A month ago, country singer and Milton native Jimmie Allen got the big head.
A several-hundred-feet tall head to be precise, glowing from the 340-foot screen on Times Square in New York City in an advertisement for his new EP.
“Bettie James,” named for Allen’s late father, James, and late grandmother, Bettie Snead, came out July 10.
It’s a collaboration with an astonishing array of country music stars: Noah Cyrus, Brad Paisley, Charley Pride, Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton, Nelly, the Oak Ridge Boys, Rita Wilson, Tauren Wells and Tim McGraw, some of them favorites of his father’s and grandmother’s.
Allen’s been watching the EP and songs from it climb the charts.
The feel good road song, “Good Times Rolling,” sung with Nelly is No. 1 on the U.S. iTunes Sales Chart on the country and genre charts, he said.
“Brand new laces
Fresh pair of Jays, pocket full of blue faces
And I ain’t rockin’ nothin’ basic
Vanilla rollie on my wrist
I be Ice, ice baby
Good times, good vides
Somewhere where I can go crazy
I need a good ride, with some good tires (Yeah)
And I ain’t talkin’ Mercedes.“
The song that’s getting a lot of press attention, though, is the more traditional “Why Things Happen,” which he sings with Darius Rucker and Charley Pride.
“In the blink of a moment, gone ’fore you know it
Hits you right out of the blue
You got me wonderin’ why things happen
Things happen like they do”
Rolling Stone tagged it a “song you need to know,” calling it a meditation over the inexplicable nature of injustice and marveling over it’s appearance so soon after the death of George Floyd.
“More than any kind of overt protest statement, the power of ‘Why Things Happen’ comes from three generations of black men sharing anguish and questioning the sources of their own pain,” the magazine said. “‘You try not to question/God and his judgement,’ Allen sings, ‘But dammit, I don’t understand…
“Part polemic, part proclamation, and part prayer, ‘Why Things Happen’ opens up space for Pride, Rucker and Allen to bear witness.”
Majored in people at DSU
Ask Allen how he describes his own musical style and he says, “I like to take a country lyric and rap in a pop-rock progression with pop and R&b melodies.”
Not bad for a guy who’s first musical job was playing drums at the age of 7 at Mt. Carmel Seventh Day Adventist Church in Harrington. He began playing piano and singing in church and in high school musicals at Cape Henlopen. Then he headed to Delaware State University.
He didn’t have a major, at least one on the books.
“Coming from Slower, Lower, we’re pretty sheltered,” Allen said. “We all live the same way. We go to the beach, fish, hunt, drive 4-wheelers. If i wanted to entertain all kinds of people from different areas, I needed to know them. That’s why I went to college. To get a degree in people.”
He moved to Nashville at the age of 21, and the living was decidedly not easy.
Record labels dismissed him. Some of it was racial. He was a Black man trying to break into an industry founded partly on the soul of rhythm and blues, but dominated by White men and women.
“You can use that to get you to quit, or you can use that as a motivator,” Allen says. “I took that and used it as a motivator.”
He discovered a few things about himself.
“I learned I had more fight in me than I thought,” he said. “You find out how bad you want something when everything is taken from you … Your safety net is gone.”
He couldn’t afford an apartment and lived in a trailer with no electricity. The owner sold it with no warning, and he lived in his Chevy Malibu for months. He would go three days without eating when he was between jobs.
“This guy, I remember, he gave me $1,” Allen said. “I went to McDonald’s and I bought a McChicken. I ate one half that day and ate the other half on the next day.”
He went on to apply for “American Idol,” but got cut before filming, and play the festival circuit before getting traction in the industry and two No. 1 songs. The first was in 2018, when he became the first Black artist to have a debut single — “Best Shot” — reach No. 1 on Billboard’s country airplay chart since Darius Rucker in 2008.
“That was a goooood day,” Allen says.
He turned around and had another, “Make Me Want To.”
Even with his success, he makes it a point to carry a few dollars with him each day.
“And every day before the day is over, I make sure that I give that dollar away,” he said. “Sometimes that gesture can change someone’s life and restore their faith in humanity.
Honoring his life in song
“Bettie James” was inspired by his father and grandmother, but it won’t be the first time he’s drawn from his life to power his music.
He captured his love of life in Sussex County with his ballad “Slower, Lower:”
“It gets a little hotter, closer to the water
And some ice cold beer, stomping ground here
Roots run a little deeper yeah
’Cause we were praising hallelujahs and amens
And life is what you make it so we take it
A little slower down here, lower round here”
His father introduced him to country music and two of his dad’s favorite singers were Charley Pride and Brad Paisley. His grandmother loved The Oak Ridge Boys. Allen gets to sing with them all on “Bettie James.”
Arranging those collaborations wasn’t hard, Allen said. It started with his tour bus driver, who is the son of William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. The driver asked his dad, who said sure, and that started the ball rolling. He texted some to ask them to perform.
He and Nelly were able to record together before the COVID-19 quarantine. But a lot of the recording was done by artists working in different locations instead of together because of the coronavirus.
That arrangement isn’t far off routine industry practice,Allen said. Sometimes, an artist can’t fly across the country to record a piece, so he or she will record their parts and ship the performance to the producers to be mixed in.
He can point to lyrics he ties back to his dad and grandmother.
“My grandmother was the one all about patience and taking your time,” Allen said. “You can hear in the song ‘Made for These.” He sings it with Tim McGraw.
‘Timing isn’t always right, yeah
No matter how bad you want it to be
Your faith is shaken, testing all your patience
When you hit the bottom, don’t forget to breathe”
“We’re going to have moments when living may be difficult,” Allen said, “but even in those be calm, be patient and be willing to grow from where you feel the dark moments are.”
His dad, though, was always telling him to take risks.
“And that’s kind of what I had to do in this enterprise.” Allen said. “Be myself and take a risk.”
What’s next: a wedding ring
As his EP rides the charts, he’s still writing songs and considering hosting his own talk show and even a movie about his life.
Allen’s set to marry his finance Alexis Gale, 24. next year in Pennsylvania. She’s a nurse from Milton, introduced to Allen by his cousn’s wife.
“We were supposed to get married this year, but because of COVID, we didn’t,” he said.
His success, Allen said, is proof that anyone can set their mind on a goal and reach it.
It’s the message he’s like to tell every person in Delaware.
“No matter where you’re from and no matter what you want to do with your life, you can make it happen,” he said. “Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t because you’re from Delaware. You can.”