Jimmie Allen used to pay his band $25 a show. Now they're playing the 2021 CMA Awards

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When Jimmie Allen began cutting his teeth as a country singer, he could only afford to pay his band $25 a show.

"[We were playing] trash holes, basements, random bars where nobody cares," Allen told The Tennessean backstage this week during show rehearsals. "But everybody's done it, you have to. We learned a lot. We're thankful for the shows we played. Even if it was two people, we played like it was a thousand. When you're starting off, you take any gig you can take."

Now he's taking the band to one of country music's biggest stages — the CMA Awards.

The 36-year-old breakout artist his 2021 single "Freedom Was A Highway" to the primetime stage Wednesday night. Allen co-wrote the song about his formative years in Delaware — "when life was simple," he said.

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In the chorus, he sings: "When the town was the whole world/ And love was the girl next door/ Soundtrack was a song in the dark/ I miss those days when our dreams/ Were there for chasin'."

The song sits a step outside the top 10 on country radio, and continues to climb. But that isn't the only measuring stick for a single's success, Allen said.

"When I play shows, people sing it back to me," Allen said. "To me, that's always the biggest thing. It doesn't matter if it gets to No. 8 on the chart, if I play a song and nobody's singing it back to me, it ain't resonating."

And his performance comes days after viewers watched Allen finish a run on hit ABC reality show "Dancing With The Stars."

How was the experience? "Hard as hell," Allen said. When not filming, he often rehearsed four or five hours a day.

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"It's intense," Allen said. "I have a whole new respect for dancers and the art of dancing. It deserves the same respect you give music, that you give poetry, that you give books, that you give any type of creative ... dancers deserve that same respect."

Allen competes Wednesday night for CMA New Artist of the Year. The CMA Awards air Wednesday at 7 p.m. CST on ABC.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: How Jimmy Allen went from small-time shows to playing 2021 CMA Awards