Makin' Tracks: Jimmie Allen and Brad Paisley's 'Highway' Takes (Musical) Road Less Traveled

John Shearer

Jimmie Allen

Allen's latest is a nostalgia-soaked "windows-down kind of song" with a ripping guitar solo and a chord progression that never quite gets resolved.

When Jimmie Allen assembled his current seven-cut EP, Bettie James, he called on a bundle of peers — including Darius Rucker, Nelly, Tim McGraw and Charley Pride — to bring multiple sonic shades to his sound.

And when Brad Paisley joined in as a guest on "Freedom Was a Highway," Allen also got to live out the role of another fellow artist who was otherwise absent from the lineup.

"I always wanted to be like a darker-complected Keith Urban, but I don't play the guitar that well," deadpans Allen. "And I'm a little taller."

"Freedom" is indeed a little Urban-esque: It includes a bold guitar solo from Paisley and a key noodling banjo riff while celebrating the unfettered excitement of youth a la Urban's "Wasted Time." But "Freedom" is also a little bit Jackson Browne, with mentions of wheels and pavement symbolizing the same late-teens period referenced in "Running on Empty."

"Freedom Was a Highway" has a yearning, driving power that would easily fit the soundtrack of a 1980s coming-of-age movie, and Allen rightfully takes that assessment as a compliment.

"Oh yeah," he says. "That's my vibe."

Allen found "Freedom" in 2018 when he got a last-minute invitation to join songwriter-producer Ash Bowers ("Prayed for You") and songwriter Matt Rogers ("We Went," "The Long Way") at the Wide Open publishing office, then housed at the historic RCA building on Nashville's Music Row. Bowers and Rogers already had some music going on acoustic guitars, playing block chords while tapping a four-on-the-floor backbeat with their boots. In a rarity, they built a progression that starts on a five chord, begging from the outset for a resolution that's never fully granted.

"We don't really use the one chord a lot," says Rogers. "It's like five, six, four the whole song, which is really cool because the entire time, it just kind of hangs. Like, it adds to the tension. You're kind of always waiting for the release of it, and it doesn't happen."

They had parts of the first verse and the chorus by the time Allen arrived, and though none of them is sure how the "Freedom Was a Highway" title appeared, it fit the ever-rolling excitement in the non-resolving progression. In turn, the story fit the mood by covering a period of life near the end of high school when the world is filled with transition and possibility.

"It's that little window — from [age] 18 to 22 or 17 to 23, whatever it is —where a lot of life happens in a car or in a truck," says Rogers. "You're driving with friends, hooking up with a girl or driving across country. There's just so much life that happens."

For Allen, the idea took him back figuratively to his high school in Lewes, Del., nine miles from the Delaware Bay. The locale had its temptations, and partaking of them was part of the experience of that period.

"I started just thinking about when life was simple and the hardest decision you had to make was what kind of cereal you wanted to eat," says Allen. "Love wasn't a fairy tale or an actor or an actress you're in love with on television. It's literally the girl next door you had a crush on, 'cause growing up, I had a crush on my next-door neighbor … Junior, senior year, we'd leave during lunch and go to the beach, go to Arby's, hang out, make it back to school on time 80% of the time — OK, 70% of the time."

Allen streamlined the first verse, convincing his co-writers that they could get to the chorus faster, scrapping plans for a pre-chorus and replacing it with a single back-to-the-future sort of line: "I wish I could go back to those days." As a result, the song was short enough as they neared the end to provide space for a bridge. That section recognizes the 17-year-old is "wrapped up in now," living perhaps more successfully than he will when he enters full adulthood.

"You take on all these gigs, and it's so hard often to just stop and enjoy the moment, and just enjoy the ride while you're in it," notes Bowers. "I tell my kids that: ‘All right, let's not worry about the next thing right now. Just think about right now and enjoy this moment that we have.' "

The power of "Freedom" became apparent when they recorded a full-band demo weeks later with Rogers singing lead while Allen was on the road. It set the '80s-rock tone for the master session, held in 2019 at Nashville's Sound Stage. Ilya Toshinsky developed a noodling banjo lick that became a signature, similar in function to Kyle Cook's opening riff on Matchbox Twenty's "Unwell." ("Jimmy loves big guitars, and he's a huge Matchbox Twenty fan and OneRepublic fan," says Bowers.) Drummer Evan Hutchings gave "Freedom" a big, spacious backbeat.

Jimmie Allen's Billboard Live At-Home Performance | Billboard

Months later, Allen was invited to Paisley's house to hang out and sing with McGraw and Rucker. The night was inspirational.

"We're all singing together, but it kind of felt like an out-of-body experience," recalls Allen. "These are three guys I grew up listening to. They pay more money in taxes than I make in a year."

That experience convinced Allen to turn his next project into a series of collaborations. And he envisioned Paisley as the perfect foil for "Freedom Was a Highway." Paisley cut his vocal part and a soaring guitar solo at his home studio after the coronavirus pandemic broke out, singing an invigorating, ultra-high note at the start of that solo break.

"It was a home run," assesses Bowers. "He really, really did an amazing job."

Stoney Creek considered a ballad for the next single, though Allen was insistent that the energy of "Freedom" was a good change-up after two previous ballads. Additionally, its uplift is likely to resonate in the coming weeks and months when vaccines allow people to live a little more freely than has been required during the pandemic.

Allen announced "Freedom" as a single when he performed it on ABC's Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve from Times Square. The label released it to radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 12, and it went to terrestrial radio stations on Feb. 1. The track currently sits at No. 57 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart.

Friends have told Allen it's a "windows-down kind of song," and to be sure, its forward-leaning, never-resolving nature provides an enormous surface energy. But that message about living for the moment — mirroring one of Urban's favorite topics — makes "Freedom" a country-rocker with a deeper value for anyone who cares to take the song to heart.

"Most of the time," surmises Allen, "if you're just present and just show up consistently, things will happen for you."

In that scenario, living with the uncertainty of now can indeed provide resolution.

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.