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Taking the back roads to country

When the major labels weren't promoting her work, country singer Allison Moorer decided to go independent.

September 06, 2003|Michael McCall | Special to The Times

Nashville — Nashville

Most country music artists aren't lucky enough to start their performing careers with an appearance on the Academy Awards. But Allison Moorer made her live debut on the 1999 telecast, performing her nominated song, "A Soft Place to Fall" from "The Horse Whisperer."

So why didn't this dream introduction lead to stardom? Why, five years later, hasn't Moorer enjoyed a single Top 40 country hit? And why did she end up so frustrated that she asked to be released from her contract with Universal Music, part of the huge Vivendi complex, to try her luck with a small, independent record label?

She likely sealed her fate with a demand she made the day she signed her first recording contract in 1998. "She very firmly let me know that she did not want to make a record that sounded like anybody else," remembers Tony Brown, who, as then president of Universal's MCA Nashville label, offered her the record deal. "She wasn't trying to sound like Reba [McEntire] or Trisha [Yearwood] or Martina [McBride]. I told her I would never make her compromise in any way."

But creative freedom in country music can be the kiss of death. In a system dominated by producers and formulaic trends, a singer desiring a distinctive artistic path may never find favor with the tightly programmed playlists on radio. In country music, as in pop, radio exposure is the surest route to stardom.

"I finally had to accept that the major-label system just doesn't have in mind what I have in mind," says Moorer, 31, who is just beginning a new phase of her career after signing this month with the respected independent label Sugar Hill Records. "I'm a square peg -- like most of my favorite artists are."

Moorer knew as well as anyone that she was a longshot for country music. Her older sister, Shelby Lynne, already had spent several frustrating years fighting the Nashville system before leaving town to record her Grammy-winning "I Am Shelby Lynne," which came out on Island/Def Jam Records in 2000.

Brown owns a reputation for signing nonconformists, from Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith in the 1980s to Kelly Willis, the Mavericks and Moorer in the '90s. All of those artists received glowing reviews and started out with an enormously positive buzz within the industry. But none gained acceptance on radio: To salvage their careers, they each had to leave Music Row, some opting for major labels in other music capitals, some going indie.

Moorer's style isn't a drastic departure from such accepted country stars as Yearwood and Patty Loveless. A sultry stylist with a smoky, compelling voice, Moorer's self-written songs, mostly created with her husband Doyle "Butch" Primm, may, however, have been too probing and honest for a country music age dominated by upbeat love songs and sentimental ballads.

Wade Jessen, director of charts for Billboard magazine, says these maverick artists can often be found in car players and in home stereos of radio programmers and record executives. But because they're a little out of the ordinary, the programmers are afraid that putting them on the air would turn off listeners, and the executives are afraid to put their careers on the line to promote a longshot.

"Allison Moorer should be a star," Jessen says. "She's made some records that should have been country classics. So I can't understand why she didn't get airplay. The only explanation is that programmers are frightened of trying something that's a little bit different."

Moorer believes that, as much as Nashville wants to sign distinctive artists, the companies aren't willing to fight for these kinds of artists or to change the system to make it more accommodating to stylists.

Sitting in an English pub near Vanderbilt University here on a recent Saturday afternoon, Moorer explains why she was doomed from the start.

"I think the attitude was that they would do what they can, but because I wasn't willing to compromise to get on the radio, they weren't going to go to the wall for me," she says, smoking a cigarette and sipping a light beer.

"It was always going to come down to either backing me or backing someone who played the game, and they were always going to go with the safest thing."

The redhead had hoped her situation would change when she switched from MCA to a sister label, Universal South, in 2001. The new label, founded by Brown and former Arista Nashville chief Tim DuBois, pledged to find ways to break distinctive artists. Indeed, they spent more money than MCA in issuing Moorer's third album, "Miss Fortune," but it fared no better than her two previous efforts.

She then agreed when the label suggested she put out a live album with an accompanying DVD. She finished the album, "Show," but before it was released she went to Brown's office and asked to be released from the label. Brown tried to talk her out of it but eventually agreed to let her out of her contract. The "Show" DVD did get some exposure on DirecTV, but album sales have been minimal.

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