When Allison Moorer released her last album, 2004’s The Duel, she said goodbye to a large part of her past. Working with a new band on a new label (an indie, no less) and incorporating a new sound, Moorer forged a new beginning, opting to write songs that were decidedly more rock than country. What was most striking about the album, however, was the lyrical content, which violated every unwritten rule in country music by questioning God, criticizing the president, and exposing the folly of America’s military ambitions. In other words, the good ol’ gal who had diligently mined the traditions of country had taken a turn towards the left, which makes life very hard in the evangelical-driven country mainstream. Then again, Moorer was essentially giving the country mainstream the finger, and when she hit the road with famous leftie Steve Earle, she cemented her change from beautiful crooner to outspoken rebel. No wonder The Duel was roundly labeled 2004’s bravest album.
Those familiar with Moorer’s career, however, know that she was never destined for mainstream country success, the kind enjoyed by Shania Twain and other “artists” whose ascendancies had more to do with flattering leather trousers than having any discernible talent. Rather than adhering to the Nashville formula of sex + sheen = sales, Moorer chose to resurrect the buried but still breathing roots of country music. And while her emphasis on music over image gave her something in common with the alt-country set, until The Duel her music was more neo-traditional than roots rock. Rather than rocking up a country song or countrifying a rock song, Moorer spent the first part of her career perfecting the long-honored conventions of old-school American music, from weepy ballads to defiant romps. The Definitive Collection, a collection of songs from Moorer’s career prior to The Duel, shows that she was always an outsider, determined to make music oblivious to trends and the bottom line. Highlighting the four albums Moorer made for MCA and Universal South, this compilation contains 19 tracks that testify to her rare talent.
Organized chronologically, this collection is both an excellent summation for existing fans and a thorough introduction for the curious. The eight tracks from Moorer’s first two albums, 1998’s Alabama Song and 2000’s The Hardest Part show her digging into country’s past. Songs like “A Soft Place to Fall” and “Easier to Forget” are classic old school, featuring swelling pedal steel, plodding upright bass, and mournful fiddle (not violin, mind you). Moorer’s music is authentic, treating such traditional instrumentation as a viable approach rather than an impressive artifact. The tracks from Miss Fortune, Moorer’s third full studio release, see her expanding her sound, bringing in strings and an R&B sound. “Tumbling Down” displays the rich, resonant soul of her voice, and features wall-of-sound production; likewise, “Steal the Sun” is more Stax than Grand Ole Opry, and Moorer proves her voice is deep enough to tackle different genres.
The Definitive Collection also includes tracks from Moorer’s live album, Show, which illustrate her strength as a live performer. Her cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears” hints at her increasing infatuation with rock, combining crunchy guitar pop with sassy twang. Album closer “Is Heaven Good Enough for You” is a duet with sister Shelby Lynne, which must be gratifying for Moorer, who began her career as a backup singer for her elder sibling. The four songs from Show prove that Moorer is no studio creation; her performances are even more compelling than the studio recordings.
Overall, The Definitive Collection is an essential purchase for fans of country, alt-country, folk, and roots rock. Moorer is still relatively unknown—and almost certain to never “break”—but she’s already created a legacy that places her within sight of country’s pantheon of legends. By avoiding the short-term benefits of cashing in, she’s ensured her spot as an influential artist, the type that’s appreciated more by successive generations. Where Moorer’s career goes from here is anybody’s guess; Steve Earle is producing her next album, and we’ve already seen what Moorer is capable of when she takes off the gloves. Though her first four albums are undeniably great, they might be a mere prelude to something legendary.