Multiple GRAMMY-winning singer/guitarist and songwriter Harley Allen, 55, died on March 30 at his home in Brentwood, Tenn, after a battle with lung cancer. Son of bluegrass great Harley “Red” Allen, Harley rose from a dirt-poor childhood in Dayton, Oh. housing projects to become one of Nashville’s most successful and highly acclaimed songwriters.
His catalog of country hits includes songs sung by Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Alison Krauss, George Jones, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, John Michael Montgomery, The Del McCoury Band, The Grascals, Ricky Skaggs, Josh Turner, Kathy Mattea and The Trio featuring Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton.
But even as he earned multi-platinum success and the highest honors accorded Nashville songwriters, including the 2005 BMI Country Songwriter of the Year Award, bluegrass remained Harley’s first love.
“Bluegrass made me who I am,” he told industry bible Bluegrass Unlimited in 2006.
One of five children raised by a single mom, Harley began singing with his brothers before he was a teenager. With Harley on guitar, Neal on mandolin, Greg on banjo and Ronnie on bass, they toured as The Allen Brothers on their own and with Red. Neal died of pneumonia in 1974, a loss that haunted Harley the rest of his life. The Allen Brothers recorded several albums, notably Allengrass, featuring all four brothers. and two on Rounder, Sweet Rumors and Clara’s Boys, the latter named for their mother.
In 1982, Harley teamed with banjo player/singer Mike Lilly in The Allen-Lilly Band, recording one album for Folkways, Suzanne. The title cut, a Harley original, was reissued on Smithsonian-Folkways’ Classic Bluegrass Vol. 1. I was honored to be bass player in that band.
When the group broke up in 1985, Harley took a break from music, but by the end of the ‘80s partnered with banjo player Tony Trischka in The Big Dogs, including future wife Debbie Nims Allen. They have two daughters, Katelyn, 14, and Maggie, 10.
The couple moved to Nashville in 1989, and Harley focused on songwriting. He’d been writing since he was 12. His first “cut,” “Hobo Joe,” written at 15, appeared on Allengrass.
No one wrote like Harley. The vocal twists and turns that made his bluegrass singing unique were transformed into surprising melody lines and unusual chord progressions, all with a wry, sometimes heartbreaking, sense of humor.
Music City can be a factory town, with formulaic writers replicating previous hits. But Harley created enduring art, a list that includes Alan Jackson’s “Between the Devil and Me,” Blake Shelton’s “The Baby,” Darryl Worley’s "Awful, Beautiful Life,” John Michael Montgomery’s “The Little Girl,” Ricky Skaggs’ “Simple Life,” The Trio’s “High Sierra.” His catalog is huge, all with a bluegrass backbone.
His own attempt at country success, 1996’s Another River, failed to chart. However, his voice earned him three GRAMMYs. In 2000, Harley sang baritone in the Soggy Bottom Boys with Dan Tyminski’s lead and Pat Enright’s tenor, winning the Country Collaboration GRAMMY for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, powering the O Brother soundtrack to Album of the Year honors. In 2003, Harley’s duet with Dierks Bentley on “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” was part of Country Album GRAMMY winner Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’ The Songs of the Louvin Brothers.
In 2005, along with BMI Country Songwriter of the Year, Harley won IBMA Song of the Year for “Me and John and Paul,” by the Grascals. That same year his father Red Allen was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
While country songwriting afforded Harley wealth beyond the dreams of a kid from the projects, he continued performing bluegrass, sitting in at Nashville’s bluegrass nerve center The Station Inn, or leading his Harley Allen Band, including boyhood friend David Harvey on mandolin and fiddle.
Those shows featured the complete Harley -- his quick-witted, R-rated humor, rock-solid rhythm guitar and setlist running from traditional bluegrass to his dad’s songs and Harley originals.
Best of all, they showcased that once-in-a-generation voice. Nobody sang like Harley. He had a God-given instrument, a voice as high and pure as ever heard in bluegrass, but filled with pain and heartache, like Carter Stanley singing through Bobby Osborne.
That voice was a gift, but the heartache was earned. There was a lot of loss in Harley’s life and he turned his pain into works of incredible beauty.
Tom T. Hall paid tribute at the Bluebird Café the night Harley died. “Harley was a good man. I’m amazed that I’m still here and Harley’s gone. There’s something wrong there…He’ll be fondly remembered.”
Ricky Skaggs knew Harley since both were teens. “He paid his way into town as a songwriter, no doubt about it, but a lot of people didn’t realize what a good singer and guitar player he was. He was so talented. He had everything in the world going for him, but he had a very troubled life.”
Despite that – or because of it – there was a deeply spiritual side to Harley’s songs, Ricky added.
“He struggled and wrestled with it, but he did have a relationship with the Lord,” Ricky said. “Harley’s songs touched people’s lives at a moment when they really needed touched. I wish he could have been around to see more of the fruits of his labor.”
When he died, Harley was planning an album for Rounder featuring bluegrass versions of his country hits. His first posthumous release will be part of the all-star ensemble on Moody Bluegrass Two, which features the Moody Blues together with country and bluegrass greats.
And that’s how he would want to be remembered. Harley Allen was, first and last, a bluegrass musician. He remained proud of that fact until the day he died.
“Learning my chops in bars for years made me a strong player and a singer and also a songwriter,” he told Bluegrass Unlimited. “You learn the old-fashioned way. There’s people on the radio who can’t play their own songs live… But if you’re brought up in the bluegrass world, youwill be able to play and sing.”
More than 30 years ago, he wrote his own epitaph in his “Wildwood Flower Blues.”
“All I ever wanted was to say I stood the test.
All I ever needed was to stand beside the best.”
Harley Allen stood that test countless times. The worlds of bluegrass and country music are mourning one of their very best, gone far too soon.
-- Larry Nager is a journalist/musician/documentary filmmaker based in Nashville. He played bass with Harley Allen from 1978-1986.