The lights go down in the Exhibit Hall at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington. The chattering sold-out crowd is quickly hushed by a deep, sonorous bass drone that reverberates off the walls and through the metal folding chairs. Phones, waiting to capture those exciting first moments of the concert, are raised overhead. Then a thrilled scream from the corner: A woman standing at just the right angle to see—fractions of a second before everyone else—spots Jimmie Allen, Delaware’s rising star in country music.
One scream turns into 800 resounding cheers.
Bedazzled in a mirror ball jacket that’s more Michael Jackson than Jason Aldean, Allen lays into the opening lyrics of “County Lines,” and everybody knows the words:
“You and me in the front seat
With a full tank, a little Friday cash
Blackstreet on the CD (No Diggity)
A little blast from the past”
The lyrics are quick. There’s a hip-hop influence, but it’s subtle. It’s more of a detail—like the allusion to Blackstreet—than a guiding feature. But mostly, it’s that curious genre of catchy modern pop-country love song: music, lovers, road tripping, with a dash of nostalgia. Mixed with the soft tones of a mellow rhythm guitar and a few notes on a piano, the song is designed to make you feel good.
And at this moment, everybody in the Exhibit Hall at Harrington is feeling good. Really good.
Seeing Allen live is quite the show. On his debut album, “Mercury Lane,” “County Lines” unfolds with auto-tune vocals and a synth-drum laying down a tension-filled beat that’s maybe a little Taylor Swift. However, amid the smoothing and polishing layers of production on the album, it’s tough to really get a sense of Allen as a singer.
But in concert, his vocals carry the show. Even with the support of a damn good band—which Allen certainly has—it’s difficult not to be struck by his sheer raw talent.
It was a thrilling start to the night. After the opening number, Allen kneels at the front of the stage, calling on the audience to get up out of their chairs and move to the front.
“I want to touch your hands,” he says with a smile. “All that space makes me nervous.”
The crowd—mostly young, mostly white and mostly women—literally leaps out of their seats. Allen fist-bumps and high-fives. A selfie is taken with a fan in the few seconds between verses when he’s not singing. Another phone, another selfie. All the while, Allen’s vocals rise and dip, never missing the beat.
In other words, the first thing you need to know about Jimmie Allen is he’s one hell of a showman. He’s a gifted singer-songwriter, but even when in the spotlight, he carries the humility of a performer who recognizes the value of building a relationship with the audience. And he does this well. Nearly every song is prefaced by a story about his roots in Delaware: going fishing with his grandmother or listening to that old-timey country music with his dad. Allen talks about his musical influences. By the end of the night, you feel like you’ve known this person your whole life.
During two nights of concerts in Newark and Harrington, the sentiment was ubiquitous: Allen is the type of guy who respects his small-town roots—a characteristic that folks from Kent and Sussex counties (and yes, even the “big city” folk in the state’s northern end) really appreciate.
Even if you don’t listen to country music, there’s an overwhelming sense that you should listen to this country music. His hit single “Best Shot” rose to the top of the country music charts not once but twice, making Allen, a Milton native and graduate of Cape Henlopen High School, the first black country music artist to debut at No. 1 since Darius Rucker with “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” in 2008.
And he got this far singing songs about growing up in southern Delaware.
Jimmie Allen currently resides in Nashville, but he was born and raised in a modest home on Mercury Lane in Milton, just a little over a mile from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. The street—after which Allen named his debut album—is about the length of two city blocks and terminates in cul-de-sacs at either end. Beyond that is cornfield.
It’s a very John Mellencamp small town kind of place. It’s “Slower Lower,” as Allen affectionately says. When you get down here, south of the canal, south of the Northeast Corridor, everything—life itself—just kind of slows down.
Growing up here, all the kids were expected to sing in the church choir, which for Allen planted the seeds of a music career. Around the age of 4 or 5, recalls Allen’s older brother, Brian Mifflin, he was always singing.
“He was always musically inclined,” says Mifflin, noting that his younger brother taught himself both drums and guitar. “Anything he could get his hands on, he’d make some music. This is his love. He loves to perform. He loves bringing joy to other people through his music.”
Take any exit off Del. 1 south of the canal and drive for five minutes in any direction, and you’re in small-town America. The land is flat. The fields tilled. Farm equipment dots the two-lane roads. The towns are easy to miss. Homes have plenty of space between them. There’s a truck in most driveways.
It was there that a young Jimmie Allen started listening to country music. His dad listened to country music, as did most of his family and friends.
“This is Sussex County, everybody listens to country music,” says Mifflin.
Down here, the people are country and damn proud of it. They eat country. Talk country. Party country. It’s that Hank Williams Jr. state of mind, or as Allen says in his hometown anthem, “Slower Lower”:
“Sometimes we’re higher than the blue sky
And everybody’s feeling just right
’Cause it’s a little slower down here, lower round here
It gets a little hotter, closer to the water
And some ice cold beer, stomping ground here
Roots run a little deeper yeah
’Cause we were praising hallelujahs and amens
And life is what you make it so we take it
A little slower down here, lower round here”
Fans recognize the world that Allen creates in his music. On one hand, it’s Delaware. But it could also be Georgia. Or Kansas. Allen’s depiction of his home is relatable in a way that reminds country listeners of their own roots.
“Country music speaks and tells the story of people who live that life,” says Brad Austin, afternoon DJ and operations manager at “new country” radio station WXCY, based out of Havre de Grace, Maryland. “People who listen to country music are more likely to be tuned into the lifestyle that it represents. It’s a very personal type of music because the genre, I think, is very authentic. It’s very real to the people who are fans of it and to the people who live it.”
