By 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.
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.
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.
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.