Ben Allen goes from Naples bowling alley open mic night to 'The Voice'
Ben Allen had performed at an open mic night in a North Naples bar when the owner approached him.
"She came up to me and said, 'You want a job?' " he recalled the owner of the Blue Monkey Bar & Grille asking him that night in 2012.
"I said, 'I have a job, I don’t really want to wash dishes at night.' I didn’t know she meant to play music.”
Eight years later, the Estero resident now performs before millions of viewers as a contestant on NBC's "The Voice" after country star and coach Blake Shelton turned around his chair during Blind Auditions that aired Oct. 26.
It's the path between the two performances that has helped define Allen as a musician, who for years has played with his band at just about any Southwest Florida venue offering live music.
And that doesn't even include the hundreds of private events Allen and his group have played.
Allen — whose real name is Ben Allen Hughes — said he fell into music unintentionally with no idea he'd end up where he is now.
He was born and raised in Kingston, Tennessee, about 35 miles southwest of Knoxville, and had a passion for dirt and mountain bikes. He left that behind in 2009 when he moved to Naples for a job as a building inspector for Collier County's Growth Management Department — still his full-time job.
"The economy was in the tank when I came here, and I was fortunate to get into Collier County," he said.
About the same time, Allen picked up his guitar that he brought with him. His older brother, David, years earlier had taught him three chords so Allen began playing that first night for three hours.
“I had always wanted to go back to it and learn to play the thing," Allen said. “When I moved to Florida, my hobbies kind of went away. I winded up pulling the guitar out of the closet and I was kind of immersed in it every night and learned the basics.
"I just wanted to be able to accompany myself and sing a song and be able to do that for myself. I had no intention of going any further.”
He eventually got up the nerve to perform in front of strangers during an open mic night at Bowland Beacon bowling alley along U.S. 41 in Naples.
"I loved it so much. It scared me bad," Allen said. "Anything that’s kind of thrilling like that, I’m in for it. Doing something where there’s no net and if you fall on your face there’s nothing to catch you, and Lord knows I’ve done that many times too.”
His first paid gig was after that, at the Blue Monkey, and he performed with another musician before he decided to start a band at the suggestion of others. The Ben Allen Band performed live for the first time July 4, 2014, in downtown Fort Myers.
They played the only 17 songs they knew and, when they still needed to continue performing, played some of the same songs a second time, he said.
After the July Fourth introduction to the Southwest Florida music scene, the Ben Allen Band was on its way. Those who have stopped by Whiskey Park in East Naples or The Ranch Concert Hall & Saloon in Fort Myers in recent years probably heard the band playing well into the night.
The band also was at private events like weddings and corporate affairs, the most recognizable Southwest Florida band for the past half-dozen years.
“There’s a lot of years I’ve done 150, 180 shows a year," Allen said. “For years now, a typical Friday is work starts at 7 a.m. and I'm done at 4, go home, change clothes, drive straight to a venue, perform, pack up and get out at 3 o’clock in the morning then do it again Saturday night then maybe an outdoor thing Sunday afternoon."
Ben Allen Band also began performing with main Nashville acts, including Lady A (formerly Lady Antebellum) and Darius Rucker last December at the inaugural Live Fest during the QBE Shootout at Tiburón Golf Club in North Naples.
Then the pandemic put a hold on the band's performances.
"I will say COVID hitting the way it did and everything stopped, it forced me to stop and see what I had done and there were other aspects of life to be dealt with," Allen said.
Two years ago, Allen said he was preparing to marry girlfriend Laura Youmans when he learned about a month before the wedding that his brother David had died in a motorcycle accident.
It was his big brother who was the only other musician in his family, someone he would turn to when he had a question about performing on stage or just sharing his musical rise.
His journey continues because it began with his brother introducing him to the guitar, he said.
"It wasn’t something that I purposely sought out," he said of becoming a musician. "It was something that I fell into backwards. Then I came to realize of the dream of it.”
Gift of music
Reaching "The Voice" Blind Auditions was his third crack at it, he said. He auditioned for the first time a few years ago and didn't make it.
“It was something I had wanted to do since the show began," he said. “I had no idea what I was doing but I found myself in a room with people who had the power to decide things. It was a learning experience. Three years ago, I was with them again and came really close.”
Earlier this year, Allen said, he came across one of the contacts in his phone from the previous audition.
“It had been in my mind to maybe try that again and I randomly dialed the number," he said. "I had expected to leave a voicemail but a man answered and said, 'Oh yeah, I remember you.' He said, 'You were very, very close. I wanted you to go through.' ”
The man encouraged him to audition again, so Allen flew to North Carolina four days later and did.
"The talent level of everybody that walked onto that stage was exceptionally high," he said.
"You just don’t know what's going to happen. Part of me says, you have to tell yourself you deserve to be here and you have the talent to be here and I’m going to own this.
“It all boils down to the tip of the spear and the spear is pretty sharp.”
The Battle Rounds begin Nov. 9 and Allen could appear on "The Voice" at any time from that day forward in the next few weeks.
For Allen to make it this far, he said, has been a wonderful ride that he hopes continues, and he has been overwhelmed by support shown, especially from Southwest Floridians.
"It has been beyond anything I can imagine," he said Oct. 30 in a telephone interview.
"I knew I had a recognizable name in our area. But I had no idea the tremendous level it would reach. It’s been hard to function in every day life this week just because of how much attention this has garnered. It's been humbling and it’s blown me away, to be honest.”
“Before that aired, I thought, I’m so happy to be there. Now you look at it from a whole different perspective, how many people are happy you do what you do. It’s not a gift I ever imagined I would give in my life.”
A goal is to make it big and see how far he can go regardless of whether he wins "The Voice."
“I would love to make it in Nashville. Who knows if that’s in the cards for me," he said.
"If that's what comes of this, then amen to that. But if I come up short of that, I love to play shows and I love to play locally. I think that I will grow from this tremendously and I will reach out nationwide and play shows.
“But at the same, I love my hometown here and what I do around here on a weekly basis.
“It would be bittersweet to be out traveling and playing all the time and not be here in my home area playing shows. We get so much energy from people here locally. It’s just amazing.”