That’s why fans connect with Allen’s music, they say, because it’s relatable. As Allen family friend and southern Delaware resident Shannon Myers said at the Harrington concert, “He wrote a song about ‘Slower Lower,’ so there’s that. He keeps it real. Keeps it original. Doesn’t forget where he’s from.”
Between sips from a bottle of beer that she holstered in her cleavage, Myers quickly pointed to the fact that, just a few weeks earlier, Allen performed an all-ages charity show at the Rusty Rudder in Dewey Beach that ultimately raised $20,000 for the Rehoboth Elementary Parent Teacher Organization. That’s the kind of thing that real people do. Because real people don’t forget where they’re from.
And when “Mercury Lane” debuted, Allen could have had a fancy album-release party anywhere. Instead, he chose a Walmart parking lot in Lewes.
Austin covered the album release for WXCY. Hundreds of people were standing in line for hours, waiting to get an autograph and picture with Allen.
It makes Allen something of a hometown hero; he captures that small-town America of “Slower Lower,” puts it to music, and it fills folks around here with pride.
Allen’s rise to stardom wasn’t easy. At the age of 20, he decided to move away to pursue his music career. With friends going off to college, Jimmie set off to Nashville, where country music stars are made—or fall.
“My family, they’re one of the reasons that I moved,” Allen recalls. “I had so many relatives I knew were looking up to me to keep chasing my dreams, and I knew in order for them to keep pursuing theirs, I had to pursue mine.”
The first few months in Tennessee didn’t go as planned. He moved in with some roommates, but their landlord sold the home on short notice. When Allen gave his roommates the next month’s rent to get a new place, they took the money and never spoke to him again.
He spent the next three months living out of his car. In an interview with the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean, Allen recalled that one day a stranger gave him a dollar and he used it to buy a chicken sandwich. He tore it in half and saved the rest for the next day.
The nights were cold. He’d turn on his Chevy Malibu for a few minutes to warm up. He thought about home. Fishing with Grandma Betty at Broadkill or Bowers beaches; all those times a trout got the best of him and snapped his line. Her words of inspiration: “Keep chasing your dreams.”
“She always said I had some things I needed to say, that the world needed to hear,” he says.
“That was a tough time. He was discouraged, didn’t know which way he wanted to go,” says Mifflin. “But it’s Jimmie. He’s gonna go for it no matter what it takes. This is his dream.” When his family found out he was living out of his car, they were heartbroken.
Sometimes he would come back to Delaware feeling dejected by the music industry, recalls lifelong friend Talon Taylor.
“I’m thinking of coming back,” Taylor recalls Allen saying. But they both knew that his dreams were in Nashville.
“You have to stay in Nashville,” Taylor said. “You can make it.”
Allen caught a break in 2010. At 24 years old, he got a spot on “American Idol” but was eliminated before performing on live TV.
“They told me that I was very unique, and my style, it goes against the grain. They just said to keep doing what I do, and things will work out. They never really said why I didn’t make it,” Allen recalled in an interview with the Cape Gazette. “It was definitely a learning experience, and putting my name out there and stuff, that got me a few label interests.”
He also forged lasting friendships with Idols Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery, with whom Allen toured in 2018. In 2011, Allen played for troops and their families in Japan with Armed Forces Entertainment. In 2013 he was featured in a Diet Coke commercial with Taylor Swift and a song he co-wrote was featured in a Super Bowl commercial.
But his big break came in 2016, while performing at a singer-songwriter event at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee. Also performing was Ash Bowers, a singer and producer with Wide Open Music. Bowers was so impressed, he offered Allen a record deal the very next week.
“Got any more songs?” Bowers asked.
He had 20.
“Black people listen to country music too,” Allen says, probably more often than he should have to. As he sees it, more black artists in country music is just a return to country’s roots.
Allen recalls from a while back when someone asked him, “Why do you think black guys are starting to get into country music now?” To which he replied, “Country came from black people. Its roots are in the blues.”
It’s hard to tell if Allen enjoys talking to reporters. But get him on the topic of country music history, well, that’s different. He’ll tell you about DeFord Bailey in the 1920s playing the harmonica at the Grand Ole Opry; “light blues,” Allen calls it. Those are the roots of country music. From the 1970s through the 1980s, one of the most popular artists in country music was Charley Pride.
But Allen also recognizes that his presence in country music is unusual, even if it seems conventional in 2019. He is certainly a pioneer in many regards but also thinks that country music is ready for more artists of color. And as Allen is fond of saying, the fans are ready for it too.
(From Left): Allen on stage.; student Aza’ky Ayers takes the mic.//photos by Maria Deforrest
Country music has evolved to a point where it’s more relatable to a broader demographic. Gone is the preponderance of twang and the steel guitar. The urban-cowboy image is in decline. Those sounds and images, once associated with a music industry historically dominated by white men and women, are increasingly something from a bygone era.
Allen has kept a low profile about the racial dynamics of country music. It’s something he talks about, but not extensively. He just loves playing country music and living the dream. His debut album is a hit and, according to Jon Caramanica of The New York Times, “a conventional country album.”
“If Allen is fighting for anything here,” wrote Caramanica, “it’s for the right to be that conventional.”
“Hopefully, one day color won’t really matter,” says Allen. “Because with pop, hip-hop, jazz, classical, Christian music, a black guy doing it is not a big thing. So hopefully by then…country music, no matter where you’re from or what you look like, if you want to do it you can do it.
“Stepping into the genre at the time I stepped into it, I feel like there’s definitely an obligation to wave the banner and be a role model. When you step into it, you have to be willing to accept everything that comes with it—the criticism, the comments from people that might not be educated or willing to be open-minded to things that are happening that they might not want to accept.”
One year into his sudden rise to stardom, Allen is coming to terms with the implications of his fame. He’s accomplished a feat most never will. And somewhere in America, there are kids looking up to him as encouragement to chase their own dreams.