A simple tale of country folk

Allison Moorer is from Alabama. And yes, she sings about lost love and death. But so would you if you'd seen what she's seen
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The Independent Culture

How much better would life be if it were like a modern country song? Gosh, it'd be fantastic. We'd come through the fire, having cried all our tears, and stand together in the the howlin' wind 'til the end of time, and then do it all over just the same. But then what? And who would do the catering? Better that country songs should be like life, says Allison Moorer. That way, they would have detail in them, they'd convey feelings rather than rhetorical positions, and the weather would be less of a trial. Also, the people in them wouldn't be bow-legged fantasists in cowboy hats.

How much better would life be if it were like a modern country song? Gosh, it'd be fantastic. We'd come through the fire, having cried all our tears, and stand together in the the howlin' wind 'til the end of time, and then do it all over just the same. But then what? And who would do the catering? Better that country songs should be like life, says Allison Moorer. That way, they would have detail in them, they'd convey feelings rather than rhetorical positions, and the weather would be less of a trial. Also, the people in them wouldn't be bow-legged fantasists in cowboy hats.

Moorer is herself a tall, wiry, straight-legged woman of 28, yellow of hair, with petrol-blue eyes. She looks like the sort of woman over whom really good country songwriters might suck their pencils - perhaps born and raised in a tiny settlement in the Alabama woodlands (a church, a store, a barn) to umpteenth-generation farmers; perhaps surrounded by dogs, cats, cows, logs, lightning bugs and, in the distance like an electric fence, heat lightning. There'd be crickets, too, failing to shut up for a second.

She'd go to college, then drift to Nashville where her sister is striving to cut it on the big-hat music scene, do a little harmony, meet a tattooed songwriter called Butch Primm, marry the hunk and find to her astonishment that their union releases in her a talent for songwriting. She'd then be that pencil sucker.

Moorer's second record, The Hardest Part, is just out, and it's about as good as contemporary country music gets; possibly better. It's an album predicated on its opening, title track, which proposes that "the hardest part of living is loving, 'cause loving turns to leaving every time". This cheerful item is followed by 10 more songs which back up its thesis with discipline and at a range of different levels. Records both as thoroughly grown-up and deeply felt as this are hard to find. The writing is tight, intelligent, bitterly detailed and wholly sophisticated. Moorer's contralto is dark brown and as lived-in as the songs.

"No, this isn't pessimism," she says coolly, her Alabamian vowels lapping her consonants like muddy water, "and it certainly isn't cynical, as somebody suggested to me the other day. It's just the truth. No matter the kind of love you have - whether it's with a parent, sibling, friend or whatever - it's not going to last forever. One person's gonna leave - or they're gonna die. Love is not forever, and this is a reality you have to face." She drops her protuberant lower lip, looks up. "Face it and it'll give you strength." Moorer is the younger sister of Shelby Lynne, the Nashville blow-hard who hit paydirt with her generically diffuse, Bill "Sheryl Crow" Bottrell-produced album I Am..., released here towards the end of last year. That means they have a common fund of grief.

"It's called 'Cold Cold Earth'," says Moorer of an unlisted song "hidden" at the end of the CD which functions as a kind of dramatic coda to all that's gone before. "I just wrote it one day. It just poured out. And the reason it's on the album is that it reinforces the statement of 'The Hardest Part'."

It describes how a drunken man, out of his mind with remorse at the way he's treated his wife and two teenage daughters, goes off to find them in their new home to plead forgiveness. But his wife won't listen. So, in the presence of the two girls, the man pulls out his gun and kills first his wife and then himself.

Moorer's eyes are opaque. She's been here once or twice before, one should imagine. "Obviously that incident had a huge effect on my life. My parents had a huge effect on my life. But their lives had much more of an effect on my life than their deaths did. I'd been trying to write that song for years, and I needed to get it out. I'm very happily married, but dealing with that stuff has been a lot of my experience of love - and that's bad love to the extreme."

It's not feasible to hold the gaze of a woman who's had that done to her, and then ask her questions about it for publication in a newspaper, so I don't. Instead, we skirt around the subject of Nashville politics. I fail to draw a word from her on the subject of her sister. We dally in the department of favourite singers (Billie Holiday, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Mary Ford). And we have a good laugh over the way so much contemporary country music won't ever sit uncomfortably in the kitchen if it can find a way to walk through the fire.

But she is from the south and is a country singer, so I ask where she stands on God. "I believe in God," she says. Then stops, thinks for a while, runs her hands through her thatch, drops her shoulders, lifts her eyes and thinks some more. "I don't wanna answer that question," she says without cadence. "I'm sorry."

'The Hardest Part' is out now on MCA Nashville

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