The country singer, whose new album Ruthless is out now, refused to return to the U.S. from vacation in the Dominican Republic until a vaccine was available 

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gary allan
Gary Allan
| Credit: Eric Adkins

Country singer Gary Allan was on a yacht in the Dominican Republic when the cover photo for his new album Ruthless was due. His record label asked him to return to Nashville for a photoshoot. He said no.

For the first time in more than 30 years, Allan isn't featured on his album cover.

His reason was simple: COVID-19.

"I told them, 'I'll come back from the Dominican when there's a vaccine,'" Allan, 53, told PEOPLE. "I'm going to be on the right side of that politics. I'm all for the vaccine."

The country singer — who has sold more than 8 million albums, charted five No. 1 hits and garnered 14 Top 10 songs — told executives at his record label they could send someone to the Dominican Republic to take his picture. The label group, Universal Music Group Nashville, obliged. However, the photograph didn't meet the deadline. Allan has no regrets.

Allan's outspoken support of the vaccine isn't standard in country music, with most of the genre's artists choosing to remain mum on the subject. But, Allan built his enviable career on being a renegade. Two decades after his breakthrough hit "Smoke Rings in the Dark," the California native isn't about to back down now – on his politics or his music.

"I'm very much not a Republican," he offered.

Ruthless, available now, is a reminder that Allan is not a typical, middle-of-the-road country singer. It's one of the reasons there are eight years between his last two projects. Scarce of country music's contemporary calling cards, Ruthless is thick with drums, assertive guitar and the singer's masculine, textured vocals. There are also strings, steel guitar, vulnerability — and sex.

"Even the songs that are dark have kind of a rock 'n roll poetry to them," he explained. "There's nothing really sad. I think all of them are unfiltered and clever. I think it takes you everywhere. Those are the best records that take you on a journey of a little bit of everything."

gary allan
Gary Allan
| Credit: Eric Adkins

The album's title track is a seductive, heartbroken mid-tempo anchored by a love interest who has moved on — and the singer who hasn't. "SEX" is a lighted-hearted exploration of the mountains and valleys of the act's entanglements. "What I Can't Talk About," an emphatic, up-tempo rocker, reveals Allan's motivation as an artist. "Temptation" is an engaging ode to the person from which the singer's heart will never recover. Allan thought "Waste of a Whiskey Drink," a catchy, relatable refrain about why women are a gamble, was his made-for-country-radio hit.

His record label disagreed with him — frequently. Allan spent years recording albums and presenting them to his record label. Executives rejected the music because they didn't hear a radio single. He won approval to release Ruthless when he explained his fans were hungry for new music and had waited long enough. The California native estimates Ruthless is a combination of three or four projects.

Allan enlisted heavyweight producers Mark Wright, Tony Brown, Greg Droman and Jay Joyce for the album and completed it weeks before the pandemic hit in 2020.

"The hardest thing about being in the music business for a long time is not getting jaded," Allan said. "The only answer to, 'I don't hear it,' is, 'Then I got more.' That's all you can ever do. 'Never stop betting on me. I'll be right back with better.' That's always my attitude."

He's thankful he finished Ruthless before COVID-19 struck. While some artists took solace in their creativity during lockdown, the situation left the singer in a funk. He and his family hid out in their home overlooking a Nashville-area lake and even took care to wash germs off their groceries. After spending six months at home, a friend's invitation to the Dominican Republic was too good to pass up. Allan went fishing every day, dined in open-air restaurants and took solace in knowing his closest neighbors were also sequestered on yachts.

In mid-April he got the call from his manager — a Covid-19 vaccine was available. He flew back to Nashville the next day and got the shot.