Songwriting great Harley Allen ‘walked his way or no way at all’

Posted on March 31, 2011 by Peter Cooper/The Tennessean

Renowned songwriter Harley Allen, the son of bluegrass great “Red” Allen and the prolific writer of country hits for Alan Jackson, Joe Nichols, Blake Shelton, John Michael Montgomery and many more, died of cancer Wednesday morning at his Brentwood home.

Mr. Allen was 55 and was known in Nashville for his songwriting success — he was a BMI songwriter of the year in 2005 — and for his near-total disregard for political correctness or industry convention. He was outspoken and sometimes outlandish, yet he retained the respect and admiration of many of country and bluegrass music’s major figures.

“I always liked seeing his name on a song: It was always something I wished I’d written,” said Jackson, who recorded nine Allen songs, including Top 10 country radio hit “Everything I Love” and No. 1 smash “Between the Devil and Me.”

Ricky Skaggs, who performs Mr. Allen’s “A Simple Life” at each concert, is another friend and fan.

“He was one of the most talented guys in this town,” Skaggs said. “Such a great singer and player, and as a songwriter the guy was brilliant. I loved him.”

Raised in Dayton, Ohio, Mr. Allen was a musician from an early age. Father Red Allen was a groundbreaking bluegrass singer and an integral part of some of the Osbourne Brothers’ best-loved records. As a teen and young adult, Mr. Allen performed in a bluegrass band with his brothers Neal, Ronnie and Greg while developing his songwriting craft.

“He was writing two new songs every week that were a combination of Hank Williams and the Beatles,” said musician and journalist Larry Nager. “They had unusual chords, but the sound was also country to the bone.”

In the 1980s, Nager played bass for Mr. Allen and Mike Lilly in the bluegrass-based Harley Allen-Mike Lilly Band. But by 1990, Mr. Allen was in Nashville, writing songs that soon gained notice and developing a reputation as a charismatic, idiosyncratic force.

“He was an original, who walked his way or no way at all,” said Jamie Johnson, a friend and a member of bluegrass band The Grascals. That group’s recording of Mr. Allen’s “Me and John and Paul” was named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s song of the year in 2005.

A strong singer, Mr. Allen signed with Mercury Records for the 1996 release of solo album Another River, but his primary impact was as the writer of other artists’ material. The trio of Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris recorded “High Sierra,” a song he wrote during his Ohio days. Shelton recorded “The Baby,” a Top 10 hit. Nichols found success with “I’ll Wait for You” (a song Nichols sang at Anna Nicole Smith’s funeral), and Montgomery’s version of “The Little Girl” was a four-week No. 1 hit that received three Academy of Country Music nominations.

More than 80 of Mr. Allen’s songs were recorded by other artists, and he won two Grammy Awards for singing harmonies with the Soggy Bottom Boys on “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” part of the wildly successful O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album.

Grascals bandmate Terry Eldridge said, “As a songwriter, he ranks with the best … Tom T. Hall, Harlan Howard, all the greats. As a friend, he was one crazy son of a gun. I miss him already.”

Mr. Allen is survived by his wife, Debbie Nims Allen, daughters Maggie and Katelyn Allen, son Aaron and several brothers and a sister.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Christ Church, 15354 Old Hickory Blvd. in Nashville. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Chet Atkins Music Education Fund, c/o The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.