In the first part of this two-part interview with one of the country's most overlooked artists, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer talks about her new album, Crows, the impending birth of her first child and the state of country music.
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 to a baby boy in March. "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 just finished the last leg of a tour promoting Townes, his Grammy Award-winning 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."
Counting Crows 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."
Here's Allison Moorer's acoustic performance of "The Broken Girl" from Crows:
Next: In Part 2, Allison Moorer talks about her career, her relationship with older sister Shelby Lynne and what it's like being Mrs. Steve Earle.
Credit: Publicity photo of Allison Moorer by Angela Kohler.