Interview: Allison Moorer Prepares for Two Special Deliveries
Close to delivering her eighth record and first child (in that order), Allison Moorer seems far removed from her previous life as a Country It Girl. In a New York state of mind now, her memories of Alabama, where she was born, and her once-adopted home of Tennessee aren’t nearly as warm as the weather down there.
She still makes records in Nashville and occasionally goes back with her husband, folk hero/rock renegade/outlaw countryman Steve Earle, who has owned a home in Fairview since the Eighties. If it’s a tie that binds, they sound ready to cut it loose.
“Hopefully, when the market recovers, we can get rid of it,” Moorer says over the phone, laughing at the notion of leaving behind a place they both called home for much of their adult lives, way before their relationship began. “And that’s nothing anti-Nashville, that’s just having too many houses.”
Much has changed since Miss Fortune became Mrs. Earle in 2005. Living in New York’s Greenwich Village, down the street from where the photo for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan‘s album cover was shot, the couple also have an escape hatch in Woodstock, home of another Americana icon, Levon Helm. Moorer and Earle are looking forward to splitting time between residences after she gives birth in March to a baby boy they will name John Henry Earle. “Thank God I’ve got a husband with a job,” she offers with a chuckle.
“The big day we’ll be here sooner than we’re ready, I’m sure,” Moorer says in mid-January, just beginning her third trimester. “I’m starting to get that, ‘Good Lord, how long can this go on’ feeling. But I really can’t complain. I’m doing fine.”
And, Moorer reports, so is Earle, who is on the last leg of a tour promoting Townes, his Grammy-nominated tribute album to the late Townes Van Zandt, the Long Tall Texan who was Earle’s mentor. But it was on his previous record, Washington Square Serenade, that Earle delivered a crystal clear “See Ya” message to the Music City in the opening verse of “Tennessee Blues”:
Sunset in my mirror, pedal on the floor /
Bound for New York City and I won’t be back no more /
Won’t be back no more, boys won’t see me around /
Goodbye Guitar Town
Moorer might be more subtle, but she also lets her music do the talking on Crows (Ryko), to be released February 9. Filled with childhood memories, lush strings, textured sounds, sweet and sorrowful lyrics and Moorer’s exquisite voice and harmonies, the lovely album is four-star-worthy. With torch song qualities that prove this Southern Girl is all grown up, she describes it as looking into “a Tim Burton snow globe.”
“Country singer” is merely a listing on her extensive musical resume.
Moorer sounds genuinely excited about the possibilities the next stage of her life will bring, revealing herself during a candid interview that goes well beyond her promotional chores. Admitting, at 37, “I’m not a spring chicken,” the still-ravishing redhead with the cool blue eyes is frank and open about country, her career, her hopes and dreams and the constant pursuit of happiness.
Of course, she has never been one to avoid parts of her painful past in her music.
Her life was forever changed on August 12, 1986, with the horrific deaths of her parents outside the family’s Frankville, Alabama home. Moorer, then 14, and her 17-year-old sister, Shelby Lynne, were inside when their estranged father shot and killed their mother, then himself. Any joy and innocence that remained was lost at that moment. Moving in with their mother’s sister, both teenagers learned to adapt, as Moorer puts it.
“I’m very lucky that way in that I’ve never felt like I was going off the deep end or whatever,” she offers. “But having said that, those experiences have definitely shaped my filter.”
Lynne soon left for Nashville, followed a few years later by Moorer, who first went to the University of South Alabama in Mobile and earned a degree in public relations in June 1993. Both had the talent and the will to develop as singer-songwriters in Nashville, then eventually moved on after discovering the country scene didn’t meet their needs.
Just a Little Bit Country
“God help us,” Moorer says, laughing again after being reminded of their country roots. “We’re both very thankful to have had that start, you know. But it’s no place to try to be a singer-songwriter, let’s face it. They just don’t like you very much.”
Asked to clarify that, Moorer says it again with added emphasis. “No, they don’t like it very much. No, they don’t take very kindly to artists who want to sing their own songs ’cause it doesn’t feed the beast in the way they would like it to.”
Yet Moorer isn’t intent on making this a total Nashville bash, refusing to turn her back on an industry that launched her career, resulting in seven studio albums in 12 years, beginning with Alabama Song. That first album in 1998 produced an Academy Award nomination for “A Soft Place to Fall,” a song from Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer that Moorer co-wrote with Gwil Owen. She then performed it in the movie and at the Oscars in 1999.
