With his new single, “Down Home,” Jimmie Allen provides a lens into his personal history, giving the listener a sense of a father who instilled some of the character that contributed to Jimmie’s current status as a Grammy nominee for best new artist.
“Down Home” captures the traits of his father, Big Jim Allen, who died in September 2019, less than two years after his son stepped onto the national stage. The song portrays Dad as an athlete (the “No. 15” reference in verse two reflects his baseball background), a joker, an outgoing soul and a bundle of positivity. In more ways than not, Jimmie seems like a chip off the old block.
“He was all about hard work, all about not making excuses and about following whatever it is you want to do 100%,” Jimmie recalls. “Whatever thing you have to do, don’t just go about it a little bit or halfway. Go all the way.”
Allen did that with “Down Home,” though he understandably did it in his own time. Following Big Jim’s passing, he knew he wanted to write about his experiences, but recovering from losing a parent requires patience.
“I just emotionally wasn’t ready to write about it,” he says, remembering the weeks and months after Big Jim’s death. “I definitely wasn’t ready to go out every night and have to sing it. But, you know, now I am.”
His friends helped him get there. Several of his frequent co-writers knew Allen wanted to address the subject, though they were less patient about it. In spring 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, Rian Ball sat at his dining room table and pulled together a musical track that he hoped might address the loss but still convey a positivity. “We kind of just wanted to write a song that musically would be really universal and it didn’t have to be slow or downtempo,” remembers Ball. “We could write a song that was more of a celebration of life and less of a sad part of this.”
Ball, who plays piano, used a plug-in to mimic the sound of an arpeggiated guitar and developed a musical bed that covered two stanzas: a shiny, ethereal verse and a moderately anthemic chorus. He sent the track to co-writer Cameron Bedell, who came up with an appropriate set of lyrics in a flurry of inspiration on April 17, 2020, picturing Big Jim’s soul in heaven watching his son “down home” on Earth.
“I write on my own very seldomly, but out of nowhere, I felt like God literally just gave me this song,” Bedell says. “I mean, I wrote what was essentially the first verse and chorus right then and there in about 20 or 30 minutes.”
Much of it was tailored to what he knew of Big Jim, including his love of fishing. Bedell imagined Allen’s dad dropping a line in a “golden pond” not far from the streets of gold. That line might also have some subconscious roots in a Jane Fonda movie he has never seen: Bedell has an album cover from the soundtrack of the 1982 film On Golden Pond visible in his studio.
But it took some time for Allen to react. They sent him their work, and after several months without a response, they played “Down Home” for another artist who wanted to finish writing it with them. They gave Allen a heads-up that they might move on, and that was when they got their response. “Jimmie jumped back in and was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no way. That’s my song. Like, I love that song,’” says Bedell. “We got together that very week.”
Allen brought along his road bassist, Tate Howell, around September 2020. They tidied up a couple of spots in the existing stanzas but concentrated on verse two, focused mostly on how Allen was recovering after Big Jim’s passing. They referenced the marriage and child that Dad had missed, and it included a mention of listening to Charley Pride — Big Jim had introduced his son to Pride’s music as a kid, and Allen had already been scheduled to sing with Pride at the Country Music Association Awards that November in what proved to be Pride’s last public performance.
When they were finished writing, Ball used the existing tracks as the basis for a full demo. He brought Allen back to work on the vocal, which was understandably emotional, and therefore required them to stop several times. At the bridge, Allen riffed a new one. Instead of using it for a musical detour, he treated it more like a pause before finishing the sonic journey.
“Jimmie got on the mic, and I remember as he was singing, he said, ‘Daddy, don’t you worry, everything, everything’s good down home,’ ” Ball says. “Inspiration hit, and, just kind of stream of consciousness, it came right out.”
Howell and Allen went on vacation in Mexico with their wives shortly after, and impatience set in again as they waited for the demo. “We were just hounding Rian every day,” says Howell. “We’d drink a couple of piña coladas and start calling Rian and messaging Rian and not leaving him alone about it. I think Rian especially wanted to make sure that the mix and everything was right about it — but because we hounded him so hard, he was forced to send over what he had. What he had was great.”
It was good enough that producer Ash Bowers (Matt Stell, George Birge) made only minor changes to “Down Home” when they cut the final version around August 2021 at Sound Stage on Nashville’s Music Row. Ilya Toshinsky’s acoustic guitar converted the demo’s programmed first-verse arpeggios into a more emotional representation of heaven, while Evan Hutchings’ big drum sound and Justin Ostrander’s slide guitar set an arrangement that was suitable for an arena. “The core of it needed to be just an organic band recording,” says Bowers. “You just can’t get that sound without doing it with a band tracking it live.”
Cutting the vocal wasn’t nearly as difficult as it might have been at an earlier juncture. It had been nearly a year since Big Jim’s death and at least eight months since Pride’s passing. Allen gave it extra attention, but not because it was painful. “He’s good enough to make two or three passes and it sounds like it’s almost perfect,” Bowers says, “but on this one, we did take a little extra time because Jimmie wanted it to be right.”
The first live performance of “Down Home,” though, was a challenge. He played it during a downpour on Aug. 7, 2021, at the inaugural Bettie James Festival in Delaware, and he had to stop and restart several times when “Down Home” recognized the vocational successes Allen was experiencing.
“I remember him singing that line ‘I promise I’m working with this guitar as hard as I can,’ and then these emotions coming over him, and then him getting back up on the mic and singing, ‘I promise I’m working with this guitar as hard as I can,’ and then breaking down again,” says Howell. “I think we sang that line like three times.”
Stoney Creek waited over a year for Allen’s duet with Brad Paisley, “Freedom Was a Highway,” to trek to No. 1 before issuing “Down Home” to country radio via PlayMPE on March 7. It debuted at No. 50 on Country Airplay and goes to No. 48 on the chart dated April 2. As it presents listeners a little insight into Allen’s father, it also indicates that Big Jim’s transition to the afterlife hasn’t changed his role in his son’s life.
“He was great at letting me know he was proud of me, you know; he wasn’t afraid to say it,” Allen notes. “That ‘I hope I’m making you proud’ line is more of a challenge to myself to always push myself and be the best and make him proud.”