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Cole Allen: There He Goes Again, Up On The Stage

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cole-allen-tyler-tx-one-man-band-1By Johnny Griffith

We’ve seen them before; the solo act, the lone wolf, up on the stage with the spotlight firmly on them and no one else for better or worse. In an area where live music is dominated by group acts, whether that be in the form of traditional bands or namesake bands with a semi-regular roster of backup musicians, there is a small but growing number of musicians who want to completely control the product they create.

One of these local musicians is Cole Allen. A 2005 graduate of White Oak High School, Allen went to UT Tyler for a degree in Civil Engineering and currently works as an engineer in Longview. After getting his first guitar at the age of 15, Allen spent his high-school years playing bluegrass, and after a few years scratching a competitive itch as a bull rider, Allen decided to focus his free time on playing gigs. A capable multi-instrumentalist, Allen has been entertaining audiences with his one-man-band style that includes guitar, harmonica, and a custom foot-drum setup that supplies the rhythm section.

We tracked down the musical engineer to get some insight on what drives him:

Johnny: Okay, exactly how many musical instruments do you play?

Cole: I can “play” most anything with strings, but I’m not going to win any awards for my musicianship. When I perform, I play acoustic guitar, a Farmer Foot Drum kit, and harmonica.

Johnny: When did you decide to forego the traditional route and become a one-man band?

Cole: When I first started I didn’t have any friends around that could play anything, so I just figured I’d start my own band. I started by adding harmonica for lead, and then added a kick drum, and eventually the Farmer Foot Drum. Now I have musician friends, but I’m solo out of necessity. I’m over-committed to too many different things to make time for a band.

Johnny: That foot drum setup is pretty sweet, and I don’t recall seeing one quite like it. What’s the story on it?

Cole: They are called Farmer Foot Drums, and a guy named Pete Farmer makes them out of Michigan. I was looking to add some percussion, but most of the stuff I found was electronic or bulky. I needed something that was acoustic and small enough to fit in a Honda Accord along with all my other stuff. I found the foot drum online and thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. It has a kick, snare, tambourine, hi-hat, a shaker pedal, and can be carried like a suitcase.

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Johnny: What have been the pros and cons of being a true solo act? Any special challenges to getting gigs because of it?

Cole: Freedom is the pro. I can book where or when I want and don’t have to consult with anyone else. I also don’t have to worry about a band member not showing up or drinking too much. I make my own set list, and if I want to try something new, I do it.

The cons are that it can be lonely. Travelling alone, setting up and tearing down alone, and playing alone. I have to try and interact with the audience so I have someone to talk to.

It can be tough getting gigs, most places only want solo acts for weeknight slots, and definitely don’t want to pay a one-man band like a band. Most of my problem is I’m not very persistent. Booking agents get bombarded with people wanting to play. If I was booking somewhere and some balding white guy in a polo with no tattoos sent me an e-mail asking to play, I probably wouldn’t listen to his stuff either.

Johnny: What has been your best memory this far into the ride?

Cole: This summer I opened for one of my heroes, Joe Ely, at Liberty Hall in Tyler. It was a packed house for Joe, and nobody had a clue who I was. I’ve played a few listening rooms and house concerts in the past, but nothing of this magnitude. There were a couple hundred strangers in the theater quietly staring at me as I walked on stage. It was equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. I hit them in the head with a song about a homeless vet with PTSD on the fourth of July, then made up some stories about some of the songs I was playing, cracked a few jokes, and they ate it up. I nearly sold out of all my CDs and t-shirts after the show, and then I got to watch Joe play a great set. He sat down beside me after his set and told me stories about Guy Clark, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and his late girlfriend Ramblin’ Jan, and I ate it up.

Johnny: How would you describe your music?

Cole: Americana is the broad, catch-all genre for those that don’t fit into a specific category. I’m on the rural roots songwriter side of Americana.

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Johnny: I hear echoes of Reckless Kelly, Hayes Carll, and perhaps Charlie Robison in your original material. Who would you list as your influences at this point?

Cole: I like all of those guys and can hear where we are similar. I would say the main influences on my song writing are Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hayes Carll, James McMurtry, Robert Earl Keen, and Adam Carroll.

Johnny: How much of your material during your show is original?

Cole: It depends on the venue and crowd. Venues where you play an hour and a half set, I’ll play mostly all originals. Most venues that I play in East Texas are three hours, and I’ll play a mix of originals and songs I like. If the audience is engaged, I’ll play more originals. If they are there to have a good time and I’m mostly background, I’ll play more covers.

Johnny: Your first album, “Sabine River Blues,” gave us a poetic, if melancholy at times, snapshot of life in east Texas around the Sabine. What was your inspiration for the material, and how was the album received?

