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Allison Moorer finds the dark side in "The Hardest Part"

By Joel Bernstein, October 2000

Allison Moorer is taking the "No" out of "No Depression." Her second MCA album, "The Hardest Part," is a series of songs that explore the dark side of love. It's country music from the old school of Mickey Newbury and pre-superstardom Willie Nelson, about the only other people to put out albums this unrelentingly bleak in tone.

The disc's mood is no accident.

"From the beginning, we knew we wanted to tell a story with this album," says Moorer. "That's how we went about writing it. It's the pitfalls of difficult, complicated love. How can it end on an optimistic note? It never does. It's about the truth, not the fantasy. There are some happy endings, but most of the time it's not."

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that the 28-year-old Alabama native wrote most of these songs about love inevitably leading to heartbreak with her husband, songwriter Doyle "Butch" Primm.

"We're pretty honest with each other. And we both have various past experiences to draw on," she says succinctly.

Even though the album is on a major Nashville label, it's pretty much stillborn as far as commercial country radio is concerned.

Moorer proudly points out that the album has topped the Americana chart five weeks running, but that doesn't generally translate to major-label sized record sales.

So naturally, the big bad MCA corporate folks put on a lot of pressure on her to produce a commercial album, right?

Wrong.

"They haven't given me any pressure," says Moorer. "They" is largely MCA President Tony Brown.

"A lot of people (in the alt.-country world) like to rag on Tony because he's the only one they know, and it's so unfair. They don't know (the names of the people running the other major labels). They forget (Brown's) done so much cool stuff around here. He's responsible for Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. I realize I'm in a very unique and fortunate position. He lets me do what I want, and I'm very happy. He's done so much for the label, made them so much money, that he gets to do what he wants sometimes. He would love for me to have a hit, as I would. But I want everything I do to be something I can be proud of."

There is one place where Moorer is a star. That place is the United Kingdom, where this album was released two months ahead of its U.S. release and where Moorer has toured repeatedly.

"It's a smaller area, and radio over there is much less formatted. We get a lot of play on Radio 2, which plays everything."

It's old-fashioned Top 40 radio, which died a long time ago in this country even if Casey Kasem didn't realize it. "I don't think about why. I'm just happy to be successful there."

As for how she became a singer, Moorer says "I've always been in a musical family. I grew up singing. After I got out of college, I knew I didn't want to get a job yet. I moved up here (to Nashville) to live with Shelby and sing backup for her."

Older sister Shelby Lynne was already an established recording artist. "Butch convinced me I should do my own thing. I said, 'Good, if we can do it this way.'"

But it wasn't always happy music for Moorer's family. When she was 13, her father killed her mother and then committed suicide. The event is chronicled on a hidden track on Moorer's new album called "Cold, Cold Earth," and this is one song she wrote all by herself.

Moorer acknowledges that writing the song was somewhat cathartic. "I've been trying to write that song for a long time in a lot of different ways. I finally got it out. I like it as a song. I wanted to tell the story and not make it too personal. I had always thought it would be something I would be involved in myself, but I'm not a character in the song."

The song's lyric indicates that Moorer has, if not forgiven her father, at least come to accept why he did what he did. "I think as you get older, things get easier to deal with. I'm a human being. I don't really believe in holding hate inside me. That's not good for anybody."

Asked if she gets tired of talking about that part of her life, Moorer says, "The thing I get tired of is reading about it every day. It's a hidden track because I didn't want it to take away from the rest of the album. A lot of journalists have focused on it and ignore the rest of the record. I understand it, but I don't really appreciate it."

. Another attention-getter for this album was the elaborate video for the first single, "Send Down An Angel."

Filmed in the Joshua Tree, Cal. area, the video is an unmistakable Gram Parsons homage, even though the song itself has nothing to do with Gram.

"Butch and I had worked on this a lot. We knew we wanted the Nudie suits and a Burrito Brothers style band. The directors came up with the idea of using the Gram Parsons imagery, from the 'Grievous Angel' connection. At first, I was hesitant. There are a lot of Gram freaks who are very protective of his memory. I'm a huge fan. I didn't want people to think I was exploiting him. But I can't control what people think."

Making it easier for Moorer to go along with this concept was that the alternatives were the kind of literal interpretations she abhors. "The first line of the song is 'It's nearly 3 A.M.' Most of the treatments we got started 'We see Allison in her bed. The clock reads 2:57.'"

Although she has yet to achieve a hit record, Moorer has received one honor that few songwriters gain. That's an Academy Award nomination for "A Soft Place To Fall," which she wrote with Nashville songwriter Gwil Owen. Moorer also performed the song herself both in a band scene in the Robert Redford movie "The Horse Whisperer" and also on the Oscars telecast.

But it's the nomination that excited her most. "It's one of the most amazing things that can happen to any songwriter. The marriage of music and film is so amazing if done right. To be singled out, and there are only five a year, is a really amazing thing."

Now Moorer is planning to spend much of the remainder of the year on tour, first back to England and then in the U.S.

"I'm really looking forward to (it)," she says, "I love being on the road. I hate being at home. I like to be out there singing for the people. And playing clubs, that's my favorite thing. I think people can get a sense of who you are better than in (larger venues), especially at this stage of my career."

Moorer doesn't seem likely to go in a more commercial direction in the future. "We just make what we like. I don't listen to music to be entertained. I listen to music for some other reason. It has something to do with being moved. I do like some happy songs. Maybe it depends on who you are. I'm not a depressed person. I don't walk around thinking about slitting my wrists.

"I have had negative experiences that influence my view of love and relationships. I think some people don't want to go there. They don't want to see things. Sometimes if they do, maybe they can relate to it."

"I just do what I do. Everything grows and changes. I love traditional, but who knows what traditional country music is? Some people think it's Hank Williams, some people think it's Patsy Cline. Everyone's got their own definition of what country music is."

Moorer is hoping that at least a few people will be able to fit her work into their definition.