Cole Allen: Young Texas troubadour has best of both worlds

Monday Night Live - Cole Allen - 9-7-17
Cole Allen at Saxon Pub in Austin.

Cole Allen has the best of both worlds. By day, he’s a husband, father of two and college-educated engineer. By night he’s a Texas troubadour, looking to emulate his songwriting heroes.

When Allen does a show, he brings his guitar, a foot drum kit and a harmonica with him, eliminating the need for a full-blown band and the headaches scheduling more than one person entail.

Allen keeps it simple. Just him, two guitars, a harmonica and a Farmer Foot Drum.

“The main guitar I play is a Martin HD-28E Retro that I bought two years ago,” he said. “The Martin Retro series has one of the best sounding, technologically advanced pickup systems on the market. My other guitar I travel with is a 1953 Gibson J-45. It sounds great, just not as great plugged in as my other. I keep it tuned to open D tuning for a change of pace.”

For percussion, Allen has a Farmer Foot Drum.

“It is an acoustic, portable drum kit that you play with your feet,” he explained. “They are made by a guy named Pete Farmer out of Michigan. They are a lot of fun to play, and can help a solo artist fill a room with sound. The focal point of what I do is songwriting, but not everyone cares about songwriting.  The one-man-band aspect of what I do helps me appeal to the more casual music listeners who just think it’s neat that I can do all that stuff at once.”

Allen will bring his unique show to Monday Night Live! Sept. 18.

Although he can write drama with the best of them – “Sabine River Blues” – he’s most happy being practical.

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“I believe that if you take care of your business, live under your means, and treat people like you want to be treated, drama doesn’t come around much,” Allen said in a recent interview. “I have learned that most of the trouble I have had in my life was a result of me doing stupid stuff.  My practical life now consists of paying bills on time, spending time with my family and changing my oil every 5,000 miles.”

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When he’s not working or playing tunes, he spends time with his wife, Ali, and two kids,  a 2 year-old toddler and one just 9 months. The family has settled in Longview, not too far from where he grew up.

Allen, 31, was raised in White Oak, graduating in 2005. He went to University of Texas at Tyler, earning a degree in civil engineering.

He said a stint at Camp Deer Run got him interested in guitar.

“My first year as a camper I had Ryan Tyndell as my counselor,” he said. “He played guitar and had written some songs and I thought that was really cool. Ryan is now a songwriter in Nashville and actually won a Grammy for co-writing ‘Springsteen’ with Eric Church. After I got home from camp that year I started playing around on a guitar my brother had borrowed from one of his friends.”

One of Allen’s best friends started playing fiddle about the same time he got a guitar.

“His little brother started playing the mandolin and their granddad played guitar, so we’d all jam,” Allen remembered. “We’d play a mixture of old traditional songs and bluegrass.  Their cousins were The Coleman Brothers, who were a staple in the East Texas Bluegrass scene for a while. Our main influences at the time were Bill Monroe, The Coleman Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams Sr.”

After high school, Allen spent a few years bull riding.

“I didn’t grow up around bull riding but always thought it looked like fun,” he said. “When I first met the guy who I wrote ‘Sabine River Blues’ about, he had been on a few bulls and I talked to him about it.  I went with him to a local rodeo in Stonewall, Louisiana the next weekend, borrowed some gear, and got on one. I thought it was going to be a bucket list kind of experience, but I was hooked. I started going anywhere and everywhere I could that had practice bulls, and after about a year I started traveling around to rodeos.”

He rode “most weekends” traveling around to rodeos.

“The highs were high and the lows were low,” he remembered “The initial attraction was the adrenaline, but what really kept me going was the competitiveness of the sport and the friendships I’d formed with the guys I traveled around with.”

As for his chosen profession, Allen settled on engineering after his mom suggested it.

“I knew I wanted a job where I wouldn’t be confined to an office all the time, so my mom told me I should look into engineering,” he noted. “I have a very unique engineering job. About half of the time I’m in the office working on design, and the rest of the time I’m usually surveying or pouring concrete.”

Allen cites some of Texas’ best singer/songwriters as influences, including Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hayes Carll, James McMurtry, Robert Earl Keen and Adam Carroll.

