There's an old saying that you should never meet your heroes for fear they won't be as advertised, but that doesn't apply to anyone who looks up to Kris Allen. The Arkansas-raised singer-songwriter is as genuine and down-to-earth today as he was more than a decade ago, before earning his big break on "American Idol" and cementing his place in Arkansas lore.
Allen, 35, laughs at the idea of living with the pretension and star-strut of a TV singing competition champion, something that has never fit the soulful kid from Jacksonville.
"I forget that I was on the show all the time," he says from his home in Nashville, Tenn. "I'll be walking around Nashville and people will be like, 'Hey! You're, like, whatever from "Idol"!' I'll be like, huh? What are you talking about? I have to remind myself that people might know who I am.
"Believe me, I've had many humbling experiences with that. 'Hey, aren't you [runner-up] David Archuleta?' No. No, I'm not."
Allen shares these insights with an easy humor, as if daily waking up to his good fortune and being pleasantly surprised every single time. It's a large part of his charm and an important coping mechanism with the fame beast, he says.
"Right after the show, I was as green as green could be," he says. "I didn't know anything about the music business and I had barely been creating real music before that. A lot of people were like, 'Kris, if you really want to go do this, you need to be in it.' And so, we did. We wanted to be in it.
"Having my wife around was so good, but it was a lot of pressure on us. It was a lot of pressure on me and she was having to deal with me and my pressure. We were both feeling all of that.
"I don't know if I'm the same. I think my heart is the same and my demeanor, in some ways, is the same. But I've changed in a lot of ways, hopefully, for the better."
Kris Allen was born the eldest of two sons to Neil and Kim Allen. He makes it back to his Pulaski County roots when he can. He was scheduled to be a live performer at the Nov. 7 Opus Ball XXXVI for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. The event will now be a virtual presentation that will include a performance by Allen. He's an alumnus of the symphony's youth orchestra.
Allen came from a musical lineage on his father's side, including his great uncle John Allen, a guitarist and singer who backed up Carl Perkins and Dolly Parton and played the Grand Ole Opry. Music was always part of the Allen kids' lives from singing in church to Allen's classical music interests.
"I went to College Station Elementary starting in the fourth grade and when you go to College Station, at least back then, you had to sign up for the orchestra," Allen says. "So, I signed up for the orchestra and I played viola. A lot of my friends were like, 'I don't think I want to do this.' And, as much as I wanted to follow my friends, I stayed in because I liked it. I liked playing viola, and I liked music. I just had an affinity for it, and it's just something that gave me joy."
Allen says he never reached the point where he wanted to pursue classical music full time, but he was accomplished enough to make the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra all the way through graduating from Wilbur D. Mills High School. Along the way, he leveraged his classical training to learn the guitar.
"The summer that I was 13, my dad had a guitar. I didn't have one yet," he says. "My parents had to work during the day, so me and my brother were just at home. My brother would ride his bike to the pool, Stonewall Pool in Jacksonville. I would stay at home and the whole day, while he was gone, I would quietly learn how to play."
"We were sitting outside one afternoon and he came out with the guitar and sat down and went directly into a song that I couldn't play," says Neil, who shelved his own dreams of musical stardom when the boys were born. "I was just kind of blown away."
For all of his acuity with musical instruments, Allen had yet to tackle singing with the same gusto, and for good reason.
"I was really shy. Like, insanely shy," he says. "I still deal with that. I don't deal with the fear of playing in front of crowds of people. But, if you get me in front of a small number of people and ask me to play some stuff, it can be debilitating for me. I was that kid, for sure."
Coaching him through that were his parents, whom Allen gives a lion's share of credit for his success.
"I don't know how they did it, but they did such a great job," he says. "My parents were always insanely supportive of me and my brother. That is a testament to them. They told us to do whatever we wanted to do and that was incredibly inspiring. Even when we didn't believe those things ourselves, they spoke a lot of encouragement."
Allen began to find his voice in college, through the praise ministry of New Life Church and Chi Alpha, a Christian ministry at the University of Central Arkansas. Those around him, like Cale Mills who befriended Allen during this period, could hear something special right away.
"We were around a lot of really talented people," Mills says. "We were both from New Life Church and they had a lot of amazing singers. And I've been a music fan for long enough that, just objectively speaking, I knew how good Kris was."
College professors were less impressed, at least as far as Allen's academic performance was concerned.
"I was a bad student. I almost got kicked out of college because I was so bad," he says. "They put me in a program where it was like, hey, this is your last shot. That semester, I made all A's. I'm smart enough. I know that I'm not inept when it comes to school stuff. I just didn't care.
"And this is probably the worst thing: right after that semester I made all A's, I dropped out of college. I was like, OK, I proved it to myself that I'm smart enough to make it here. Now, I'm going to drop out. That was when I made my first record and started playing shows and things like that."
PIZZA PARLOR GIGS
So began a series of typical starter gigs through which Allen honed his sound and performance skills. The stage is a great teacher, he found, especially in one humble enough to know how much he didn't know.
"With music -- in my head, I just didn't know how to make it a reality. I didn't have any idea," he says. "I knew that I loved it, and I knew that I loved playing. I just didn't know how to do it. College, for me, was 'Let's get real, Kris. This probably isn't going to happen in whatever way that you think it's going to happen and you might have to get a normal job.' That would have been fine, but it definitely wasn't what I was hoping for.
