Stripped-Down Sound

Allison Moorer mixes woe with a pleasant nature and a wonderful stage presence

Spoiler warning: Allison Moorer dies at the end of her 2004 release, The Duel. The entire album is about the struggle for life as we thought we knew it, and the precariousness of faith in oneself, in God and in others. The final song has her imploring bystanders to sing her a lullaby on the way out. It could be a nod to one of her childhood influences, Merle Haggard, and his "Sing Me Back Home."

The good news is, The Duel seems to have taken Moorer straight to heaven: She's opening solo for Steve Earle and the Dukes on the tour that will bring them to City Limits Feb. 8. "I have never, ever, before this tour with Steve, played just me and my guitar, and it's been really great for me," she says. "He's been a really good teacher through this tour. He's a real professional, and it's inspiring to watch him do what he does."

It isn't that she's star struck. After all, her global debut came during the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, when she sang her Oscar-nominated "Soft Place to Fall." Robert Redford even gave her a bit part in The Horse Whisperer, the movie for which the song was nominated. But she is thrilled to be striking out on her own. Her husband, Butch Primm, previously partnered with her on songwriting and production, but, she says, "I've started writing for the next record, which I'm going to do alone. That's going to be totally new for me. I'm excited about that. Steve's going to produce, and we hope to (go into the studio) in the fall."

Asked to reflect on the changes in her music since she emerged from under the wing of her older sister, Shelby Lynn, Moorer says, "When I started out, I was trying to contribute to country music. I had grown up on it, had gone away from it and come back to it and really fallen in love with it as an art form; but I quickly found out that if I wanted to write good songs, and I wanted to have something to say about what I did, that it really wasn't going to work for me in Nashville. I started trying to figure out, 'OK, how do I become a singer-songwriter, because that's really what I am, and how do I make myself a career and survive in this?'"

In 2002, Universal South, her third major label, released her third record, Misfortune. It was an attempt to further "step away from the country thing," she says. "I'm from Alabama, and I'm always going to sound country, (but) we wanted to do some experimentation with songs about characters rather than just love all the time. We had a horn section and singers and strings, and it was quite a big record, not 'overproduced', but as in 'arranged.'

"After that, I decided just to do a 180 and just do a totally stripped-down record, which is where we are with Duel. I went in with a very small group of people I had not even played with before to get some immediacy, to get a little bit of a tightrope. I wanted to really get a real kind of a band feeling going, and that's what we did. And I think it's my best record."

Although the Duel songs vary in tempo, they all play to her greatest strength: a voice like a satin ribbon afloat, the merest tremble in the sustain and a hint of a catch on the sharp realities of life. Moorer has been places none of us want to go, beginning with the murder-suicide of her parents when she and Lynn were children. Her songs and her phrasing draw on deep reserves of woe belied by her good-natured and charming stage presence. As an interpreter of heartache, disappointment and the will to press on, she is almost without peer.

"You know, a lot of life is about questions, and about choices," she says. "The Duel is really about that, about faith--trying to find it, wondering if you'll ever have it again, and I think the older you get the more you struggle with it, and the more you see you can choose to have it or you can choose to not have it. At this point in my life, I think it's best to try to find it."

What can fans expect at the Tucson show? "I'm pulling from my catalog. I'm doing the songs that work the best with just me and a guitar format. I'm doing 'Will You Ever Come Down' (a bouncy but veiled take on drug abuse) and 'All Aboard' (a broadside at the current political climate) off The Duel. I usually do 'Soft Place to Fall;' I usually do 'Dying Breed' off the third record; 'The Hardest Part' I do (from the record of that name); I've been doin' a traditional Irish song that Steve plays mandolin with me called 'Carrickfergus,' a song I learned when I went on tour with the Chieftains (the tour included a Tucson stop).

"Steve has said himself that it's the best show he's had out since he did the tour for The Mountain with Del McCoury Band. His band is really excellent. He plays for 2 1/2 hours. I sing five or six songs with him, and it's very energized. It absolutely rocks and he's brilliant."

Sounds like heaven.