Wind Back Wednesday goes double dipping into the Moorer family. Allison Moorer has released a new album with sister Shelby Lynne, called Not Dark Yet. As you’ll see from this 2004 interview, having met her sister last week, this is a family with strength, will and drive.
SHE’LL BREAK BEFORE SHE BENDS
Allison Moorer is wont to tell you early in a conversation that “you’ll find I’m pretty honest”.
It’s something her last record company, a branch of the giant Universal Music group, should have noticed. After all it was on company letterhead that two years ago she declared "I want to be the kind of artist that does the music they want to do. I want to follow my own path and stand for something.”
This from a woman ostensibly singing country music, which is at its mainstream hub the most conservative, narrowly focused and homogenised branch of popular music. If you want to play country at a big label you sing for God, your country and radio airplay. Not necessarily in that order.
You sing songs written by others that can be marketed as pop crossovers, that don’t extend their lyrical interest beyond love won and lost or the glories of a misty past and that don’t mix with genres like soul, blues and folk. That is, you make, “cornpone, simpleton music” as Moorer once tartly but succinctly put it.
But Moorer never did manage cornpone simpleton music. Her first album came closest but was too classy and smart, her second The Hardest Part was gorgeously rich and by the time of her third album, 2002’s Miss Fortune, she was making the kind of self-penned, soul-drenched country that (like Moorer’s big sister Shelby Lynne) is as much Dusty and Aretha as Tammy and Loretta.
It easily outshone anything else on the company roster but got no support or radio play. A less than gruntled Moorer on her next album, the live Show, lived up to her “pretty honest” description with the song I’ll Break Before I Bend.
“Way up in those ivory towers with gold records on the walls/All the big wigs got the power but they ain't got the balls/The desk bound clowns that run this town/Have watered down the sound just like their gin/Lean on me all you want to, I'll break before I bend.”
Nor surprisingly Moorer and Universal parted company last year. Less surprisingly still, she thinks it’s the best decision she could have made as she contemplates her new independent album The Duel and its potent brew of country, soul, rock and a voice that’s built for drama.
“You know if the company hires you to make baseballs and you give them soccer balls and they only know how to sell baseballs then eventually they’re going to go ‘you don’t know how to make baseballs’,” Moorer says dryly in a clear Alabama accent.
What some might see as contrariness is part genetics and part inspiration. She grew up loving the likes of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Neil Young and later fell for LA punks X and wayward angel Lucinda Williams.
None of them have ever taken a shine to being told what to do and while you could say they’ve paid the price for it none of them seem to mind.
And things don’t look like changing for Moorer on that front with The Duel, not as you consider the still tender area of public criticism of American government action.
When you’ve had Steve Earle branded a communist and pilloried from the pulpits of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network and the Dixie Chicks blackballed from many radio stations, speaking up to “stand for something” doesn’t win you influential friends.
As Moorer says in Once Upon A Time She Said from the new album “it’s unpopular to be unpopular”. But it’s clear she isn’t afraid to be unpopular.
“No, I’m not. But it’s not my choice to be unpopular,” Moorer says. “Take Michael Moore for example, his next film is being roadblocked by Disney because they’re afraid it’s not going to be popular with the Bush family. It’s like, ‘what?’.
“People are all about their pocket book and it’s disheartening to see such, excuse my language, pussies. I just think that life’s too short for that. You’ve got be able to (a) sleep at night and (b) wake up and look at yourself in the mirror.”
If the hints hadn’t been broad enough elsewhere there’s no missing the point on the album’s six-minute centrepiece All Aboard which argues that if you just join with the crowd and forget your principles there’s little value in calling yourself free.
“It’s about a similar thing to joining the old boys’ club in the music business: you know, jump on the bandwagon, do it the way we did it, don’t ruffle any feathers honey and you’ll be fine, don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” says Moorer, her curled lip of disdain hardly hidden.
“And also a reaction to wrap yourself up in the flag patriotism, that don’t you question us, we’re bigger than you thing. I don’t agree with that. I don’t agree with bullies. That’s one thing I have to thank my parents for. My father always taught me to be an individual. When I was a child I thought he was crazy and now it makes sense.”
Had she ever asked herself do I need to have that kind of attention and reaction and having people listen to the lyrics of All Aboard and calling me un-American?
“My thought is this: no I don’t really need people calling me that but if they want to call me something then I’d rather be called that than be called a right wing bully. So be it.
“If people want to call me a liberal, fine, I’m happy to be one. I’m not sure that my conscience would allow me to be any other way.”