When asked what style of music he plays, Cole Allen typically responds with, “Just regular.” Born, raised, and currently residing in the small East Texas town of White Oak, Allen’s purposefully vague and subjective description of his music begins to make sense as his own story unfolds through his songs and unassuming stage presence.
Allen typically performs as a one-man band, playing guitar, harmonica, and a Farmer Foot Drum kit. His solo act was formed out of necessity early on in his music career, as his time was too sparse to allow for a band. He worked during the day as a civil engineer and spent his weekends as a competitive bull rider. Not only did his strange combination of occupation and interests shape his performance style, but it shaped his approach to songwriting as well. His songs are the perfect marriage of practical, left-brained structure to adventurous, right-brained storytelling. Although his songs may require the listener to focus, they are not without purpose, and often challenge, disturb, or inspire. There is no greater display of this than on his latest release, Dry County Culture.
The third album in Allen’s arsenal, Dry County Culture is a collection of songs that vary from introspective to lighthearted to poignant. The album was once again recorded, mixed, and produced with longtime friend Darrell Edwards. Although his other two albums stand alone on their own merit, Dry County Culture displays maturity in theme, songwriting, and production. Sonically, the album utilizes acoustic guitar, mandolin, harmonica, upright bass, and light drums on most of the tracks. Electric guitar, piano, organ, and pedal steel are featured in a few songs as well.
Thematically, the album relies less on fictional narrative than the prior two releases, and more on Allen’s personal experiences. This is displayed the most in songs such as “Old Oak Tree,” written shortly after the death of his father, as well as “Never Been More Beautiful,” which is a love song for his wife. Allen’s dry wit shines through on songs such as “A Song in Third Person,” “She Loves the Dallas Cowboys,” and “The Day That Grammar Died.” In contrast, “The Stinky Kid” is a devastating plea for empathy. The album uses biblical references that would be familiar to those that were raised in a “dry county culture,” but does so in a manner that can appeal to both believers and the secular world. “Romans 7” appeals to the human condition with the tag, “Everybody wants a Savior, but nobody wants a Lord.” The song “Revelation” puts this tag into story form, as imagery from the book of Revelation is used to depict a musician who is the center of his own world. The musician, although at the top of his game, ultimately ends up dissatisfied and wanting more.
Although Dry County Culture may sell more Zoloft than beer, it is an album that is well worth a listen on a Sunday afternoon or a late-night drive back home. Cole Allen’s songwriting is steeped in the tradition of his Texas songwriting heroes. It is rural, plainspoken lyrics combined with production that doesn’t try too hard or make the songs something they are not. All things considered, labeling his music as “regular” seems to be a fitting description.