When asked to give one word to describe his heroes, his answers were:

Guy Clark: Craftsman

Townes: Poet

Jerry Jeff Walker: Gypsy

Hayes Carll: Wit

James McMurtry: Savvy

Robert Earl Keen: Best-Western

Adam Carroll: The-Terry-Allen-of-East-Texas

As for Townes, he said, “Townes’ influence is vast and crosses genres. If a songwriter doesn’t list Townes as an influence, the songwriters they [do] list as influences probably list Townes as an influence.”

Allen’s even “ripped off” a Townes quote for his song “If I’ve Gone Crazy.”

“Townes wrote the liner notes for a Blaze Foley album and said that Blaze ‘Only went crazy once.  Decided to stay.’  I turned that line into ‘If I’ve gone crazy, I ain’t goin’ back.’

Allen said Townes’ song “Snowin’ on Raton” also inspired his song “Hills of Odessa.”

Allen says he tries “to balance his influence with guys like Jerry Jeff Walker, because even though I appreciate Townes’ songwriting, sometimes I like to step out in the sunshine and breath in the fresh air.”

One of the highlights of Allen’s career so far was opening for Joe Ely at Liberty Hall in Tyler in August of 2016.

“Liberty Hall is an awesome venue and there was a large, attentive crowd,” Allen remembered. “I was nervous to play to a ‘listening room,” but it went really well.”

After his set, Allen watched Ely and then had the chance to visit with the Texas legend after the show. Ely was on his way to Nashville to perform in a Guy Clark Tribute. Clark died May 16, 2016.

“We talked for about 10 minutes about Guy and the tribute he was about to go to,” Allen said.  “He was looking forward to seeing Ramblin’ Jack [Elliott] and told me some stories about him and his late girlfriend Ramblin’ Jan.  It is one thing to get to open for one of your heroes, but it is another thing for one of your heroes to take the time to talk to some no-name opener about music.”

Allen has released two CDs. “Sabine River Blues” came out in 2014.

Cole Allen - Regular Guy - use this one
Cole Allen’s second record, “Regular Guy,” was released in May.

“I wrote the majority of the songs for it during my transition between stopping bull riding and getting married,” Allen explained. “My latest album is called ‘Regular Guy’ and came out in May of this year. I’m really proud of it.”

For someone who prefers a quiet life, “Sabine River Blues” sure packs a lot of drama.

“The inspiration for the song came from a lot of different places,” Allen noted. “The characters Mac and Molly are based on some friends of mine. My friends are equal parts eclectic and redneck.”

One day he went to their house and there was a 6’ alligator living inside the house.

“The Mac character didn’t graduate high school, but loves to read and listens to James McMurtry,” Allen continued.  “Their song was ‘Red Bandana Blues’ by Adam Carroll.  I knew I needed to write a song with them as the main characters, but I needed an angle. My friend owned a really nice Pro-Drive boat, but he would quit his job during the winter for duck season. So that is where the idea initially started.”

According to Allen the Molly character is based on a really sweet hippie girl who grew up in Many, Louisiana.

“In the song she is from Zwolle, mainly because I wanted to make the Zwolle Tamale reference and because Zwolle and Molly were easy rhymes,” he joked. “My buddy had also told me about a river rat he had met just north of Toledo Bend, who lived off the river in a little shack.  He had chickens and pigs and all kinds of stuff out there. The Mac character was a combination of my friend and that guy.”

When asked where he wants to be in five years, Allen’s goals are pretty clear – and drama free.

“Personally and professionally, if I could keep doing what I’m doing, I’d be happy,” he said. “I hope to be working until 5 o’clock, maybe coaching some little league and playing a show every now and again. I’d also like to be able to play more listening rooms. Musically, I hope to write less murder ballads and more uplifting songs that impact people in a positive way.”

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Allen Cole will be the musical guest at Monday Night Live on Market Street in Winnsboro, beginning at 5 p.m. Sept. 18. The event is free. Come early. Bring a lawn chair. Eat. Drink. Be Merry and support a kid who’s keeping the great Texas troubadour tradition alive.

Click here to listen to “Sabine River Blues.”

 

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