At 20 years old, Jimmie Allen said goodbye to his childhood home in Delaware and moved 762 miles to Nashville, where he worked three jobs and lived out of his car while pursuing his dreams of being a country singer. His dedication paid off: Now 33, Allen has checked off bucket-list items like playing Music City’s iconic Grand Ole Opry (which dozens of hometown family members and friends, including his kindergarten teacher, attended) and landing his first single “Best Shot,” dedicated to his four-year-old son, on the Billboard Hot 100.
With his debut album Mercury Lane — named after the street he grew up on — out today (Oct. 12), Allen isn’t wasting any time finding his next hit. Below, the honey-voiced crooner explains how he stayed positive while trying to get his start in Nashville, how being a father affects his songwriting and why it’s about time the country music industry embraces diversity.
At age 20, you followed your dreams to Nashville. What motivated you to make that jump?
Once I realized that I’m going to do the country-rock thing, I had to go to Nashville. I literally just made the decision to go, packed up my car, and left. When people set a date on something, they never do it. How many people say, “I’m moving next week,” or “I’m moving next year?” I’m like, “Just go!” It was exciting to get a chance to really start chasing the dream and living it. People ask, “Were you nervous?” I’m like, “Nah! Nervous about what?”
I lived in this trailer for a couple months. I had a pet mouse for like, a week. [Laughs.] After that, I lived in my car for a little bit. I was going to writers’ rounds, introducing myself to people.
What do you consider your big break?
I signed my pub deal [in] 2016. I was going to my gym to cancel my membership because I couldn’t afford it anymore, but a guy that had my old job — his name is Mike Giangreco, he now works for Big Loud — introduced me to a producer via text named Chris Caminiti. Chris said, “Hey man, I’m having a writers’ round, do you want to play it?” I had three jobs at the time, so I called out all my jobs. After the show, [songwriter and Wide Open Music founder] Ash Bowers comes up to me and says, “Hey man, do you have a deal?”
That night, while I was driving home, I sent him 20 songs on email. We met two days later. Ash was like, “Dude, we love your stuff. We want to offer you a pub deal.” Next week, I was able to quit all three jobs and start working on music.
February 2017, I played a showcase. A few [industry folks] came out, including [Broken Bow executive vp] Jon Loba and Josh Garrett and Brendan Rich from United Talent Agency. I signed with Broken Bow, then I signed with United Talent Agency. And Ash went from being my publisher to my producer to my manager.
Why do you think your music is connecting with people?
I just try to create music from an honest place. Friends of mine have a phrase called “deep fried veggies.” It means that when you hear the beat and the groove, that’s deep fried — something that tastes good, that pulls you in. But when you actually listen to what’s being said, that’s the veggies — that’s something your soul might need.
What inspired “Best Shot?”
We wanted to write a song about taking each day as an opportunity to be better for a person you have in your life. I have a [four-year-old] son, so for me, every day is an opportunity to be a better dad. I have siblings that look up to me, so the fear of them giving up on their dream because I gave up on mine is what kept me going for so many years. Ash was like, “why don’t we just strip everything back to where people can focus on your voice and what you’re saying?” We went in, and you have the version you have now.
What do you think when you see videos online of fans playing “Best Shot” at their weddings?
I played this show in Indianapolis the other day, and this guy comes up to me backstage like, “this is my wife. Bro, I sang her your song at our wedding.” She pulled a video out of him singing “Best Shot” to her at the wedding. He was like, “Bro, I need you to release an instrumental. You know how hard I had to work [for] these musicians to learn how to play ‘Best Shot?’” [Laughs.]
Does your son have any inkling of your fame?
He has no clue and he does not care. [Laughs.] We had a show in Alabama, and after I got done singing, he’s like, “Daddy, I have a question. Do these people want you yelling at them for that long?” I was like, “I’m not yelling, dude, I’m singing!” He’s a clown.
Why did you name your debut album after the street that you grew up on?
The album encompasses life lessons: being patient, staying motivated, and also just having a good time. I was taught all of those qualities while living on Mercury Lane. What better way than naming an album the place that helped me become the man I am today?
Why do you think it’s important for the country genre to embrace diversity?
I feel like country music fans have always wanted it. There’s a lot of black people that are listening to country music. For a long time, people thought white people didn’t listen to hip-hop, because most hip-hop artists were black. When there’s people that look like you in the format you love, it’s a lot easier to kind of step out and say, “I love this, too.”
I gotta give credit to one of the first country artists, Chuck Berry. Country stemmed from blues and then went super western. And now, it’s just making a big old circle. I’m glad that finally, there are different styles of country. You can go from Thomas Rhett to Jon Pardi to Tim McGraw to Florida Georgia Line. That’s just going to help expand and extend the livelihood of country music altogether. As a black man in country music, people have shown me nothing but love.