"I've never been one to say, 'OK, let me figure out who I want to be.' I'm just going to go out there and try. I was playing at places like Jim's Razorback Pizza in Maumelle where I'm background music. But for me, that was the best thing that I could have ever done was be background music. My whole thing was, I want you to pay attention to me, and I'm going to make you pay attention to me in my own way. I'm not flashy in any way, but me singing 'Gangster's Paradise' while you're eating some pizza, maybe that made people turn their heads, you know?"
"Kris was always just really solid, really unaffected by things," Mills says. "He was a quieter guy. He wasn't a big loud personality. He was definitely more talkative on stage, but he would kind of be the guy that maybe you might know for a long time and not even know what he could do."
Allen wasn't too far into his musical journey when "American Idol" entered the story. Versions of how he came to audition for the show's eighth installment vary slightly. One has him making up his mind well ahead of the audition, another has him as ride-along moral support for his younger brother's audition and deciding to try out on the spur of the moment. Whatever the case, when he was selected to advance, he did so with virtually no illusions of what was to come.
"None of it ever felt real to me. None of it," he says. "The moment that I went to L.A., I was like, 'This is a joke, right? This is some weird joke that everyone is playing on all of these singers.' It didn't make any sense to me.
"Not that I didn't take it seriously, because I took the song choices and the performances seriously. Usually, I would have gotten nervous. I never got nervous. When I was in front of the TV cameras, I never thought about millions of people watching. I never thought about that until one time, afterwards. And then, I freaked out."
THE GREAT COLLABORATOR
Allen says this mindset is what helped him keep the experience in perspective. He regularly helped other contestants with their arrangements and still considers some castmates as good friends, including runner-up Adam Lambert, his roommate throughout the show. Hardly the residue of a hotly contested career-making competition.
"You guys who were watching, it's 'The Hunger Games' for you guys and it felt like some joke to me," he says. "I wasn't putting any weight on any of it. I saw all of my other friends on the show put all of that weight on it and I was like, 'What are you so worried about?' To them, it felt real and it didn't to me.
"I think the environment was really healthy. It was competitive, but for the most part, it was competitive with ourselves. It was like, 'I want to do the best that I possibly can do.' I don't think any of us were comparing or competing against anyone, specifically."
Allen distinguished himself among the cast members for being uncommonly generous and gracious, something his father looks back on with pride.
"One of the things that impressed me more than anything else on the show, and some people do know about it, Paula Abdul actually made a comment about it on one of the shows, was how Kristopher helped some of these other people arrange their music," Neil says. "That was one of the things that I just went wow! He's in this just to see how it lands, but he's not going to separate himself from everybody else.
"That's some of the things we tried to teach our kids when they're growing up, to help a fellow man, be a part of society. If the efforts that you put into it benefit you, great, but if they don't so be it. You can walk away and go, 'I did my part.' That was probably one of the things that made me most proud."
If Neil was proud, the state was delirious at the prospect of a native son in the finals of one of the biggest reality TV franchises of 2009. Weekly watch parties became the norm and social media was filled with commentary and tips on how to register as many votes in the closing rounds as possible to propel him to the finish line.
And, in a finale that some critics called one of the biggest upsets in the short history of reality show competitions, win he did. The unassuming kid from Central Arkansas who'd married his high school sweetheart and knew what real cheese dip tasted like was atop the music world.
But while there is no dark chapter that accompanied his fame post-"Idol," it wasn't necessarily an easy adjustment to make either, he says.
"After the show, it got, not bad in any way. But it was hard," he says. "We moved to L.A. because they told us, 'You need to move to L.A.!' And, we listened. I wish we wouldn't have listened. They set me up with songwriters and record producers and all sorts of stuff, and it was all good.
"But I think once I learned a little bit about how I wanted things to go, and that was probably around 2012 whenever I released my second record, I won't say that I fought a lot with the record label. But it was definitely, 'This is what I want.' I didn't win all of the arguments. But I won some of them, and I feel really proud of that record because of that feeling of 'This is where I can take charge now.'"
Allen's authenticity is reflected in his song choices. Happily married and the father of three, he doesn't sing things that he can't personally relate to. And if personal bliss doesn't always translate into chart success, it beats trying to be someone you're not.
"It happens all the time," he says. "I'm writing with somebody and they are like, 'Hey, what about this idea?' I have to shut them down all the time because I just don't connect with it. Maybe it's the un-performer in me. It's not that I try to be genuine and authentic, it's just who I am. If I'm singing something that's not for me, I think people can feel it.
"For me to sell something to somebody, I have to put everything that I have into it. And if I'm not experienced, then no one's going to care about that. No one's going to go, OK, a guy that's been with his high school sweetheart forever is going to make a break-up record. No! No one's going to buy that from me."
Allen has spent the pandemic as many musicians have, listening and recording. A major tour was shelved, which gives him more time with family and a list of causes including the Blackbird Academy in Conway, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Tennessee. And of course, he is performing at this year's Opus Ball for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
Most of all, he's enjoying life as a husband and father, drawing from the lessons his parents taught him.
"Man, when I'm very present with my kids, I'm very happy," he says. "My daughter is 4 and she says that she wants to be a rock star. I think that she might be a comedian because she's hilarious.
"My son claims he doesn't want to do music, but I hear him sing all the time and he does have some sort of musical ability. If I'm going to show anyone a song first, it's going to be him. He'll definitely tell me if he likes it or not and usually, if he likes it, it's very possible that it might be good. Maybe I'm putting my whole career on a 7-year-old, but I feel like he knows what he's talking about. He likes good music."