Anyone who wants proof of the sorry state of mainstream country music need only look at the struggling career of 30-year-old Allison Moorer, who by all rights should be a major star by now. The Alabama-born singer and songwriter made a big splash in 1998, when her heartfelt ballad "A Soft Place to Fall" was featured on the soundtrack to Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. Redford was apparently so taken with Moorer a red-haired beauty with a soulful, sultry voice that he asked her to perform the song in the movie. After the film's release, Billboard proclaimed, "This debut marks the introduction of a stellar talent that could quickly become one of country music's hottest new female voices."
The Horse Whisperer bombed at the box office, but Moorer's song was nominated for an Academy Award, and, when she sang it on the Oscar telecast, she got the kind of exposure most performers can only dream of. When Moorer's first album, Alabama Song, appeared later that year, the critics were mighty impressed by the talented young newcomer with the fashion-model looks and powerhouse voice. (Think Patsy Cline meets Cher.) Rolling Stone gushed, "Allison Moorer is a country singer of classic gifts: range, power, phrasing and an easy, effortless swing, all calmly drawn from a half-hidden well of sadness." But country radio wasn't interested and, despite the strong reviews, Alabama Song sold poorly.
Ditto her even-better follow-up album, The Hardest Part, an engaging song cycle about a love affair gone wrong. Entertainment Weekly called the disc "a smoldering set of torch and twang so original and seductive it sounds like an altered state." The most talked-about song on the album was a hidden track titled "Cold, Cold Earth," a candid and chilling account of the night Moorer's father shot and killed her mother and then turned the gun on himself. Moorer was just 13 at the time; her sister, singer Shelby Lynne, was 17.
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In the best country music tradition, The Hardest Part was unrelentingly grim. "The hardest part of living is loving/'Cause loving turns to leaving every time," Moorer moans in the title song. Widely considered one of the best country releases of 2000, it nonetheless came and went virtually without a trace.
"That was disappointing," Moorer admits from her home in Nashville. "You know, everybody wants to be successful. I don't think you decide to do this with your life and hope to be obscure. I want my records to sell as many copies as they possibly can sell."
It's no wonder that Moorer was named by the readers of Nashville Citysearch, an online entertainment guide, the Best Underappreciated Country Star of 2001.
Like k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett, whose careers flourished once they escaped Nashville's rigid approach to music-making, Moorer has charted a new, less-twangy course. On Miss Fortune, her just-released third album, you can still hear the occasional steel guitar, but more prevalent are lush strings, slinky electric guitar riffs, smoky organ fills and Burt Bacharach-style trumpet hooks.
Produced by R.J. Field (Los Straitjackets, Sonny Landreth, Buddy Guy) and Moorer's husband and songwriting collaborator, Doyle "Butch" Primm, the album is decidedly more pop-sounding than Moorer's two previous efforts. It covers some of the same musical territory as her sister's 2000 breakthrough album I Am Shelby Lynne, that singer's kiss-off to Nashville. The torchy opener, "Tumbling Down," for instance, finds Moorer in a Dusty Springfield, blue-eyed-soul mode. "Cold in California," the album's first single, kicks off with a burst of strings before settling into a midtempo drum-and-piano groove. "Steal the Sun" evokes the Willie Mitchell-era Al Green. "Going Down" is a gritty Exile on Main Street-style rocker.
About the only song on Miss Fortune that feels like country is "Can't Get There From Here," which Moorer co-wrote with Austin's Bruce Robison. "I'm on the road that's going nowhere/Looking for a place that I belong," Moorer sings over a wailing pedal steel. "The wind's pushing me in all directions/But none of them look like home." It's tempting to interpret the song as being about Moorer's search for a musical identity. Indeed, Miss Fortune, despite its strengths, only seems to confirm Moorer's status as a musical misfit. As Billboard recently put it, she's "too edgy for country radio, yet too country for pop radio."
All of which makes Moorer madder than hell. The album, she insists, isn't a departure but a progression. "Miss Fortune," she writes on her Web site, www.allisonmoorer.com, "was born in a place where hit singles, formats, and abdominizers don't matter. Making it was easy, hard, fun, a pain in the butt, and altogether one of the best times of my life. . . . When you listen to Miss Fortune, listen to it just for the music. And do me a favor don't worry about what bin it's gonna go in at the record store." It may have been recorded in Nashville, but it sure doesn't adhere to Music Row's cookie-cutter "hot country" formula.
Moorer elaborates by phone: "I think everybody, from radio programmers to retailers to record companies, gets caught up in that [category] stuff. I think if they could just worry about what's good, as opposed to all the little labels things need in order to make it easier for everybody, then it might be interesting. Because some things you can't categorize. Some things get stamped with a label that they don't deserve. I mean, I understand that that's life, but it doesn't mean it's right."
Moorer insists she isn't trying to shed her own tag that of a neotraditionalist country singer with Miss Fortune. "I don't think that's something I can shake," she says in her thick Alabama drawl. "It's part of my makeup. I couldn't change it if I tried." (One of the many delights of Caught in the Webb, a tribute album to the great hard-country singer Webb Pierce that appeared earlier this year, is Moorer's reverential version of "Back Street Affair.") She has no plans to reinvent herself. "That would take calculation, and that's something I'm not very good at."
It's possible that Moorer will gain some new fans with her new sound but will she leave her old fans behind? She really doesn't care.
"Just because you do something at one point in time doesn't mean you should necessarily be held to it for the rest of your life," she says. "I think that's when fear creeps in, and I think that's why sometimes people make decisions when they're making records that don't serve them well. Because of fear, because of categories, because they're scared somebody's going to get pissed off if they do something. Or they feel like they have to please radio or record companies or fans or whatever the hell. I think that when you're making a record, it has to be yours. You have to do it for yourself first."
Moorer is quick to praise executive producer Tony Brown, who signed the singer to MCA Nashville in 1997, for granting her something virtually unheard of in Nashville: artistic freedom.
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"He's kind of like my little angel," Moorer says of Brown, who just started a brand-new label Universal South under the MCA aegis with former Arista Nashville president Tim DuBois. (Miss Fortune is the label's second release.) "He tries to make sure that everything is cool with me, and that I'm allowed to follow my path. And that's really valuable. He's been a great friend and a great supporter."
Lynne, whose last album, Love, Shelby, was produced by pop-meister Glen Ballard, said goodbye to Nashville and now lives in Palm Springs. But Moorer who politely declines to talk about her sister isn't ready to give up on Music City. "Nashville gets a bad rap," she says. "There's all kinds of great stuff coming out of this town. Nobody knows about it, because it's hidden by all the crap that comes out of here. And that's a shame. Because there are great musicians and artists that live here who never get any attention because all the pabulum seems to get the spotlight."
It's clear that Moorer includes herself in that group of unheralded country performers, with folks such as Buddy and Julie Miller, Jim Lauderdale, and Kelly Willis. For years, Lucinda Williams toiled on the margins of the music industry, until her breakthrough 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Can Miss Fortune do the same for Moorer? And if not, then what?
"God, who knows?" she says. "I think you just have to take it as it comes. Who knows what kind of record I'll end up making next? I'm not one of those chicks who makes plans. I'm not one of those chicks who sets goals, like, I have to accomplish this within the next six months.' Because I frankly find it kind of ridiculous. I know what kind of shit life can throw at you, so you're better off if you don't make any plans and just try to take it as it comes and do the best you can."