Tori Allen was hardly an unknown talent going into 2022, between past success with Corey Wagar-Grogan as the duo GirlBilly and recent miles logged on the road for fellow act to watch Ashland Craft. With the February release of "Colors," the Nashville-via-Austin fiddler forged a new reputation as the writer and performer of feel-good music that defies genre classification.
Allen, Wagar-Grogan and Josh Paige co-wrote "Colors" in 2016.
"We wrote this song about the professional NFL players kneeling on the field during their national televised games-- just to have the world 'hear' and 'see' them...but I felt the world wasn't ready to hear or receive where they were coming from," Allen said in a press release. "My family and I grew up in government-funded housing where we didn't have a lot. I watched the kids next to me get different treatment than I did as a young white female, but we were all in the same boat. We were all coming from a home that couldn't support us, but we had an entire community of kids that made me believe in the power of people, and the open idea that the end of the day, we all come from somewhere. It may look different, but at the end of the day we must function from a place of love."
The song's sunshiny music video shows Allen brightening the days of strangers around Nashville by simply being kind.
"We would walk up to people, and we were like, 'Hey, we're here to spread a little joy today. Do you mind if I give you a flower and my friend captured it?'," Allen told Wide Open Country. "They would be like, 'Yeah, absolutely.' We'd come up and get to talking, and the cinematographer would ask if they would just stop and stare into the camera. It was so beautiful to watch someone be watched with a camera and how people would feel beautiful or feel bashful. You don't know these people. They're just out in public and being nice and going along with it. They'd end with this huge smile on their face. We left at the end of the day nearly in tears because it was such a blessing. Story after story and different walks of life... That was a beautiful day."
Though Allen plays traditional country instruments and performs in the CMT Awards house band, her solo material draws inspiration from a wide variety of sonic influences.
"I speak through my mandolin and my fiddle and my guitar, but I don't play mainstream, down-the-middle, super country-sounding music," she said. "I'm influenced by everything. I love Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow and Heart and all sorts of stuff, and I think that comes out of me. To me, I don't even like to identify with the genre. I'm like, 'But does it make you feel good?' That's what I play. I like music that makes me feel good."
Experiences back home in Texas made a classically-trained violinist's career trajectory more Jenee Fleenor than Itzhak Perlman.
"I got to play at Carnegie when I was 18," Allen explained. "I was living a very different journey [as a violinist], but I was a songwriter at heart. I get that from my dad. I picked up a guitar in eighth grade and started writing my feelings. Thank you Taylor Swift for teaching us. That turned into sure, I wanted to go play Carnegie Hall, but guess what, my family couldn't afford it. My mom would take me down to 6th Street, but I wasn't old enough to play in bars. I would stand out there and I'd busk and my mom would hold a five gallon bucket."
The violinist-to-fiddler transformation became complete after Allen moved to Nashville at age 19 to work in music publishing, but only after some tough love from the folks at downtown Nashville destination Tootsie's.
"Well some little bug got out that I'm a fiddle player," Allen recalled. "Then the owner came up and said, 'Hey, you're playing at my club at Tootsie's, but we really need fiddle players. We need you to bring your fiddle to your next gig.' I was like, 'Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I don't play fiddle. I'm a violinist, but I don't even have a pickup on my violin. My mom might kill me. I don't know if I can bring that down to a bar.' The next day I got a call, and I got let go. They told me not to come back until I played my fiddle. Whenever I was ready, they'd be happy to help me purchase what I needed to become a fiddle player.
"So my boss at Tootsie's, Greg Humphrey, we went to Guitar Center and got everything I needed," she continued. "I was terrified because I had quit [two jobs] and I had no other option. So I locked myself in my room and I figured it out. But it was a really beautiful thing that was happening. I was really being pressure cooked into becoming a fiddle player."
GirlBilly's 2017 run on The Voice positioned Allen to first meet fellow contestant Craft.
"At the hotel they put us up at, you've got that connecting door to the room next to you," Allen said. "We had become friends [with Craft] and they put her in the room next to us. We were opening that door and all hanging out for a month and a half and getting really close."
When it came time for Craft to blend rock grit and country storytelling on her 2021 debut album Travelin' Kind, she knew the right fiddler for the job.
"She ended up cutting one of my songs [Wagar-Grogan co-write 'Day by Day'] on the album, so it was a really cool experience," Allen added. "That was my first time getting a cut and getting to be part of the master session that picks your song for someone else and you get to help build it out. It was such a beautiful time. We did the album and afterward, it was like, 'Man, we're going on the road. We just created all of this. Do you want to help go recreate it live?' I've been a music director and band leader for a few artists here in town, so it kind of made the most sense at the time."
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Touring with Craft's band positions Allen to perform a more conventionally country style of feel-good music.
"She plays fun, honky-tonk music. It's music you're going to want to dance to. You're going to want to sing to. You're going to want to line dance to," Allen explained. "That's a big part of something she's passionate about at her shows. She wants to create an experience that makes people have fun and want to dance. That type of fiddle playing over that type of music is so much fun, but I don't write that kind of music for myself to perform. I call it getting to have my cake and eat it too. You get to come over here and plug in with your friends in an awesome band and jam some really fun honky-tonk music. Then I get to come back and speak my own truth and have my own things to say that are important to me and be pumped about that."
With "Colors" and prior release "Made in the Shade," Allen follows her creative arrow while crafting sounds that owe more to Macy Gray than Clint Black.
"You spend your whole journey trying to figure out how to close the gap between you and the now thing," Allen said. "The whole time, you're also developing your own thing. Over time, you'll start to trust your own thing more because it's the most authentic thing. I'm trusting now that these things that make me feel good will find a place. I need to not worry about that, and I need to just put it out there. It will find its spot, wherever that's got to be."
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