home-town, and Nashville itself – the clever part being that the journey between each of points is almost exactly 700 miles. Depicted through the middle of the tattoo is the road that led them to meet each other.
For the final question, I asked Jay what he wants to be seen for – is it the music or is it the philanthropy?
“It’s funny, I don’t really care about that, I care about how I see others,” he concludes. “I want to be a safe place for people, whether they’re reading or watching something about me, or at a show, I want them to have an experience that is ‘I’m going to take you on a ride where you’ll have the time of your life, you’re going to be laughing and dancing and having your drink and then I’ll take you to church afterwards.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re always the last people to leave the venue. I want a complete stranger to feel comfortable enough at the end of my show to lay their head on my shoulder and cry, or tell me their entire story whether sad or beautiful. To have a sense of belonging and understanding truthful, real life feeling for them, that they are not the only person who is going through what they’re going through.
“People say all they want to do is be famous and I think that’s so empty, that’s the last desire in my mind. If there’s some spotlight on me, I think that’s really cool and fun and we all want that in some sense, but I think it’s our duty to deflect it onto others to help them.”
Phew – let’s hope he carries plenty of tissues in his back pocket.
Cymryd Rhan (www.cymryd-rhan.org) supports people in Wales who are vulnerable and disadvantaged by reason of their learning and/or physical disability, mental health or age.
To find out more about Jay Allen, visit www.jayallenofficial.com