“I’m not gonna say I’m not a country artist. I’ve never been interested in defining myself as one or not as one …,” Moorer adds. “I just don’t think it’s that important. I think you can totally live in Nashville and not operate in the major label Nashville system. You know, I did. I think it’s a fine place to live.”
And, Moorer emphasizes, there isn’t a better place to work. “I think, on the whole, you have more musicians there that can do more things. They’re just more versatile. And for any kind of roots music, that’s where I would send somebody.”
On Crows, Moorer felt it was important to tap that well of wealth again, returning to producer R.S. Field, who has worked on several of her previous albums, including Show, a CD/DVD combo recorded live at 12th & Porter in Nashville in 2003 (with guest appearances by her sister and Kid Rock), and The Duel.
Recorded in four days with no overdubs last September, Crows gave Moorer the chance to reunite with several excellent and experienced Nashville musicians, including guitarist Joe McMahan and bassist Brad Jones. Shorthand with them, along with a newfound confidence, helped Moorer reach a point “where I started to trust myself more” and started to “accept the fact that I might know a little bit about what I’m doing.”
After her previous two records were produced by Earle (2006’s Getting Somewhere) and Buddy Miller (2008’s Mockingbird), Moorer decided to go back to Field “on purpose because this batch of songs is a little different from anything I’ve done before. They’re more textured, they’re more inside. I’ve let them be more, sort of, eclectic. It’s probably, no it’s not probably, it’s definitely the most true musical statement I’ve made.”
Moorer wrote 12 of the album’s 13 songs, many “between labels” after New Line Records disappeared in a corporate shakeup with Warner Bros. She continues to explore her dark side wryly and poetically on such sophisticated material as “When You Wake Up Feeling Bad” and “Should I Be Concerned.” The latter song includes a celestaphone, and Moorer goes to great lengths to tell her uninformed interviewer about the Autoharp-shaped instrument with the “chimey sound.” Saying in that warm drawl still oozing Southern charm and grace, “You should know this, you’d appreciate it,” Moorer even does a quick Google search to find out who invented it (Henry Marx).
Hard-pressed to pick a favorite, Moorer goes with the title track (“It reminds me of the songs I used to make up when I was a kid. It’s almost innocent,” she says) but also shows a lot of love for “Easy in the Summertime,” where she fondly reminisces about her mother:
Swinging on the barnyard gate /
It don’t get dark till after eight /
Run inside a kiss and hug /
Wrapped up in my mama’s love
Moorer’s poignant piano playing and what she describes as “a slowed-down musical snow globe” nicely connect “Easy in the Summertime” with “The Stars & I (Mama’s Song),” which includes a heartfelt message from mother to daughter that Moorer says came to her in a dream.
Moorer defiantly searches for hope on “Sorrow (Don’t Come Around),” the one song on the album she wrote after discovering she was pregnant. “It was from a real hopeful place. I had been through a miscarriage before, so I was really excited but frightened,” she reveals. “I think it’s one of the most hopeful things I’ve ever written.”
When Loving Turns to Leaving
On only her second album, The Hardest Part in 2000, Moorer sounded neither hopeful nor happy. But brutally honest. She discussed the record in detail back then with Grant Alden, whose splendid article, “Loving, Leaving, Living: Allison Moorer lays it all on the line with a suite of songs about a sad, sad world,” appeared in the September-October 2000 edition of No Depression magazine.
Moorer told Alden, “The first song on the record, ‘The Hardest Part’, makes a statement about love: ‘The hardest part of living is loving, ’cause loving turns to leaving every time.’ That is what I believe to be true. No matter if you’re in a love relationship, in a relationship with parents or siblings, whatever it may be, it’s gonna end.”
At the time, Moorer was married to Doyle “Butch” Primm, and they co-wrote and co-produced what Alden called “a country music concept album.” And the concept is essentially about a relationship that’s doomed.
The album also included the closest thing Moorer has ever had to a hit single, “Send Down An Angel,” along with “Cold, Cold Earth,” the hidden track about the murder-suicide involving her parents that ends with “Now they are lying / In the cold, cold earth / Such a sad, sad story / Such a sad, sad world.”
To anyone who has heard her music, Alden’s impressions of Moorer back then might still apply. “There is no better singer at work today, and only a very few are her equal,” he wrote. “The Hardest Part is her truth, and hard-won. Hardest won. Nothing else could hurt that much, and precious little art comes from joy.”
