Songbird Returns to the Valley: Allison Moorer Graces Helsinki Hudson
By Robert Burke Warren
When this writer last saw Grammy-and-Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, she lit up a 2011 Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm’s barn, an act she intends to repeat at Helsinki Hudson on Friday, November 15 at 9 p.m.. Back at that Ramble, Hurricane Irene had just ravaged the region, leaving many without power for days on end. Among those deprived of electricity were Moorer and her family – multi-Grammy-winning singer-songwriter husband Steve Earle, and their toddler, John Henry. They were living out of a tour bus parked in front of their Woodstock, NY, home. Moorer’s acclaimed eighth CD Crows had been released the previous year, and country superstar Miranda Lambert had chosen her song “Oklahoma Sky” as the closing cut on Lambert’s soon-to-be-hit 2011 album Four The Record. But Moorer wasn’t thinking about any of that. This longtime troubadour had left the kid with a nanny, and was eager to hit the boards and rock the barn with her soaring alto, and genre-bending repertoire, which she did. At one point, the redheaded siren literally brought Earle to his knees.
Since then, life’s been topsy-turvy for Moorer. She’s gone from the highways and byways to spending most of her time in an Upper West Side Manhattan apartment with John Henry (she and Earle are separated). But she’s not complaining; she’s happy to be a hands-on, fulltime mom, with days more packed than ever. Yet, her muse hasn’t gone anywhere. On the contrary. “I’ve been writing a ton in the past few years,” she says. “I’m looking forward to playing some new songs and getting an album out in 2014. These new ones are among the countriest, and best, I’ve ever written.”
This signals a return to her deep southern roots, to the days when the songs of classic Grand Ol’ Opry mainstays like Loretta Lynn, George Jones, and Merle Haggard filled the Monroeville, Alabama home Moorer shared with big sister, fellow singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, and their parents. Moorer says she wanted to “be the next Tammy Wynette.” (It could still happen.) Idyllic musical memories notwithstanding, the sisters’ world was forever changed when their father shot and killed their mother, then himself, in 1986. Despite this trauma, both sisters moved to Nashville, and while neither became superstars, they’ve each walked tall in the hallowed halls of Music City, wowed legions of fans, and carved out niches in what is increasingly referred to as “Americana Music.” Moorer, in fact, hit the ground running with co-write “A Soft Place to Fall,” her Oscar-nominated debut single, used in The Horse Whisperer. She sang it at the 1998 Academy Awards. “I just tried not to think about the billion people watching,” she says.
Moorer released several CDs over the years, but until the lovely cut “Easy In The Summertime,” the emotional centerpiece of the spare, Bobbie Gentry-esque Crows, she hadn’t delved much into her fraught childhood. (Lynne, on the other hand, has frequently performed John Lennon’s harrowing “Mother” onstage.) Touchingly, “Easy In the Summertime” is an act of will, focusing on sweeter aspects of the sisters’ past. That song in particular signals an increasing artistic confidence, sure to be in evidence at Helsinki Hudson, where Moorer will perform solo on both piano and guitar.
“The upside of solo performing is I feel really able to connect with an audience,” she says. “And I really miss performing on a regular basis. I last toured solo in 2009, when I was pregnant.” Motherhood has forced a change in her writing habits, but Moorer’s doesn’t mind. “John Henry is now three-and-a-half,” she says, “so I am very busy with that, and still trying to be a working songwriter and artist. I’m more efficient due to the time constraints. And I have more to write about, and that’s always a good thing.”
Since moving with Earle to Manhattan in the mid-aughts, Moorer has fallen in love with the city. But, more than ever, she knows the ephemeral nature of such things. “New York City is a marvelous place,” she says. “But I do feel like a fish out of water here. I’m a country girl. I truly never thought I would live here, and don’t imagine I always will, but for now I’m enjoying it and feel lucky to have a ‘New York City part’ of my story to tell.”
That story is to be continued in both word and song at Helsinki Hudson on Friday, November 15th.
Friday, November 15th, 9 p.m.