The Allison Moorer Interview: On New Music, Men and the Little Boy in Her Life
For someone on the verge of unleashing a vast reservoir of wrath for public consumption, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer sounded downright chipper, much like Rayna James on the night last year when the fictitious country music star of Nashville swept the imaginary version of the CMA Awards.
Of course, real life is much more complicated than the melodramatic histrionics revealed each week on a nighttime soap opera based in the Music City. So sharing your true stories through song can be emotionally painful, especially if you've endured some treacherous twists and turns on what Moorer calls her personal roller-coaster ride.
Still a straight shooter while continuing to keep aspects of her life private, Moorer was cheerfully chatting on the phone, considerably brighter than the weather forecast in New York City, where she lives with her son John Henry, who will turn 5 in April.
"It's not necessarily easy for me and probably not easy for anyone to be present, but I'm trying really hard to do that these days," Moorer said on another chilly afternoon in early February. "Just be happy where I am, no matter where that is. And be happy doing what I'm doing, no matter what that is. I certainly have my ups and downs and sometimes get in a hole and have to crawl out of it, you know, emotionally. But, for the most part, I'm pretty happy."
Moorer did seem at ease while discussing -- among other significant subjects -- her return to the music world as she prepares for the release of Down to Believing, her eighth studio album, but first since 2010, when she delivered Crows two months before John Henry.
The powerful Kenny Greenberg-produced record, coming out March 17 (eOne Nashville), courageously addresses her split from outlaw countryman Steve Earle and her son's autism that was officially diagnosed in early 2012.
A confident, reborn Moorer got a chance to present eight of the album's 13 songs as a trial run of sorts when she made a stunning return to the stage in September before a receptive 2014 AmericanaFest audience at City Winery in Nashville.
Saying it was "good to be home," a grateful Moorer -- front and center, back where she belongs -- announced the news of the long-awaited album during a 42-minute showcase while adding, "I wasn't even sure there would ever be one."
Yet as difficult as it was to put her career on hold while raising John Henry and dealing with divorce, Moorer wants to make it clear that she never intended to give up the music business.
"I think when I said that, what I meant was I wasn't sure what I had to offer," she explained. "I wasn't sure that I could do the job. I wasn't sure that I could support a record and I had to figure those things out. It didn't mean that I was going to stop making music but I didn't know to what extent. I still don't know. I think that's something that we have to figure out every day, especially when you have so many other things on your plate.
"I won't ever stop making music in whatever way that I can. But I'm limited in my ability to actually do what the job of singer-songwriter demands, so I'm very aware of that. And I mean that I can't go tour with this record for six months straight. I can't go off with three guys and go do it. I have a son, he needs me home, and that's my first priority. ...
"And the other part of it was I wasn't sure after being away for a while that I wanted to talk about myself and talk about these songs because sometimes it's painful to rip the scab off. But I somehow got my head around that and realized, well I knew, I've always known it was part of the job. But I had to get comfortable with talking about my son's autism and my divorce from Steve. You know, those things aren't real easy to talk about. So I just had to get comfortable with that."
Asked her thoughts regarding the motivation to write such revealing material, Moorer said, "I think it's just about examining the what and the why and the how. That's what interests me about writing is, you know, I have to do that in order to process or figure out how I feel. And it's also just catharsis. What can I tell you about it? It's just all there for you to hear on the record. (laughs) I don't know if I can say it any better than that."
Moorer declined to go into details about her impending divorce, saying it's "not quite" official, but did offer, "I don't think any divorce is ever good. There's no such thing as a good divorce. Our ground zero was John Henry and we both want to do what is best for him. So as far as that goes, we're good. I learned a lot from Steve. I don't regret our relationship. You know, that's all I have to say about it."
Looking for a soft place
Married to Earle in August 2005 just before the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, where they both performed, Moorer moved to New York to enter another phase of her career that began with a bang in Nashville as one of country music's most promising stars.
Before the end of the millennium, she not only worked with actor/director Robert Redford, her brief honky-tonk bar appearance in The Horse Whisperer providing a romantic backdrop as the leading man danced with Kristin Scott Thomas, but also performed at the 71st Academy Awards.
"A Soft Place to Fall," the song she cowrote with Gwil Owen and sang in the movie, was nominated for an Oscar. Along with the nomination came an invitation to sing on the live telecast that aired March 21, 1999.