Critical success, along with late night appearances on Letterman and Leno, put Moorer on the national map, while on the road at stops like the Soiled Dove in Denver, she performed “Cold, Cold Earth” in front of hushed, stunned audiences. But country radio still wasn’t ready to listen.
“She’s one of those artists, like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, who radio thinks is a little too complex maybe to fit their playlists,” then-MCA Nashville Records president Tony Brown told esteemed pop music critic Robert Hilburn of the Los Angles Times even before The Hardest Part was released in 2000. “But I think she’ll break through. She’s got a million-dollar voice and I love her songs. We could try to gimmick up the records to try to make them more radio-friendly, but I don’t want to compromise what she does just to get on radio.”
Neither did Moorer. “Country radio (programmers) don’t want anything that might distract listeners from whatever it is they are doing,” Moorer told Hilburn then. “But I’m fed up with hearing about how everything’s great, and songs about ‘I love you and you love me, and isn’t everything wonderful?’ Well, everything in life isn’t always wonderful and we need to talk about that too.
“I realize I have to have a certain amount of success in order to be able to do this and I would love to have a hit, but I’m not going to change who I am to get one.”
Principles intact, it was her marriage to Primm that eventually fell apart. Four years later, it was essentially over, becoming official with a divorce in April 2005.
Asked for this article about those comments she made in No Depression 10 years ago, Moorer said, “I still believe that to be true. It’s not sad, it’s how life works.”
Duke (and Duchess) of Earle
Known for his rapid-fire rants, colorful stories and entertaining between-songs banter, Earle liked to tell this one during The Revolution Starts Now tour in 2004-05 with his hard-rocking band, the Dukes, which included a stop at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, Colorado on March 30, 2005:
“I’m from an awful place called Texas. It’s going to take a while to get the stink out of there. But one thing I did learn growing up in Texas is how to get my money’s worth out of a redheaded girl once I get her up here. You know what the difference between a redhead from Alabama and a tornado is, right? (Dramatic pause …) Fuckin’ nothing! Sooner or later one of them will get your trailer.”
That essentially was how many of Earle’s rowdy audiences were introduced to Moorer for the first time. Everyone yukked it up and Moorer managed a shy smile, but make no mistake, she wasn’t a mere foil who knew how to take a punch line. This was one intelligent, strong-willed woman who could knock the socks off the crowd with her beauty, brains and stirring vocals.
Moorer was the opening act during the Dukes tour, singing and playing acoustic guitar without a backing band in front of sold-out houses for the first time. That experience proved to the ultimate test for her as a musician and performer.
Following her solo set, Moorer would join Earle for duets he had previously recorded with other women, including Lucinda Williams (“You’re Still Standing There”) and Emmylou Harris (“Comin’ Around”). Moorer also joined in on rousing covers such as the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” and the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” leaving no doubt she was an incredibly gifted singer who could rock just as hard as the boys.
After that tour ended, Earle and Moorer were married in August 2005. It was his seventh (if you include his two marriages to the same woman), her second. They spent part of their honeymoon as solo performers at the Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado about a week later and have toured extensively in that manner since then. Moorer opens, then joins her husband’s set for some duets.
Of course, the pregnancy has delayed Moorer’s full-time touring and traveling plans since October, but she hopes to be back on the road this summer, then plans to go out again with Earle when his next record comes out. (Moorer, below left, performs with Earle in 2008.)
“We’ll be able to pass the baby back and forth,” she says joyfully. “We’ve always wanted to tour together because it just keeps us together and we both think that’s really important (laughs).
“It’s a key ingredient in keeping a marriage together. Especially now that we’re having a baby. We’re gonna have to share taking care of the baby so we can both continue to do what we do.”
Moorer is mildly disappointed that she won’t be able to join her husband for the Cayamo Cruise from February 21-26 that will also include good friends Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller, and hopes Earle will “bring me some good souvenirs.”
She does plan to play a few live shows in the area to promote Crows‘ upcoming release, though, including a February 8 date at Joe’s Pub in New York. And she’ll be in Woodstock to open Helms’ Midnight Ramble on February 13. Her band will include Ollabelle‘s Byron Isaacs on upright bass; dear friend Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and mandolin; and Whitmore’s husband, talented Son Volt guitarist Chris Masterson. “I’m gonna have to sit down to play guitar, but … you know,” Moorer says, almost apologetically. “There are just some physical realities of things that I’m having to work around, but that’s OK.”
