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Pop Music Review

Allison Moorer: Singing Through the Pain

Vocal artist displays the best of country music's darkly intense, confessional qualities.

November 11, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Does country music have a death wish, or what?

Here's a field that has been so starved for quality artists for so long, you'd think everyone in Nashville would welcome great newcomers with open arms.

But they didn't do that for Shelby Lynne a decade ago and they aren't doing it now for her sister Allison Moorer.

Their loss.

At the Roxy on Thursday, Moorer served up song after song filled with the emotional intensity and convincing, confessional edges that have been at the center of the best country music for a half-century.

She doesn't use the synthetic, pop-conscious approach of such current megastars as Shania Twain or Faith Hill, but operates in the richer, more soulful tradition that runs from Hank Williams and Willie Nelson through Tammy Wynette and Emmylou Harris.

Despite a sparse crowd, Moorer couldn't have sung with more passion or force if she had been performing to a full house at the Grand Ole Opry. Like the best artists, she makes you feel that music is not just a career choice, but an obsession.

And it made the evening all the more endearing to see Lynne standing at the back of the room, cheering her sister on.

Lynne is a superb singer who battled for years against being turned into a conventional country hit-maker before leaving Nashville and recording an album filled with the diverse country, blues and rock elements that she loved. The album, "I Am Shelby Lynne," still hasn't been embraced by country radio, but it is one of this year's most powerful works.

Moorer has been luckier in the sense that Tony Brown, who is president of MCA Nashville Records, respects her talent and encourages her to follow her own instincts. Her first album, 1998's "Alabama Song," was a strong beginning that included "Soft Place to Fall," which won Moorer and co-writer Gwil Owen an Oscar nomination when used in the film "The Horse Whisperer."

Moorer's new "The Hardest Part" is an even stronger album that may join Lynne's on some Top 10 critics' lists. It's a gripping look at the tensions of relationships, but it too has been largely ignored by country radio because the tone is considered too downbeat and the instrumentation a tad too traditional. Meanwhile, Nashville's lack of bold new artists has contributed to a dramatic drop in country music sales in recent years.

Backed at the Roxy by an aggressive, five-piece band, Moorer concentrated on tunes from the new album in a fast-paced hour set. The songs, which Moorer wrote with her husband, Doyle Primm, range from the robust, steel guitar-driven "The Hardest Part" to the intimacy of such heartfelt ballads as "Is It Worth It" and "Cold, Cold Earth."

"The hardest part of living is loving/'Cause loving turns to leaving every time," Moorer sings in the title song, and the line defines the message of the album.

Much of the darkness of the songs stems from Moorer's parents' relationship, which ended tragically when her father killed his wife and then himself in a murder-suicide when Moorer was in her teens. "Cold, Cold Earth" even addresses that frightful event--a song that ends with the lines, "Such a sad, sad story . . . such a sad, sad world."

Moorer is more restrained on stage than her more outgoing sister, but she sings with similar conviction and power. She also showed some boldness, tacking a slice of the Rolling Stones' rowdy "Sweet Virginia" onto the end of "The Hardest Part."

Not all the songs in the album match the urgency or depth of the key ones, but Moorer reflects the ability to look at life with a fearlessness that is common to many of our most rewarding artists.

For the encore, she turned to one of Willie Nelson's most delicate ballads, "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," but this was no casual move. Many performers simply follow the hit version of someone else's song, relying on the audience's familiarity with the tune to build an emotional connection.

But Moorer applied her own, deliberate phrasing to forge a more personal bond. It was a step that showed respect for both the songwriting and the audience--and it worked beautifully.

Moorer probably chose the Nelson song because she likes it, but the selection was fitting. Nelson had his own battles with the power brokers in Nashville in the '70s, and he only gained stardom after he returned home to Texas and recorded the "outlaw" music that earned him a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Whether she continues to operate within the framework of the Nashville music community or eventually follows Lynne out of town, Moorer has a chance to be an artist who matters.

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