"And I thought, 'Oh my God. Only a billion people watch the show, that's all.' And so, you know, I hadn't done that much TV," Moorer said. "But because I knew it was gonna be the Oscars, I started to sort of meditate on it and visualize how I wanted the performance to go. And I did that every day. And sort of psyched myself up for it. So by the time it rolled around, I was mentally prepared. So I wasn't just, you know, out-of-my-mind nervous. I was OK."
Recalling that moment as a 26-year-old, Moorer said, "Well, can you believe that was 16 years ago? All I can say about that was ... it was just sort of surreal. I was just a kid. I had one record (1998's Alabama Song) out. I had gotten this amazing opportunity to be in a Robert Redford movie, and I had done that, which was surreal enough."
Filming on location in Montana was a "pretty crazy" experience, Moorer said, adding, "I didn't know what was going on but, you know, I tried to act like I knew what I was doing even though I didn't. And I just tried to take it in.
"I realized somehow that I was in the presence of a great artist. And so I paid really close attention to how he worked when I got to be around him. And it made a really big impact on me to see someone be that intentional about their work. He knew exactly what he was doing, he knew exactly what he wanted and he knew exactly how to get it. And had surrounded himself with people that he trusted in order to carry out that vision. So I was quite inspired by that part of it."
Oscar, though, wasn't kind to Moorer, who lost out to "When You Believe" from The Prince of Egypt, which was performed that night by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.
Still, Moorer said, it was "a really cool experience. But it wasn't the world I lived in, you know. ... Being around movie stars and that whole Hollywood thing was interesting. And I figured out it was sort of like the music business but on a much bigger, richer scale. But the next day I went back to Nashville and did whatever I had to do next."
Comparing notes with her friend about that return to normalcy, Moorer mentioned texting Rosanne Cash two days after this year's Grammys, when Johnny's daughter won three for her work on 2014's The River and the Thread. Cash's categories weren't part of the TV show, giving Moorer an excuse to turn elsewhere. "I went to bed early," she said with a laugh.
The aftermath for Cash included cooking breakfast for her son Jake, taking him to school and going back home to do laundry, Moorer related, amused about the "glamorous" lives they lead.
Knowing that common bond exists is gratifying for Moorer, who confided, "I'm just as happy to sit down and have a cup of coffee and read a book as I am to fly to Paris with my best friend for a 40th birthday celebration."
So finding joy in such simple pleasures makes Moorer's real story all the more incredible. This is the same woman who reached deep down for such sadness in break-up songs like "Is It Worth It?" before she hit 30?
Beyond the beauty
While in her 20s, Moorer had written a number of remarkable songs, including "Alabama Song," "Send Down an Angel" and "Tumbling Down," each off her first three records made over a five-year period while she was married to her first husband, Doyle "Butch" Primm.
She appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Austin City Limits (with Toby Keith), the Grand Ole Opry and was featured on CMT's Hit Trip browsing in a record store.
Blessed with one of the best voices in the business, Moorer also made a major first impression with her beautiful mind, stunning looks, warm smile and cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor.
Even when things went awry, Moorer seemed nonplussed. Like on that snowier-than-usual November night in 2000 when she wondered what was wrong with her acoustic guitar after taking the stage at the Soiled Dove in Denver. The instrument was unplugged, an audience member politely said.
That show came less than two months after the release of her second record. The Hardest Part, which Greenberg produced, might have been her finest and most personal during those years. It ended with "Cold, Cold Earth," a haunting hidden track she wrote about her parents' murder-suicide at home in Alabama</a> when Moorer was only 14.
Maybe an industry that encourages putting good ol' boys together with drinking and truck-driving songs wasn't quite ready to delve into the darkest sides of a daring woman with honest-to-goodness substance who could deliver such a hard-hitting concept album. At least the Americana Music Association recognized Moorer's talent with an artist of the year nomination in 2004.
And the award goes to ...
During her second marriage, Moorer's music shifted further from country to an Americana/folk/pop hybrid, and her role changed from Miss Fortune to wife, supporting act and part-time Duchess of Earle.
Three more records in five years (each with a different producer, including Buddy Miller and Earle) were made. Moorer became a featured artist in Earle's band on tour stops such as the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where the proud papa made a Lion King-like presentation of 1-year-old John Henry from the stage after their set, with one smiling mom watching from the wings.
During those Earle years, she did earn a Grammy nomination while collaborating with him on "Days Aren't Long Enough," which they sang on his 2007 album Washington Square Serenade.
