Fifteen Favorites: The Allison Moorer Edition

This shouldn’t feel as far out of left field as it does. I shouldn’t have to give context into who Allison Moorer is as an artist. Granted, in looking at the bigger picture, I can’t say she’s underrated. Though country radio never took to her singles, throughout her career Moorer has released a string of critically acclaimed albums, and even found breakthroughs in other ways. Her own “A Soft Place to Fall” was featured in the movie The Horse Whisperer and scored an Oscar nomination, to boot. She also an unexpected major pop hit in 2002, thanks to her feature on “Picture” with … uh, Kid Rock (yes, both her version and the Sheryl Crow version were hits).

And after that … well, I think how her career is defined is largely up to personal speculation. I always like to question why she never found her own breakthrough at country radio. Most critics and historians will argue is was because the unpolished, no-frills approach to her 1998 debut Alabama Song didn’t fit the more easy-listening direction the genre had begun to adopt around the time and would carry into the 2000s. And while that’s likely true to a large extent, I think it goes deeper than that. In fact, I’ll say right up front that this may be the hardest edition of this series I’ve ever tried to assemble, mostly because Moorer is, simply put, an album artist. Her works are challenging and work best when taken as a whole, and while she never sacrificed accessibility to get there, her material was – I’ll say it – too smart and too good for where the genre was heading during this time. Digging further into the “why” behind that is a subject best reserved for later, but if there’s ever a point where I want to stress that this is all just in good fun and isn’t meant to be taken that seriously, it would be here. I had a difficult time picking individual highlights from excellent albums, which isn’t a slight against Moorer at all so much as a testament to how rewarding her full albums sound. And I think it’s high time that we celebrate that legacy, so whether she’s an underrated indie darling, an unknown name entirely, or someone else entirely to you, let’s at least try and dig into pieces of her excellent discography.

No. 15, “The Duel” (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

There’s a natural soul to the bulk of Allison Moorer’s material, able to stir up the deepest emotions within a person in both writing and presentation – and that’s a statement that will extend to pretty much this entire list. “The Duel” stems from a parent album of the same name that’s mostly minimalist in its sonic approach, but soars regardless. And with just one excellent opening line – “in this cemetery mist stands a newborn atheist” – Moorer throws down the gauntlet for a duel, indeed. One that revolves around a test of her faith that’s on the losing end as she grows older and sees her religion and life as mostly empty and in need of a change she can actually measure. It’s weary and always on the edges of burnout, but there’s still time for that fantastic harmonica solo – perhaps as a final rallying cry.

No. 14, “Still This Side of Gone” (written by Allison Moorer)

Like with 2004’s The Duel, 2010’s Crows is another Moorer album I’d argue is best taken in as a whole, and is, admittedly, an overly melancholic and challenging listen. The reward with Crows, however, comes in an utterly excellent back half, kicked off, ironically enough, by one of its simpler songs. It’s a straightforward look at the impending end of a relationship where Moorer has no choice left but to let it happen, where the key here is, again, the intensity brought forth – both out of Moorer’s quivering urgency where one can tell she’s truly hanging on for dear life, and in the absolutely gorgeous strings that contribute to its intensity magnificently without feeling overbearing.

No. 13, “Melancholy Polly” (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

This is another tricky selection to discuss, but for far different reasons than others on this list. It’s short, not very tuneful, and kind of a mess spiraling out of control. Of course, that fits the titular character well, a song for the artist who writes solely for themselves and hates how much the art reflects their life, as well as how the true message gets lost on an audience that never cares to dig deeper anyway. It’s a song that says as much about how us, the listeners, take in art as it does the deeper reasons behind why the artists choose to make it. Another selection with a strong thematic duality to it to stem from a parent album in which that exploration of it is the entire point. Short as it is, it’s a viscous cycle I think I do understand.

No. 12, “Let Go” (written by Allison Moorer)

Like with “This Side of Gone,” this is a song I appreciate most for matching its mood to its content. This is one of Moorer’s gentlest cuts, and on a base level I love the quaint touches in the finely plucked acoustics showcased here. But they’re meant more to linger as an afterthought than be a real highlight, which works well for a song about being caught in a purgatory of trying to move on from someone while knowing old demons won’t be silenced that easily. I’ve been going back and forth between her simpler and more complicated cuts like crazy, it seems, but either way a work of beauty is always evident.

No. 11, “Day You Said Goodbye” (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

I’ll note here that Moorer is a master of a good slow burn, and while this isn’t quite my favorite example of that from 2000’s The Hardest Part, it is one of her most cathartic. I keep circling back to (and, consequently, overusing) the term “urgency” when describing the strength of her delivery, but when the content surrounding heartache is well-established and that excellent guitar work gets to roar alongside that harmonica … man, it’s a pure release of the best possible variety. There isn’t much to add beyond that; it just mines gold out of the basics.

No. 10, “Long Black Train” (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

This is probably the most “conventional” Moorer track I’ll discuss, and that it wasn’t a huge ‘90s staple is near-criminal, because the bones are there for something special. Then again, it’s a song made for the disgruntled star who’s tried and failed to make it in Nashville and isn’t willing to let the compromises made in getting there erode her pride; and this was a song featured on her major label debut album, I might add. Songs like these are, admittedly, fairly common in country music, but there’s still something to be said for how righteously bitter and direct it can aim its thorns at the industry while never once sounding defeated. She’ll bounce back in her own way someday, and that she did to release a string of excellent albums afterwards … well, the rest kind of writes itself, you know?

No. 9, “Think It Over” (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

The thing with this selection and “Long Black Train” is that, for as heady as Moorer’s framing and thematic arcs can become to really decode on her projects, they’re still always accessible. For one, there’s a soulful directness to her work that’s refreshing compared to some of the more abstract musings of her contemporaries within Americana, but she also just knows how to work in a stellar hook and melody, to boot. I also just love that this is among her most playful cuts, sporting one of her best-ever grooves and a delivery that can rightfully play coy for a song about seeing right through an ex-lover’s pleas to come crawling back. Granted, it stems from an album that’s very much playing to darker subtext and framing in its progression, but as a standalone cut, one of her most infectious.

No. 8, “Wish I” (written by Allison Moorer and Tony Lane)

Spoiler alert: 2015’s Down to Believing is my favorite Moorer album, and by a pretty significant margin that will be evident later, even if Blood, The Hardest Part, The Duel, and Crows are up there, too. In the context of said album, framed around her divorce from singer-songwriter Steve Earle, “Wish I” is a moment where she’s moved past the direct anger and has to come to grips with what’s happened and move on, which is easier said than done. And while this is all literal wishful thinking on her part in hoping the two can reconcile, she knows that if she doesn’t mean what she should to her partner, then that goodbye is for the best anyway. It’s finding the strength to accept the fact that you deserve better from someone else, and between excellent writing and that adrenaline rush of an outro, it’s the first highlight of many to be discussed from this album.

No. 7, “New Year’s Day” / “How She Does It” (both written by Allison Moorer)

Yes, I’m slightly cheating here, mostly because back-to-back listens to these songs on their parent album had me convinced they were made to be listened to together. Granted, 2006’s Getting Somewhere is, admittedly, kind of a mess of an album and easily Moorer’s weakest set – which hurts to say, given that it’s her first working with the aforementioned Earle and that I’m a fan of both artists. But these two cuts are the easy highlights off of it. For as much as I’ve danced around what exactly makes Moorer’s works challenging listens at points, I think it’s time to outline just how much the murder-suicide of her parents at a young age has impacted her work. The most obvious examples are Blood and more indirectly on The Hardest Part, but shades of the framing are there on plenty of other scattered songs. “New Year’s Day,” for example, is a grungy, almost claustrophobic song told presumably from the perspective of Moorer’s mother, who fears for her life from an uncontrollable, volatile, estranged husband. It’s the constant tension evident throughout that really makes this track, but coupled alongside “How She Does It,” which is presumably told from Moorer’s perspective and offers a gentler, yet no less fearful perspective of everything her mother does on the track before it, it’s all revealing of a much darker story to be told.

No. 6, “One On the House”  (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

Part of me has this here just because she incorporated the word “soused” into a song. The other part of me loves that this is another fantastic slow burn carried mainly by Moorer herself. Why she’s at the lowest point in her life begging for a drink from a bartender isn’t really known – she even says you can question her honesty in song – but there’s just a weary exhaustion and conviction to the sentiment that cuts regardless. I admit, though, coupled with the hazier touches of pedal steel and piano, this is a trip to rock bottom that actually sounds kind of heavenly.

