[20 February 2008]
The career arc of Allison Moorer has been more like a winding road than a graceful curve. It began predictably enough: Alabama girl becomes country singer, moves to Memphis, records mainstream country records. Up to that point, she was seemingly helpless against the powers of nature, nurture, destiny, whatever. After all, both of her parents were musical, and her older sister is none other than Shelby Lynne. If this all sounds pretty streamlined, well, here’s the big wrinkle in the story: In 1985, when Moorer was just 13 years old, her father murdered her mother in the family driveway, then turned the gun on himself. The orphaned girls moved in with an aunt and uncle, then Lynne headed off to Memphis to become a country music superstar. Moorer began her career a few years later, singing backup for big sis and eventually signing her own deal. This led to the aforementioned string of albums, beginning with 1998’s Alabama Song and marching steadily through two more studio LPs and a live recording, 2003’s Show.
So, life’s back on course, right? Sort of. Despite getting good ratings from critics and an Oscar-nominated song (“A Soft Place to Fall” from The Horse Whisperer soundtrack), Moorer’s greatest chart success was “Picture”, a 2002 duet with Kid Rock, of all people. I mean, Kid Rock. So, her career high point was an artistic low. What do you do when you’re a mainstream act who’s barely reaching the masses?
Well, sometimes you have to throw in one towel to open another … or maybe you’re supposed to throw a door. Anyway, Allison Moorer took an abrupt turn on her fourth studio CD, abandoning the hit-making machine that hadn’t delivered any hits. Switching labels from Universal to super-cool Sugar Hill, she, and then-husband Butch Primm, co-wrote all of the music on The Duel, Moorer’s excellent breakthrough record. So it was a huge success, then? No, not at all. What I mean is, she broke through the plastic bubble of mediocrity to create a bruised and gritty record of smoldering Americana that transcended the confines of “country music”. She instantly reached a higher plateau, walking among the likes of Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle.
Speaking of the latter, he soon became Moorer’s husband and producer. After the horror of her childhood, the thankless grind of her early records, and the catharsis of The Duel, Allison Moorer had finally found a happy place. This joy shone brightly on her fifth full-length, 2006’s sunny and sumptuous Getting Somewhere. “Getting”? Allison, I’m pretty you’re there.
Her sixth album, Mockingbird, is an eclectic collection of covers. As if it weren’t already apparent that Moorer enjoys a broad range of influences, here she sings her own mix-tape of tracks penned by inspirational women. Across the 12 cuts on her latest record, she delves into everyone from Ma “Mother of the Blues” Rainey to Cat “Model of the Chanel” Power (sorry, cheap shot; Chan, you’re way cool). Moorer also contributed a ditty of her own, the classic-sounding title track.
The woman has great taste in women, and she sings beautifully. Moorer’s voice modulates perfectly between crystalline clarity and a warm, scratchy purr. She could probably make any song sound pretty damn good. When she chooses fantastic material, like Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” and Nina Simone’s “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”, her job is that much easier. Including Moorer’s own song, the majority of Mockingbird‘s first half is great. I mean, you can’t beat “Ring of Fire”. Produced by fellow cooler-than-country artist Buddy Miller, these songs are perfectly re-birthed through brushed drums, low-burning guitars, mournful fiddles, and rich organ tones. Kate McGarrigle’s sentimental “Go, Leave” is a little too precious and makes for the only slight misstep in this opening batch of six strong tracks.
The equivalent of Mockingbird‘s flip side weakens a bit, though. Moorer’s string-laden take on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is performed as a lullaby whose sound verges on becoming a saccharine Disney love song. Jarringly, this transitions to “Daddy, Goodbye Blues” (the Rainey tune), which sounds like it was recorded in a big empty room. The shift in styles and sonic mismatch between these tracks always breaks me out of the record’s earlier spell. I usually give iTunes a stern look at this juncture, thinking it’s jumped to some other playlist entirely. Nepotism then rears its ugly head, with a so-so song from Shelby, followed by what is actually a really good piece of gothic Appalachia from Buddy’s wife, Julie Miller. Cat Power’s lovely “Where Is My Love” and Jessie Colter’s pleasant, Spanish-tinged “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes” close out the record in a nice, but fairly unassuming, fashion.
So, yes, Mockingbird is something of a vanity project, an indulgence, a mere covers album. Still, it fairs better than Cat Power’s recent (and second) go at the same, Jukebox (Matthew Fiander’s review). Then again, it falls short of big sister’s brand new tribute to Dusty Springfield, Just a Little Lovin’ (Evan Sawdey’s review). Regardless of merits, Allison Moorer isn’t as high-profile as these other ladies, and it’s likely she won’t sell as many records, either. Nonetheless, she continues on the winding road of her career. These days, it appears that she’s enjoying the ride. At the very least, she’s got a good mix tape playing in her head. On Mockingbird, she mostly succeeds in making this very fine collection of songs her own.