That didn't win either but Moorer these days can finally brag about an award, as long as make-believe ones are counted. "This Time," a prime-time hit song for Nashville's Rayna James was "single of the year" at the CMA Awards that were the principal setting of the Season 3 episode that aired in November.
"It was really exciting," Moorer said of the attention the song she cowrote (for real) with Jeffrey Steele received, even if the voice on the soundtrack belongs to actress Connie Britton. "I said, 'Well, if I can't win a real one, win one on a TV show. (laughs) It was pretty funny."
Beast of burden
Finding humor in the game of life can be challenging, especially when you've been thrown more than a few curveballs.
Moorer's best balls-out rocker in years, which she said "feels really good" to perform live (exemplified at AmericanaFest), is "Mama Let the Wolf In," described by her as "My personal I-hate-autism song." One particular segment from the cut off the new album bares that out:
A little bit of bad luck
Lord knows we didn't want it
a little bitty short straw
had our names written on it
he coulda gone next door
to pillage and plunder
but he don't ask permission
big bad motherfucker
John Henry was formally diagnosed with the condition around the time Moorer reunited with Greenberg and started recording songs for the album. She also calls autism a "beast," adding, "I didn't see it coming. And I don't know how to get it out of my house. No one else does either. But we'll keep trying."
She's pleased to report her son is "doing great at his school" and is "a pretty happy little guy. He has his moments, too, but I'm very lucky that he is real good-natured and loves a good tickle, a bag of rubber bands and Elmo."
John Henry also is musically inclined, and likes to get physical a la Pete Townshend. "He has all kinds of drums, he beats on stuff," Moorer said. "He has a little piano, which he likes to play. And he had a guitar but he threw it and broke it and I said, 'Not yet, buddy. Now you're gonna have to pay for your own.' So he'll have to wait."
Simply answering "yeah" when asked if Earle is a good dad, Moorer at the time of this interview didn't get much of a sneak preview of his new album, Terraplane, which was released on February 17.
"He played me one song off of it called 'Go Go Boots Are Back,' which I thought was pretty funny, but I have not heard the rest," she said, seeming hardly interested, even in his cut titled "Better Off Alone."
Besides, being a full-time mama, putting out an album and supporting it during a short tour in March with Mary Gauthier while still writing songs (she has a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell) is more than enough to command Moorer's attention.
Re-establishing roots in the Music City also gives her something to think about, though a "great school" like her son attends in New York would be hard to find elsewhere, she admits.
"Well, I love Nashville," Moorer said. "I moved there when I was 20 years old and it's home to me in a whole lot of ways. I am not gonna close the door on anything. And I've got a lot of great friends there and relationships that I've had for a very long time. And I just love it. It feels good to me. Whether or not I can ever go back, I don't know."
She is revisiting her past, though.
"I am in the throes of the second draft of a memoir of my childhood," offered Moorer, who hopes it'll ready by next year. "My agent is really pushing me to get that done. And I'm trying real hard, trying to get my butt in the chair every day that ... sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't."
It's the songs that come more easily for Moorer, who said she has written "tons" of them in the past four years, including "Blood" for her older sister, Shelby Lynne. That one, which she said was written in early 2011, was one of the first recorded for this album, which also has "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "perfect country-rock song" that Moorer agreed to add when the label requested a cover.
Yet it was sharing her own intimate material about family life and strife again that led Moorer back to Greenberg, who dazzled as part of the band he put together for Moorer in Nashville, both for recording sessions and at AmericanaFest. (Moorer, right, with Greenberg at Nashville's City Winery.)
"Not only is he maybe my favorite guitar player but he's incredibly fast and efficient in the studio," she said of Greenberg, whose scorching riffs first costarred with her captivating vocals on numbers like "Bring Me All Your Lovin'" and "Day You Said Goodbye" from The Hardest Part. "... And he just is a real trusted ally in my life in many ways, but especially musically. He just gets me and I get him and we have a thing when we get in the studio together. And that's what I wanted for this record."
For all the buried emotions finally dug up on Down to Believing, it might be the 10th song on the album that sincerely sums up where Moorer is today -- an assurance, and perhaps a parting shot:
I finally changed the sheets I'm tired of sleeping on the floor
if you want your old guitar it's sitting out on the porch
I just want to let you know that I'm doing fine
Truth or daring? Maybe it's still possible for an artist to actually commit to both.
AmericanaFest photos by Michael Bialas. Publicity photo courtesy of the artist. This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.
See Allison Moorer's performance of "A Soft Place to Fall" at the 1999 Academy Awards: