Gary Allan relives his beach boy past
Story by Tom Roland Photo by Tony Baker
Good lookin' mohawk comin' up here." Gary Allan nods toward a stoplight on the street corner. He's driving his Ford Bronco after visiting the La Mirada home where he grew up. Crossing the street, a skinny, punkish kid sports a row of spiked hair -- and a heavy black outfit, despite the blazing Southern California sun.
"Awful hot for that leather jacket," Gary observes. "High price to pay to be cool."
A sight like this is run-of-the-mill around here. It was in this cultural blender that Gary found his rough-edged voice as a country singer. "When I played out here, I always had the hard-core cowboys in my crowd -- and the mohawks and the punks," he remembers.
You won't find any mohawks in the suburban La Mirada house where Gary was raised. His retired dad, Harley, maintains a small, tidy garden at the back of his corner lot. His mom, Mary, decorated her kitchen with Tweety bird collectibles, and the living room showcases Native American knickknacks. Family photos abound -- pictures of Gary, his older brother Greg, who's a general manager for a motor-home dealer, and older sister Tammy, who drives trucks with her husband.
The green-carpeted living room includes a veritable shrine to the family's youngest son. The alcove includes pictures of Gary during his formative years with his band
The Honky Tonk Wranglers, plus framed memorabilia from his recording career - which now boasts four albums and hits like his current Top 10, "The One."
"We never, ever thought that he would be where he is," his mom says, smiling. "But we always knew he had talent."
His family, in fact, helped mold Gary's musical tastes.
He opens the door to a '70s stereo cabinet to show the albums he was raised on. His mom listened to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash At San Quentin and Elvis Presley's Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite. Harley took Gary to his first concert, an Ernest Tubb show.
His dad was also one of Gary's first fellow musicians. They played together in this same alcove, often while Mary cooked dinner. At 12, Gary talked his way into a two-hour audition at a nearby bar, and ended up playing local clubs with his father until he was old enough to go it alone.
"I believe the law was you had to be six inches off the ground to be considered part of the entertainment," Gary smiles. "So as long as they had a stage, I was legal in there."
Even then, women were attracted to Gary -- but his father's presence helped keep things from getting out of control. "There were all these old ladies hitting on me," Gary laughs. "He'd always be out there swooping me out of a crowd."
"All these ladies had been drinkin'," Harley recalls. "They thought he was cute, and he was a good singer, and they wanted to take him home. I used to say, 'What's the matter with the old man?' They could take me home, but nobody wanted me!" he laughs.
After saying his goodbyes, Gary grabs his dog, Daisy, and heads to La Serna, his old high school in nearby Whittier. His years in school were hectic -- but not because he was saddled with homework.
"I played music three to five nights a week, seriously, since I was 12, and then I'd basically surf before school," he remembers.
Even then his music was getting noticed. He received an offer from a record company while still in high school, though his father convinced him to turn it down. "I figured he was 15 years old, and I wanted him to finish his schooling," explains Harley. "I told him, 'If you get an offer now, you'll get an offer later.' And he did."
Looking back, Gary's convinced his dad was on target. "His saying was, 'You need to learn to play for the people that love you, the people that hate you, and the people that couldn't care less. Then you'll figure out how to play for you, 'cause you ain't found Gary yet.' And he was right. I think I did imitate a lot of people then, and after I played the bars for five or six more years, I settled into my own thing."
School wasn't Gary's thing -- but surfing was, a hobby he started when he was small.
"I'm not exaggerating, I maybe went to school twice a week," Gary grins, "and I even had teachers who would laugh if I showed up on good days. They'd go, 'What? Is there no surf?' But my parents were always cool with it, 'cause my grades were decent."
Still, his parents weren't quite as understanding as Gary wants to believe. "We didn't know the extent [of Gary's class-cutting]," Mary says in hindsight.
Even in his surf-crazy youth, Gary got mostly As and Bs by cramming before tests, and especially excelled in math. And he still found plenty of time for sports -- he played catcher in baseball, center and middle linebacker in football, joined the La Serna Lancers high school volleyball team, spent some time boxing (he broke three fingers) and earned a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do.
"I think the only reason I never got my black belt is 'cause I wouldn't pay for the test," he remembers. "It cost, like, $400. I was 20, and it wasn't worth $400 to me to wear a different-colored belt."
Gary also spent three summers working cattle. The family had a ranch in Lancaster, Calif., 85 miles north of La Mirada. Just 10 or 11 years old at the time, he worked right alongside his dad.
"Gary and Greg would just jump right in the middle of those steers and wrestle 'em to the ground," Harley recalls. "And then we'd get over there and brand 'em and turn 'em loose, and then they'd grab the next one. They were lovin' it."
Gary drives from the school to his surfing grounds in Huntington Beach, near his current home, stopping for lunch with friend Steve Giese. Later he winds his way across the Pacific Coast Highway to the sand.
Surfing, he suggests, is the perfect sport for him. He sees himself as a loner -- a free-thinker -- and his mom agrees with that assessment.
"He never wanted to join the crowd," Mary insists. "He was always on his own, had his own ideas. He had his own way he wanted to do things, his own way he wanted to dress."
Which is likely why he approved of the kid with the mohawk and leather jacket. Gary's uniform of choice these days is "surf trunks and flip-flops," but the attitude's not much different. He's not necessarily a rebel, but he's certainly not like any other country star working today.
"We always told him, 'Push for what you want,'" Harley recalls. "'Don't do it somebody else's way. You do it your way.'"
That didn't make Gary's life any easier once he started working in Nashville, although it's helped him in the long run.
"I got labeled as hard-headed really quick, for havin' a chip on my shoulder about how we did stuff," Gary says. "I don't have arguments anymore. They kinda let me do what I want."