No matter how vast the range of country artists — and there’s a great deal of variety here, from the driving snarl of early Johnny Cash to the friendly, folksy bar banter of KT Oslin; from the heart-wrenching twang of Patsy Cline to the pop-savvy trill of Shania Twain — they always seem to meet up at that lowest of common denominators: hard times.
“You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. With four hungry children and a crop in the field,” whines Kenny Rogers.
“Here’s a quarter, call someone who cares,” moans Travis Tritt.
Country music speaks to the down-and-out in all of us — that’s why we love it.
Enter Allison Moorer, a country crooner singing a different tune. She’s not just speaking to the occasional run of bad luck, she’s downright gothic.
“In this cemetery mist/ Stands a newborn atheist … flesh and blood’s a sissy fist/ Death’s a gold glove pugilist/ And everyday it’s hit or miss/ That’s what I believe,” she intones on the title track to her new album, The Duel (Sugar Hill, 2004).
“Every now and then I’d like to write something that’s not so down,” Moorer admitted in a recent phone interview. “Someone once wrote in a review, ‘Lighten up, bitch.’ My response to that is: ‘Don’t tell me how to feel.'”
Indeed, the singer/songwriter refuses to offer any apologies for her darkness. “I just think I’m expressing myself,” she maintains.
And, to be honest, if anyone has just cause to sing a sad song, it’s Moorer.
Raised in Frankville, Ala. — “It’s not a town, it’s just a place,” she insists — she grew up listening to her parents’ extensive record collection. Her father played in bands and her mother taught harmony singing (Moorer boasts that she was able to sing harmonies herself by age 3, and started playing piano before she could walk). And then there’s her talented older sister — none other than Earle-country vocalist Shelby Lynne.
But Moorer’s angst doesn’t stem from any small-town ennui or sibling rivalry.
When she was 14, her estranged father shot and killed her mother, then turned the gun on himself.
Not exactly the stuff happy tunes are made of.
“I’d never planned to do the whole solo career thing,” the singer muses now. “Even at an early age, I had no interest.”
But after college, Moorer moved in with her sister in Nashville, planning to take some time off and sing backup for Shelby. It was around that time that Moorer found a kindred spirit in songwriter/producer Doyle Lee “Butch” Primm, also a newcomer to town. From their second meeting, the pair were inseparable. They married 18 months later.
It was Primm who encouraged his wife to consider a solo career — one which began with a live debut at the 1999 Academy Awards after her song “A Soft Place to Fall” found its way onto the soundtrack of Robert Redford’s film The Horsewhisperer. But that star-studded start proved misleading, and two major Nashville record labels and four albums later, Moorer has yet to land a hit on the country charts.
Part of the “problem” is that she’s been unwilling to compromise her grim vision in order to gain favor in fickle, flashy Music City.
“All my records just reflect where I am,” she explains. “When I made my first record, I was enamored with traditional country and I wanted to make a record that reflected that.”
She adds, “I can’t do the same thing forever, though.”
So, last year the singer opted out of her contract with Universal Music in favor of the cozier Sugar Hill label, home to the likes of Dolly Parton, Doc Watson and Nickel Creek.
And without offering the company so much as a demo of the album they had in mind, Moorer, Primm and a decidedly rough-hewn band walked into the studio just two weeks after signing with Sugar Hill.
They cut the 11 tracks of the clearly Neil Young-influenced rocker The Duel in 12 days.
“If you think about my sound in terms of how it’s evolved, it’s looser now,” Moorer states. “It’s not so enamored with being country.”
In fact, the album challenges some ideas that many diehard Nashville-music fans may hold dear. Take the song “All Aboard,” with the lyrics “Sign up and get a flag/ Wear it proud and you can brag … some restrictions do apply/ Watch your mouth and close your eyes.”
“I think a lot of people have exploited the 9/11 and Iraq [situations],” the singer admonishes. “I think it’s a cheap shot.”
But, the occasional political rant aside, the album is ultimately about losing faith. “You can compare and contrast the songs,” Moorer urges, mentioning her religion-themed dirge “Believe You Me.”
“If you’re growing up in a traditional Baptist home, people use the religion blanket to cover everything,” she explains. “I have a lot of questions in that department. I think you can take ‘All Aboard’ to say that as well.