Cole: Most of my inspiration comes from the lives of those around me. Since I’m an engineer, I’m too practical to have drama in my own life, so I have to rely on others for inspiration. Each song has it’s own story and inspiration. For the song “Sabine River Blues” I tried to write a song that would capture the culture of the area around Zwolle on Toledo Bend. The only logical thing to do was write a ‘dirty murder’ ballad where all the characters ended up in the bottom of the river. The album was received well by friends and fans, but no press recognition or anything like that.

Johnny: As 2016 draws to a close, what do you have on the horizon for the new year?

Cole: Not much. I’ve got my second baby due right about the time this interview will be printed, so I haven’t done any booking to give myself some time to adjust. I’m hoping to have my new album done in spring 2017, and then my plan is to try and get out into some different venues and listening rooms after that.

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Johnny: Tell us a little more about the new album? All new original material? Any collaborations?

Cole: I’m pretty excited about it. I think it’s much more cohesive than my first. I’ve got songs about east Texas, west Texas, and south Texas. There’re personal songs about being a dad, trying to balance life aesthetically while being an engineer and a musician, and living in your own head. There’s the song about PTSD I mentioned earlier, a song I wrote with Nick Brumley about a struggling musician trapped in the velvet rut of Shreveport, a song about the oil field recession, and songs about busted relationships. Then I also have a few songs with Zevon-esque inspired weirdo characters, like the stalker who is getting tired of his love’s cat and mouse games, the Highway 80 hair-lipped harlot, and a few others. I’m also going to include “Sabine River Blues” cut in 4/4 time.

Johnny: As a new fan, seeing you for the first time, what should I expect at a Cole Allen show?

Cole: Americana songwriting with the grit of a one man show. If I’m playing as a duo with John Fox, it’ll be more rocking than the solo shows. Full band shows that I split with The Mansion Family are like an East Texas version of Bob Dylan with The Band. I play a set, Mansion Family plays a set, then I’ll join them for a set.

For more info about Cole Allen go to facebook.com/coleallenmusicpage or coleallenmusic.com.

Bands

October 13th, Award-Winning Band MercyMe in Concert

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October 13th, Award-Winning Band MercyMe in Concert

MercyMe will be in concert at The Oil Palace is October and is guaranteed to sell-out!

Since their debut in 2001, Grammy®-nominated, multiple American Music Award and Dove Award winners, MercyMe has sold more than 8.5 million units in CD, single and DVD sales, garnered 27 No. 1 multi-format Christian radio singles and four consecutive mainstream radio hits with ‘I Can Only Imagine,’ (No. 4 AC/Top 25 on Top 40/Hot AC), ‘Here With Me’ (No. 4 AC), ‘Homesick’ (Top 10 AC), and ‘So Long Self.’

Their radio success has continued with recent singles ‘Flawless’ (No. 1 for 15 weeks) and ‘Greater’ (No. 1 for 16 weeks)​, landing them the Top Christian Airplay Artist spot on Billboard’s 2015 Year End charts.

MercyMe made history in 2014 as ‘I Can Only Imagine’ surpassed 2 million digital downloads, making it the first song in Christian music to go platinum and double-platinum in the digital domain. In 2009, Billboard named MercyMe’s ‘Word Of God Speak’ the No. 1 Song of The Decade and the group the No. 1 Artist of the Decade in both the Christian Songs and Christian AC Songs categories, recognizing them as one of the industry’s most notable talents.

They have sold out venues throughout the US and Canada, including Radio City Music Hall, and have appeared on The Today Show, CBS This Morning, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Fox New Channel’s Fox & Friends, CNN, ABC News, and in the pages of Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, USA Today and more.

Their most recent project “MercyMe, It’s Christmas!” debuted atop the Billboard Top Holiday Albums chart and became an instant classic. Their eighth studio release, “Welcome To The New,” garnered Billboard Music Award nominations in all three Christian categories and two Grammy® nods; the album is available in stores now.

Tickets start at $19 and are available at oilpalace.com. The Oil Palace is located at 10408 State Highway 64 East, Tyler, (903)566-2122.

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Blacktop Mojo: Burning Up The Roads To Success

By Johnny Griffith

About a year and a half ago I sat down to interview Blacktop Mojo, a Jacksonville based hard rock band riding a wave of momentum after several successful years together and an upcoming album release. The end of that interview finished with this:

“Blacktop Mojo can still be heard around East Texas on a regular basis, but I would definitely suggest checking out their website for more information and a sample of their music if you haven’t heard them. If it’s in your wheelhouse, get out and support a great local band that won’t be local for much longer at the rate their Mojo is working.”

As it turns out, I was a little more prescient that I anticipated as Blacktop Mojo’s stock has only risen in the ensuing months. With a successful album release, ever increasingly distant tour stops, and mounting accolades from industry critics and magazines, local BTM shows are becoming harder to come by.

In case you might not have heard of Blacktop Mojo, their sound can be described as “modern rock that got dragged through a puddle of southern rock and then dipped in a little bit of grunge”. The band was originally formed in 2012 and the current lineup includes Matt James on vocals, Nathan Gillis on drums, Chuck Wepfer on rhythm guitar, Ryan Keifer on lead guitar, and Matt Curtis on bass.  

With a huge sound and chest shaking vocals, Blacktop Mojo brings a high energy rock show that leaves fans wanting more everywhere they go. While in the midst of rehearsals last month for their most recent tour that kicked off in San Antonio on April 20th, we caught up with them to see what had been going on for the past year and a half and what was on the radar for the rest of the year.

Johnny: So it’s been about a year and a half since our last interview with you guys and the last time we talked there was an album in the works. When did “Burn The Ships” release and how was the process different from the first time around when you recorded “I am”?

BTM: “Burn The Ships” released in March of 2017. The biggest difference between this record and our first record, “I Am”, was the amount of time we took for pre-production. On “I Am”, we spent about two weeks getting ready and arranging the songs before we went in to record it, where on “Burn The Ships”, we spent about eight months demoing and playing around with different ideas.

Johnny: How has the reception been to the album so far and do you guys have your own personal favorite song from it?

BTM: The reception to the album has been incredible this far. We’ve had countless positive reviews and feedback from publications all over the world. Also, our first single off of the album entitled “Where The Wind Blows” reached number 27 on the Billboard Active Rock chart last summer.

Johnny: You guys got to open for Bon Jovi last year in a sold-out stadium. Tell us about that about how you guys got that honor and a little about the experience?

BTM: We actually won that honor in a contest the band was putting on. We submitted some of our original music and were picked by Live Nation and the band’s management to open up the show. The experience was beyond amazing and the crowd was very receptive to us. We cannot thank the Bon Jovi camp enough for the opportunity and for treating us so incredibly.

Johnny: Obviously that put you in front of a lot of potential new fans but what would you say the biggest takeaway from that event was?

BTM: Our biggest takeaway from that night was that whether you’re playing in front of 20 or 20,000 people, you should treat it the same way. Make everyone feel like you’re playing in a stadium even if it’s an empty room.

Johnny: Blacktop Mojo has been trending steadily upward the past couple of years with several accolades from industry publications, over 40 thousand likes on Facebook, a new album, and you guys seem to play everywhere and anywhere. What kind of effect has the increased exposure and success had on the daily routine and what kind of new challenges have came along?

BTM: Our daily routine hasn’t changed much when we’re home. We still write and rehearse on a regular basis and go about business as usual. The increased exposure has made touring opportunities more readily available for us and has increased the number of people we can reach with our music, which is super exciting for us.

Johnny: You have a pretty extensive tour coming up that you’ll already be on the road for when this goes to print. Is this the biggest tour BTM has embarked on and what goes into planning a 2-month long road trip that covers, as best I could count, 32 states, both sides of the country, Canada, and 43 shows?

BTM: This is our most extensive tour to date. A lot of planning, routing, and generally putting the puzzle pieces together has gone on over the past few months by us and our team to make this happen. We couldn’t be more excited to get back out on the road and see our friends across the country.

Johnny: I’d say it would be time for a break after that sort of trip, but you guys are right back at it, playing Rock Fest 2018 up in Wisconsin with some huge names, do you guys ever have to step back, take a breath, and say to yourself “this is our reality”?

BTM: We are very blessed to be able to wake up and do what we love every single day. They say “you never work a day in your life if you do what you love”, so I don’t think we’ve ever really thought about taking a break.

Johnny: Were you able to see yourself at this point back when you played your first show at the Neches Fall Festival or the first “official” show as BTM at the Shelton Gin back in 2012?

BTM: It would have been hard to imagine getting to do what we do now back then. We’ve always just been happy to be able to play music for people.

Johnny: With what’s on your plate for the first half of this year, I almost hate to ask, but what’s on the radar for the second half of 2018 that you can share with us?

BTM: We have plans to keep touring throughout the rest of the year and are currently writing music for our third record.

Johnny: What has been the best memory from the ride so far?

BTM: It’s hard to pick just one from all of it. One of my favorites so far was riding back into town off of our first tour last Summer/Fall. We’d been out on the road for over 60 days straight with 7 of us basically living out of our van. We were tired, beat up, and hungry, but everyone was smiling and joking with each other. It really felt like we had accomplished something.

For more information on Blacktop Mojo and when they’ll be back at a location near you, check them out on the web:

www.blacktopmojo.com 

www.facebook.com/BlacktopMojo.

 

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