No. 5, “Set My Soul Free” (written by Allison Moorer)

As previously mentioned, while Moorer’s parents’ murder-suicide has informed certain songs and albums of hers, Blood is the one to confront the situation directly on, and from every perspective, at that. “Set My Soul Free,” then, is the trickiest one to discuss, mostly because it’s Moorer’s attempt to speak for her father before the tragic incident, finding him in his darkest moment preparing for the end, knowing that it has to come after everything falls away. To put it simply, it’s harrowing – a look at the warped inner musings of a person at their darkest that typically don’t become known until after a tragedy strikes. And yet, Moorer’s attempt to speak for her father is still, even if indirectly, filled with empathy for what drove him to his breaking point, daring the audience to empathize, too.

No. 4, “Down to Believing” (written by Allison Moorer, Audley Freed, and Keith Gattis)

If “Wish I” was about coming to terms with what had been done, “Down to Believing” is the moment of deniability that comes earlier and finds Moorer attempting to make sense of a changed relationship. In both cases, she knows what needs to be done and can’t do it because of the lingering regret, anger, and sadness over past decisions made. And it’s that sense of honest, lived-in detail that makes this more than just a song of heartache. The details are messy and complex because the love was real, and trying to untangle all of that? Well, that comes down to finding a different set of strength entirely.

No. 3, “No Next Time” (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

I originally had this much lower on this list, mostly because it is, admittedly, a fairly basic song about heartbreak, in which Moorer’s character finally has enough of her partner’s false promises and finds the strength to move forward. Like with so many songs here, though, there’s just such a fantastic build and progression to its execution, featuring an extended solo and outro that’s like a cathartic eruption by its end – a way for her to say that, yes, she really has found the strength she’s needed, and she’ll be alright. Really, it blazes like no other track on this list. I’ve exercised every adjective I can think of already in trying to qualify pure works of beauty, but these top entries are ones that need to be experienced to be believed.

No. 2, “If I Were Stronger” (written by Allison Moorer and Troy Olsen)

From anger and denial comes a moment where Moorer looks inward to examine her own possible culpability in the downfall of her marriage. Though she regrets not having the strength to love her partner through the worst ordeals, she’s only human, and that level of strength shouldn’t be expected of anyone – especially when there are problems that can’t be ignored any longer. Of her pure ballads, this is arguably the most stirring, if only she turns the personal into the relatable for anyone who feels helpless in an all-too-common situation.

Before I get to my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions that just barely missed the cut for this list:

“Thunderstorm/Hurricane” (written by Allison Moorer)

“The Rock and the Hill” (written by Allison Moorer)

“Just Another Fool” (written by Allison Moorer)

“Getting Somewhere” (written by Allison Moorer)

“A Soft Place to Fall” (written by Allison Moorer and Gwil Owen)

“Tell Me Baby” (written by Walter Hyatt)

“Best That I Can Do” (written by Allison Moorer and Doyle Lee Primm)

And now, my No. 1 pick:

No. 1, “Back of My Mind” (written by Allison Moorer, Skip Black, and Neil Medley)

Throughout this list I’ve written for the reader who might not be firmly acquainted with Moorer’s work – it’s how I try to structure most of these features, really – but in coming to the end of the road here, I can see why, at a glance, this choice may surprise fans more “in the know” with her work. Even before revisiting her discography as a whole, though, I suspected this would come out on top. It’s the moment of acceptance and welcoming of change within the context of its parent album, but really, it’s a shot of pure euphoria like none other in her discography. And that’s a two-fold statement, because while I love the glistening bedrock of mandolin and the wave of warm percussion and bass that gives this track its driving momentum, it’s also a moment where old demons can finally be silenced, if never truly killed. It’s all straightforward and honestly direct in the best way, where the moments of trauma will still circle around every now and then, but they won’t define every moment like before. It’s finding joyful exuerberance in just getting back to normal, and though this is a song for Moorer first and foremost, it’s a shot of optimism in altering one’s perspective on things that’s inspired me with every listen. It’ll forever live in the back of my own mind, and pay no rent, at that.

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