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A Woman of Raw Truths

There are subjects Allison Moorer doesn't want to delve into, but she won't lighten up just for a hit.

August 27, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn, the Times pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com

Allison Moorer still cringes at the memory of picking up a British pop magazine recently and seeing the headline: "Shelby Lynne's Little Sister Spills the Beans on Family Tragedy."

The "tragedy" was the day in the mid-1980s when the sisters' father shot and killed their mother and then took his own life. Moorer steadfastly refused to talk about that sensitive episode in the flurry of interviews that surrounded the 1996 release of her acclaimed debut album, and the following year when one of her songs was nominated for an Oscar.

But the 28-year-old singer-songwriter has finally come to grips with the murder-suicide, and she shares her feelings in a mournful song on her new album, "The Hardest Part," which is due in stores Sept. 26.

Don't, however, look for "Cold, Cold Earth," in the album credits. In a perhaps naive attempt to keep the song from overshadowing the rest of the album, Moorer added it at the end of the CD as a hidden track. You have to let the album run for about 15 seconds after the last credited song before "Earth" starts playing.

That didn't stop some critics in England from picking up on the tune when the album was released there in July.

"It made me so mad," Moorer says of the headline in Uncut magazine. "First of all, the song's not graphic . . . and I took myself out of the song. I never say 'I' or 'me' in this song. It's narrative. It would disturb me a great deal if anyone thought I was trying to exploit the situation."

Moorer pauses and nibbles idly at her salad during a late lunch at a West Hollywood hotel restaurant, letting her anger subside.

"In the past, I didn't want to talk about [the deaths] because I didn't see it as a news story," Moorer finally says.

"But I realized that I was doing my parents a disservice by not talking about them, because all people ever heard about them was that one incident. I wanted people to know that their lives had a much more profound influence on my life than their deaths did."

After years of trying to write a song about the deaths, Moorer poured out her feelings in this stark, folk-style tale of a man driven to momentary madness after breaking up with his wife. The final lines: "Now they are lying in the cold cold earth . . . Such a sad, sad story . . . such a sad, sad world."

The song has the fearlessness of great art, and there are other moments in the album that also capture raw emotional nerves in a way that makes it stand apart from today's bland, sugar-coated country music.

That's why Moorer is seen by many in Nashville as a commercial longshot despite all the glowing reviews and the Oscar nomination for "A Soft Place to Fall," which she co-wrote with Gwil Owen and was in the film "The Horse Whisperer."

"She's a work project for us, but she's worth the work," says MCA Nashville Records President Tony Brown, who has produced albums for George Strait, Wynonna and Lyle Lovett. "She's one of those artists, like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, who radio thinks is a little too complex maybe to fit their playlists.

"But I think she'll break through. She's got a million-dollar voice and I love her songs. We could try to gimmick up the records to try to make them more radio-friendly, but I don't want to compromise what she does just to get on radio. When you have someone this talented, you don't want to interfere with her vision. You just want to trust that vision."

*

If interviewers aren't asking Moorer about her parents' death, they are probably asking about her relationship with Lynne, her outspoken and immensely talented sister whose struggles with record companies in Nashville are legendary.

But now that's the topic that is off-limits.

"I don't talk about my sister in the press because our relationship is private and I prefer to keep it private," Moorer says. "We have made an agreement."

The problem with that position is that it has led many observers to assume that relations between the sisters are strained. That's not a difficult leap around Nashville, because Lynne's relations with much of the town's country music establishment were strained for years as she rebelled against attempts to make her fit into an increasingly slick, pop-conscious formula.

After making albums for three labels, Lynne went home to Alabama, determined to either make a record her own way or to just get out of the business. The result was "I Am Shelby Lynne," a soulful, R&B- and rock-shaded collection that has been widely hailed as one of this year's best albums.

Another factor that contributes to the rift rumor is that the sisters come across as so different. Lynne strikes you as something of a wildcat, a two-fisted tomboy who in another life might have been a drinking buddy of Keith Richards.

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