A SONGWRITER FOR EVERY SEASON
by Julie Dougherty
I’ve known Allen Estes the better part of 30 years and have always admired his songwriting talent and performance style, and love his guitar playing and presence on stage. He is a North Shore gem that I sometimes think is under-appreciated, but sometimes one’s home town takes for granted its local talent and pays homage to lesser-quality, more star-studded performers from far away. However, like anything of incredible quality, he has stood the test of time and is still writing and performing. He’s also hosting and producing a local cable TV show, The Local Seen, that features local musicians and is getting quite a bit of buzz. My happy assignment is to interview him and write this piece about him, but before I ask specific questions of this multi-talented veteran of the music-scene, I’d like to give my own personal history of what I know about this good friend of mine.
The first time I saw Allen Estes perform was in the late ’70s with his band the Estes Boys at a club called Johnathan Swift’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The band played high-energy, driving country-rock music with great vocals, instrumentation, and songwriting... I was hooked. By the early ’80s I’d go up to the Rhumb Line in Gloucester regularly with my new guitar-player Dave Malachowski (who went on to play with Shania Twain) who was also hooked on Allen’s songwriting, flat-picking guitar-style,and overall take-no-prisoners type of performance. Most of the songs Allen sang were his own, with occasional cover tunes thrown in for good measure. His writing was catchy, to say the least... you’d swear you’d heard that song on the radio, he had a knack for hooks and guitar riffs that would grab you and draw you in. Like many others I was a fan, big-time. In the mid-’80s, Allen started playing regularly at a local tavern called the Hawthorne Inn in Salem, Massachusetts. If I wasn’t gigging myself, I would be there every time he played with his trio (Bruce Wallace on keyboard/vocals and Linda Blaze on bass/vocals). They were an incredible trio that performed Allen’s songs for the most part as well as many wonderful country oldies and current hits. Their harmonies were tight and the energy level was over the top. If I was lucky, he’d get me up to sing on a song or two and that always made my night. I admired his ability as a performer, singer ,and mostly as a writer. He needed to go to Nashville, and so he did in 1985, where he lived for the next ten years. He wrote with some greats in the business: Tammy Wynette, Pat Alger, Robert Ellis Oral, Norro Wilson, Lori Morgan, Shania Twain, Billy Montana… the list goes on.
Allen had songs cut by the Judds, Tammy Wynette, and a host of other big names in country music, but it was the ’80s—the era of Garth Brooks, who seemed to single-handedly take over the entire country scene. It also seemed that many of the tried and true country singers were being replaced by the country superstar of the day with Randy Travis and Shania Twain falling in to this category of superstar sensation. Some wondered if there was enough room in country music for not only these new stars but also the older school of writers and performers who’d been around and writing and recording great country music for years. The old-schoolers seemed to be pushed off to the side.
During those ten years in Nashville, Allen was writing for a publishing company called Merit Music and did most of his country music writing. It must also be mentioned that he was on the Curb Records Label with a trio called Trinity Lane while living in Nashville. I saw this trio perform a number of times when I was going down to Nashville regularly, and they were great. I also want to mention how generous Allen was with the contacts and advice he gave me while I was traveling back and forth, trying to place my own songs with publishers in Nashville. He truly lives the pass-it-on philosophy. He had quite a large catalog of material before he went to Nashville, mostly falling in to the country-rock vein, with maybe more emphasis on the rock, but he could also write a ballad that would make tears come to your eyes. As a writer, there really wasn’t anyone who could match his knack for turning a phrase in to a hook, his depth of subject and style of interpreting it into a memorable song, one you would want to hear over and over again until you were humming it on the way home. His talent is partly a gift, but mostly stems from hard work that he obviously still loves doing. He lives what he inherently is: a songwriter.
Now let’s find out more about Allen Estes.
Noise: How many songs have you written?
Allen: Over two thousand.
Noise: You lived in Nashville for ten years (1985-1995), much of that time writing for a publishing company, Merit Music. What happens with all of the songs you wrote for them? Do they revert back to you if they don’t get placed with an artist and recorded, or are they the property of the publisher forever?
Allen: ‘They’re still the property of the publisher. Merit Music sold out to Horipro Publishing Company, a Japanese Publishing Company with offices in New York, London, L.A., and Nashville. They still have 120 of my songs, unless I buy them back or if one gets recorded, they will deduct proceeds from the draw [against royalties].
Noise: In retrospect, what do you feel you gained from living and writing in Nashville for so long, and are you frustrated that you didn’t get a song recorded that went gold or platinum?
Allen: As you know, the songwriting profession is frustrating-—a lot of jockeying and pushing to get the songs heard and get them out there, then waiting for responses. As with the Judds, songs I wrote got recorded that didn’t make the final CD, so there’s a lot of uncertainty. One thing I learned is that you must take your place in line as a songwriter in Nashville. It doesn’t matter how good you are, you have to take your place.
Noise: From my estimation, many of the songs you’ve written are hit songs. What do you think constitutes a hit?
Allen: A lot of things go into it. First melody and lyric must be memorable on the very first listen—you don’t get a second chance. Hooking up with an artist who loves you is a huge break. It helps to work with pluggers, and hit sheets [artists who are looking for certain songs]. The song must be good but the pitching must be just as good.
Noise: You have a son, Dylan [16 years old]—does he take after his dad musically?
Allen: He just did his first gig with me on July 4th and loved it! He’s writing songs and plays guitar. We’ve written three songs together. He loves the old stuff like the Eagles and the Beatles, and out-of-the-box songs like “Danny Boy” and “Caledonia,” but also likes the new rock like Greenday and Boys Like Girls.
Noise: You live in Gloucester and still play quite often in the area. Where and when are you playing and with whom?
Allen: I play the Rhumb Line in Gloucester one Sunday a month with Orville Giddings, O’Leary’s in Brookline with Sal Baglio on guitar and Matt Leavenworth on fiddle).The Thomas E. Lannon Schooner— usually twice each summer with Fly Amero, also at One World Coffeehouse once a summer and the Old Sloop Coffeehouse in Rockport. I sometimes play with my full band with Lenny Shea on drums, Linda Blaze on bass, and Steve Burke on keyboard.
Noise: Tell me a little about your current cable TV show, Local Music Seen.
Allen: Most of my guests are local Cape Ann residents, singer/songwriters and other performers: blues, country, roots. We recently featured the Manchester Essex Regional High School a capella group Soundwaves with 14 kids on the show. On the show musicians talk about how they got started, what influences them, what they’re currently doing, where they’re playing. It’s a half hour format. Local Music Seen is on three times each week in the Cape Ann area (Essex, Manchester, Rockport, Gloucester). Our motto is “we bring the music to you.”
Noise: What are your musical plans for the future and where do you see yourself in five years?
Allen: Souls of the Sea, a set of CDs I co-wrote with lyricist and playwright Frank Tedesco is now a play being performed at University of Texas in the fall. Disney in Orlando, Florida, is looking at it. The official song of Gloucester, “Where’d They Go?”, about lost fishermen from Gloucester was the starting point and we’ve added to it and are now up to five CDs worth of material. It was also inspired by a song I wrote called “Not With Your Hands”— about Howard Blackburn, a fisherman, bar owner and entrepreneur who lost all his fingers in a dory in a bad storm, rowing his friend to safety. It took him two days—his fingers were frozen to the oars. I also have a lot of new songs for a new CD. I’m doing demos and getting them ready at this point. I probably have enough songs to do three or four CDs.
Noise: As I said, Allen is a songwriter… a prolific one, one of the very best. Do yourself a favor and go and take a listen soon…