When Jimmie Allen first began writing and singing songs after moving to Nashville, his main goal was to impress his peers. But a decade later, when it came to recording his debut album, Mercury Lane, Allen had a realization: “I used to be like, ‘Man, I wonder if this songwriter or producer would like this?’” says the 32-year-old singer. “But all respect to them, it’s not about them. When making this record, I wasn’t thinking about creating songs that I feel like other songwriters or artists or producers will approve of, because that’s not who we’re trying to market these songs to. We’re marketing these songs to music fans and music lovers.”
The change in perspective has paid off: Allen’s debut single, “Best Shot,” is currently the Number One song at country radio, a rarity for a new artist with a debut single. It’s a feat that Allen, who spent years struggling to convince anyone in town to even listen to his music, never could have accomplished even a few years ago.
Mercury Lane is a sturdy, hits-packed collection that doesn’t so much push the sonic boundaries of the genre as much as it challenges the narrowly defined model of what constitutes a next big thing in country music in 2018.
“A lot of times, the stereotype is that country music is white guys from the South,” says Allen, who grew up in southern Delaware. “There are country boys everywhere. There’s a difference between country and Southern. Southern is the South. Country is everywhere.”
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At a moment when most up-and-coming male country singers appear to follow the model either of the rural, gruff rasp of Chris Stapleton or the urbane pop balladry of Sam Hunt, Allen subscribes mainly to the latter. Mercury Lane, which feels influenced primarily by R&B-leaning country singers like Thomas Rhett and Maren Morris, is a dynamic offering that blends sensitive ballads (“Best Shot,” “Boy Gets a Truck”), mid-tempo rockers (“Underdogs), and upbeat pop numbers (“Make Me Want To,” “American Heartbreaker”).
“I purposely tried to pick songs that would sound different,” says Allen, who lists artists ranging from OneRepublic to Montgomery Gentry as influences. “People get so worried with the whole idea that an album has to sound sonically the same. No, it doesn’t! That gets boring fast. I look at an album like giving people a life: each day you want it to be something different. You want to learn from the previous day, look forward to your next day while enjoying your current day.”
Allen can trace his musical perspective largely to his rural Delaware upbringing, where the singer grew up listening exclusively to country and Christian music until he discovered hip-hop and rock in high school. His father, a veteran who worked as a handyman, taught Allen about Eighties country (Alabama, Sawyer Brown, Aaron Tippin), while Allen also soaked in the sounds of both gospel and contemporary Christian, from Kirk Franklin and CeCe Winans to the Crabb Family and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. He subtly incorporates those gospel sounds into some of his recordings, like a one-off cover of Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There” released via Spotify and the choir that appears on Mercury Lane.
Mercury Lane takes its name from the street where Allen lived in Milton, Delaware, which he describes as an idyllic small town where nobody locked their doors. “If you would’ve asked me to describe Milton as a kid, I would’ve said, ‘It’s the best place on earth,’” says Allen. “Ask me as an adult, and I would say it’s a small town full of corn fields and soybean fields, where everybody knows everybody. I remember not even having to lock our doors growing up. Whatever house you were close to, if you were thirsty, you’d just walk in and get something to drink. That’s how it was, and the town is still like that today.”
Allen’s rise comes during a time of relatively increased exposure for artists of color in country music, with “Best Shot” topping the charts the same week that Kane Brown earned an all-genre Number One with his second album Experiment. Allen, an easy-going, affable conversationalist, becomes most enthusiastic during a recent interview with Rolling Stone Country when discussing “All Tractors Ain’t Green,” the closing track on Mercury Lane that tackles his outsider status in country.
“I feel like I have an obligation as a black man in country music to show other people that look like me that, ‘Hey, it’s cool,’” says Allen, who is quick to rattle off the relatively short list of black country singers who came before him. “A lot of times we’re more confident to jump into something when you see other people that look like us. Tons of black people love and grew up on country music, but a lot of times it’s hard to kind of step out as a black country artist because nobody looks like you.”
Now with “Best Shot” atop the charts, he’s become the first black artist in the history of country music to earn a Number One with a debut career single. And he hopes to see more artists of color enter the genre.
“It’s kind of like testing out the waters,” he says. “‘Hey y’all, the water’s warm out here. Not too deep. It’s fine, come on in!”