Baby (Grand) Daddy
Much was made over the holidays when it was reported that Van Morrison was becoming a father again at age 64. “I saw it on, like MSNBC, on the crawl, and I was like, ‘Huh?’ ” Moorer recalls.
Whether it’s true or false isn’t the point. Old age is all the rage these days, with The Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey playing at halftime of the upcoming Super Bowl and 60-year-old actor Jeff Bridges earning rave reviews and Oscar buzz for his performance in Crazy Heart as a country singer who could have learned a thing or two from Earle and Kris Kristofferson. Somebody ought to give it up for Baby Daddy Earle, too, who just turned 55 in January. But who’s counting?
Before Earle moved to Sirius Satellite Radio, Moorer was a guest on his Air America show on May 8, 2005. Among her song suggestions for the show that day included Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Lucinda Williams’ “Metal Firecracker,” sister Shelby Lynne’s “Lookin Up” and … Earle’s “Tecumseh Valley.” The exchange:
Moorer: “I’m a big fan of your singing, and have been since Day One, since the first time I heard you. I was probably 14 the first time I first heard you.”
Earle: “Uh-oh, now that makes me feel kind of old. I’m not sure … you know…”
Moorer: “Don’t think about it.”
Earle: “I’ll never think about that again.”
Obviously, the comments could make even a grown man like Earle blush, if not cry. But the Hardcore Troubadour had little reason to worry. By then, his troubles with the law and drug addiction were in that same rearview mirror with Nashville. Compared to Morrison, Earle is still a young dude.
And no matter the age difference, he and Moorer seem meant for each other. Asked how her life has changed since their marriage and what they provide that might have been missing, Moorer offers, “I feel supported in a way that I never have before. I know he’s got my back no matter what. I take deeper breaths now. I would like to think I provide those same things for him, but you’d have to ask him. One thing we don’t do is speak for each other.”
Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves
Although nothing is signed, sealed and delivered, Moorer does plan to record and perform with her older (but certainly not bigger) sister in the near future. “Just the two of us and a couple of guitars and sort of going out and doing that.” (Lilith Fair, are you listening? With Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson and Canada’s Tegan and Sara already on the bill, just think what this sister act would bring. Both sing like angels, and the sometimes-rowdy Lynne could raise some hell as well.)
While accepting the fact that inevitable comparisons to Lynne’s smooth-as-silk voice are made, Moorer says, “That would be a hard thing for me to get,” laughing it off by adding, “We are sisters, so we can’t help it. … You know, we grew up singing together, so how could we not sound alike from time to time.”
Moorer prefers to address their relationship, saying Shelby is very excited about the opportunity to be an aunt for the first time and plans to visit her nephew shortly after the birth in New York. They constantly keep in touch, contrary to some popular cultural belief.
“We’re very close,” said Moorer, who sent “Sissy” a working MP3 of “Easy in the Summertime” because of the personal nature of the song. “If, for some reason, it’s been reported that we’re not (close), and I’m not sure how that got started or why (laughing), we’ve always been very close. And I guess because … we have not participated in each other’s press, because of that, people interpreted that as there being tension between us.”
The two will even sing informally from time to time, Moorer says. With all of Earle’s family ties, including rising son Justin Townes Earle, imagine the possibilities – a hootenanny that could rival the Carter-Cash clan.
For now, though, the focus is on the new addition. Her clothing line, 1 Turtle Dove, may be on hold, but that doesn’t mean she’s putting down the sewing needle and thread. “Believe me, I’m crocheting a bunch of hats and booties at the moment,” Moorer proudly proclaims, her motherly instincts shining through. She worries about how the birth will affect their two dogs, especially her chihuahua, Petey, because “he’s been sort of my dog baby. But we’ll figure all that out. I’ve got two arms, thank goodness.”
Still stressing that she feels incredibly lucky about being where she is today, Moorer’s pursuit of happiness continues. “I don’t know anyone who’s happy who doesn’t work at it,” Moorer contends. “It’s not something that people just are, I don’t think. Especially today because we’re so inundated with everything all the time. I don’t think there’s any way we can be at peace unless we really make an effort to be.
“I have to work at it everyday. I absolutely do.”
Reminded of her obsession with birds (the title track of Mockingbird was the lone original among a collection of covers by female artists), Moorer just laughs when asked if she already knows what the name of her Crows follow-up will be.
Even if she has to make a small sacrifice for her art, here’s hoping Bluebird of Happiness is among the working titles.
Publicity photos of Allison Moorer by Angela Kohler.