By Mark Guarino
Oh, to remember those innocent days of Lilith Fair when an all-day slate of women performers could fill an amphitheater without one of them having to lip sync, shave their head in a pill-induced haze, helicopter to rehab or prepare pre-trial testimony against their baby daddies.
“It’s almost like there was a backlash —‘oh, we won’t be having anymore of that!’ They had to put what Steve (Earle) calls the short pant bands like Limp Bizkit as almost a reaction — ‘you can’t play two women back to back on the radio, you can’t have two women on a bill.’ Believe it or not, people are adhering to this philosophy when it’s been proven to be bullshit time and time again!”
Allison Moorer, a country music eclectic who has released seven albums in nine years and whose collaborations run the gamut from Kid Rock to Wilco’s Jay Bennett, is assured of music business rigidity. She was ushered into the halls of Nashville with expectations she would become a stadium diva in the Faith Hill mold. When that didn’t happen, she hop-scotched labels, juggled music styles and made certain to demonstrate “what looks good at Wal-Mart is not pleasing to me.”
Back to Lilith Fair. Moorer missed out, since her debut album arrived in 1998, a year before the tour made its last stop. Now with a catalog of songs on her back and years logged on the road, Moorer is experienced in knowing how the music industry likes to position women in the post-Britney era.
“The ways we are encouraged to be feminine is to be cute or shake our butt or to be non-threatening in a very traditional way that makes men comfortable. There are not many dimensions … I thought I could explore these really strong voices and shed a light on how great these songs are and how we do have something to say and how, guess what, our take it unique,” she said.
The result: Mockingbird (New Line), her new album, featuring interpretive covers of songs written by a wide slate of women, from Cat Power to Ma Rainey to Nina Simone. Her voice is the continuing thread, whether spitting out lyrics on Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” or singing gently to her refashioning of June Carter Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as a ballad, with fizzy drum loops and trembling organ. Nashville guitar ace Buddy Miller produced the sessions, but it was Moorer who made the suggestion that “Daddy Goodbye Blues,” written by early century blues shouter Rainey, should sound so primal, her voice should sound like it is clawing to be heard above the drum’s ghostly thud and Earle’s scratchy, thumb-picked guitar.
Moorer’s voice has always had dark shades of sadness in it, starting with the songs from Alabama Song (MCA), her debut album. Despite her cover girl looks — “I’ve been able to get my photo in some magazines that I wouldn’t have otherwise so I do see the advantages of looking a certain way, I’m not stupid” — Moorer spent years working against type with lyrically-rich albums that became, with every effort, more personal and less concerned with blatant radio hooks.
“I stuck out like a sore thumb from day one and everyone saw it. I knew it. Everyone just tried to look the other way,” she said. “They really, really, really wanted me to be the next Trisha Yearwood or Faith Hill — not that they aren’t great. I wasn’t necessarily interested in playing big arenas in front of a band and doing all the hand movements and all the shouting. I knew my place was more of a quiet place,” she said.
Starting at age 17, she sang back-up vocals for Shelby Lynne — her sister, almost four years her senior. Raised in small Alabama towns, the sisters suffered unspeakable trauma together as children when their father, in a drunken rage, shot their mother and then took his own life. Moorer waited until 2000 to address it in song with “Cold, Cold Heart,” a hidden track from The Hardest Part (MCA). Two years ago on Getting Somewhere (Sugar Hill), her song “How She Does It” imagines her mother successfully escaping her fate.
The past is geographically distant as Moorer currently lives in a rented apartment in New York City with Steve Earle who she met in 2004 while opening dates on his European tour. Despite their split in age — he’s 53, she’s 35 — Moorer reports that she was raised with the same 1970’s singer-songwriters that influenced Earle so early in his career. Besides spending the days visiting museums and hanging out in cafes, they sang together onstage every night. “We fell in love singing together,” she said. “Very romantic. And sweet.”
After divorcing her former songwriting partner Doyle “Butch” Primm, she and Earle married in August 2005.
The partnership will operate out of a tour bus this spring when Moorer and Earle play a U.S. tour, accompanied by their two dogs, a Chihuahua and an Australian cattle dog.
“I don’t have expectations anymore,” she said, looking forward. “I’ve hit this place that’s very comfortable. Of course I want to get better and get more successful but I’ve really worked hard accepting I’m where I’m supposed to be. I can grit my teeth and fight it or I can have trust and have a better time.”