NASHVILLE — Jay Allen could be on the cusp of stardom. And if he breaks out, which he is on track to do in 2018, you’ll be able to say you knew him way back when.
That’s because Allen — who has had a single on Sirius XM radio station The Highway for several weeks, is releasing a seven-song EP and starting to talk about going on a 45-city tour this spring — is a 2004 graduate of Dike-New Hartford High School and attended the University of Northern Iowa.
His parents still live in Stout, he said, but Allen’s been living in Nashville for the past few years, trying to break into the country music business. It looks like it’s starting to pay off.
“It’s awesome; it’s kind of happening really fast,” Allen said by phone from Nashville.
Having his first big song, “Sounds Good to Me,” spinning on country radio means getting to go places like the Country Music Awards — and even getting noticed.
“We rolled up at this event for the CMAs and they literally walked us down this red carpet. All these girls are out front and wanted to take pictures with me,” Allen said. “I didn’t put together the power of radio until that point.”
But being a country music star wasn’t always the goal for the Northeast Iowa native, despite growing up listening to the genre.
When Allen was 21, he moved to Georgia to become a worship director and Christian music artist, living first in Atlanta and then Savannah, Ga. He lived in a historic district in Savannah surrounded by moss oak trees and brick streets, and even began hanging out with celebrity chef Paula Deen.
“It was really just a weird time in my life,” Allen said, laughing.
He might have lived that life for longer if not for his pastor and best friend being fired from the church.
“I was bummed out,” Allen said. “I thought, ‘Well, if you’re not here, I’m not going to be here.’”
He moved back to Iowa, living in a Des Moines condo with his girlfriend at the time, and after several months she started telling Allen he needed to get back into the music business.
“Over a period of four weeks, she convinced me to move to Nashville,” he said.
In 2013, he finally did, living off the generosity of friends in Henderson, Tenn., and working his way into the business.
“I made a lot of friends really fast, I started writing, networking — going out to all the bars every night,” Allen said. “Before long, I got my first publishing company.”
Fast forward to the fall of 2016, when Allen had just signed a publishing deal and an artist deal with Sony Music. That’s helped him land “Sounds Good to Me” on Sirius XM radio, record an EP and start thinking about touring.
“It was a pretty good feeling to see it all come full circle, see how hard work and friendships paid off,” he said.
“Sounds Good to Me” definitely fits a party-country audience — and that audience is definitely big. But Allen’s got deeper songwriting chops than that.
He’s also penned “Blank Stares,” a personal song about his mother’s battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He said his mother, who was diagnosed at age 53, can no longer have a conversation and often just “stares off into space.”
Allen said he began writing the song after taking his family to see a band in Nashville last Thanksgiving and, while dancing with his mother, watch her suddenly recognize him for a few minutes.
“She took a deep breath — like she came to for a second — and said, ‘Jay, I missed you so much, I love you so much,’” Allen said. “The whole concept is waiting for those moments between the blank stares.”
He said the fan reaction has been “amazing,” with people flooding his social media accounts to tell him how much the song meant to them. The Alzheimer’s Association even contacted him to play “Blank Stares” at an event.
“It’s funny, because it was always about figuring out a way to be an artist, and figure out how to make money. But when I wrote ‘Blank Stares,’ I see how powerful an impact it can make,” Allen said. “That’s the goal, that’s the purpose, which is pretty fulfilling — it’s bigger than yourself.”