Midway through the title track to Allison Moorer’s newest album, Down to Believing (to be released March 17 on E1), comes a moment that reminds one of the care and subtlety with which she goes about her work. She sings, “Hell, life’s too short to wake up every day without someone,” her voice caressing fresh words of goodbye at waltz speed. The barest pause, the song and her entire life pivoting around the guitar as she finishes: “who likes all your scratches and scars.”
Not settling, nor a come-on. Solitude still standing, then.
A small moment on a big, bold record.
Down to Believing is Moorer’s ninth album since 1998’s Alabama Song (including the live Show), plus nominations for an Academy Award and a Grammy. Taken as a body of work those nine records contain some of the bravest, most directly confessional work of any songwriter.
Go back and listen.
Though in polite conversation she now refers to herself as a singer-songwriter, Allison Moorer masqueraded for most of those years as a country singer, aided and abetted by her Alabama accent, an extraordinarily supple voice, and the music she grew up with. In that guise she has grappled with the murder-suicide of her parents; scenes from the beginning, middle, and end of two marriages; the delight of John Henry’s birth, and the fear, fury and guilt stirred up by her son’s autism.
The cold hard facts of life, as Porter Wagoner once sang.
“’Down to Believing,’” Moorer says, “is quite possibly one of my best songs, one of the most honest songs about marriage. It seems to me that, after a certain point, you’re just trying to figure out how to make it work, because the bloom comes off the rose. You gotta figure out if you believe in it enough to go one more day. And you do that every day. When the time comes that you can’t believe…”
The recording of Down to Believing began in January of 2012, the same month John Henry received a formal diagnosis of autism, and continued sporadically for almost two years. “Mama Let the Wolf In,” her response to that diagnosis, has all the rumble and rage of vintage Creedence. She cut “Thunderstorm Hurricane” with a temperature, in the heat of the moment, as it were. And so the album evolved.
“I didn’t even know it was going to be a record,” she says. “I was just writing, which is what I do — can’t not — just writing songs as a staff writer for Warner/Chappell and making demos, as you do. Coming up with cool stuff here and there that I thought might be for me if and when I got the opportunity to make another record.
“I started working with Kenny Greenberg again because, in the demo-making process, you have to get things done really quickly. Kenny is just the best guitar player that I know and he has this amazing way of making things sound famous really quickly.
“I was also excited about working with Kenny as a producer again because I felt we still had work to do together. Turns out he felt the same way, and we both feel very satisfied with this album, musically and emotionally.”
Greenberg produced Moorer’s first two albums, for MCA, including the Oscar-nominated “A Soft Place to Fall.” In many ways Down to Believing is a sequel to their second collaboration, The Hardest Part. “Loving turns to leaving every time,” she sang on the title track back then. The matching phrase here is “Don’t wanna say goodbye but it’ll set me free.” Allison often acknowledged the inspiration of her parents’ relationship for the song cycle that is her second album. Fifteen years later she’s sifting eloquently through the ashes of her own bust ups.
When an old friend at E1 asked what she was doing, Moorer shared some of those new songs. Offered a deal, she had to think about it. Art is a selfish thing; parenting is not. “Most of my life is about taking care of John Henry,” she says. “Doing my work, of course, but I do my work in the spaces between taking care of John Henry. As you do, when you’re a parent. And especially as I do because I have a child with special needs.“
No regrets. “He’s wonderful, he’s beautiful, he’s clearly bright, never forgets anything. But, it’s just something that you have to wait and see on. And I have figured out that wait and see is just about my worst thing.”
And then there was the constant creative challenge of making an album worth making. “I had to figure out what it was about, I had to figure out what it was that I had to say. And what was going to be a true reflection of who I am at this point in my life. Why make a record if you’re not doing that?”
The creative frisson between Greenberg and Moorer moves parts of Down to Believing closer to rock (well, country-rock), particularly the opening pair, “Like It Used To Be” and “Thunderstorm Hurricane.” “I think that particular thing is what happens when Kenny and I work together,” Moorer says. “Part of it is just what he does, but another part of it is what he brings out in me.”
Commuting back and forth between New York and Nashville, Moorer scheduled sessions around the needs of her son and the availability of her collaborators. Which meant working with a variety of people in a variety of studios, instead of buckling down for a month. “I’ve always made records the other way,” she says. “This gave me time to think, and I think it’s one of the best pieces of work I’ve done. And that may be why.”
Moorer’s publishing deal and stature in Nashville mean she can write with people like Keith Gattis and Tony Lane. “The great thing about Nashville is that it’s school. You have such an opportunity to soak up what all these masters know. It thrilled me to no end to still be a student.”
And, of course, there is the other songwriter in her life, ex-husband Steve Earle. “Among my many teachers,” she says, “he has probably been the most valuable one to me at this point. He taught me many things about songwriting. I think we taught each other a lot about art and the different ways you can make it, the different ways you can absorb it. Living with someone who is that talented for seven years rubbed off on me. He taught me a great deal; I have no regrets about our relationship.”
Still, it is the dissolution of their marriage which anchors Down to the Believing. At the center of the album lurk two splendid songs, a screamer titled “Tear Me Apart” and the piano-driven “If I Were Stronger.” “That’s the flip,” she says. “For me, the sequencing was thematic. Luckily, it worked musically. Here’s what, and here’s why.”
“Obviously,” she says later, “this is a record about family and relationships. ‘Blood’ is about my sister. It’s about loving someone unconditionally and always having your arms open to them no matter what. Sometimes that’s a painful thing, but you can’t change what just is and always will be. I feel obligated to talk about my son having autism because it’s part of my job as an artist to not only shed a light but to say to people, ‘Hey, guess what? I’ve got a child with autism, and you’re not alone.’”
But what must be reckoned with, in the end, because it remains hidden on all those records and buried beneath her back-story…is her laugh. There is a pause, first — a brief gathering against the surprise to come — and then the unmistakable music of joy cascades all the way to her blue eyes. The whole enterprise bubbling up from her diaphragm and gently rocking. A lived-in laugh that might have belonged to one of the characters inhabiting the shadows of Dorothy Parker or Dashiell Hammett.
It takes only an instant for Allison to gather herself. “I’m prouder of these songs than any I’ve ever written,” she says. “I guess that’s a good thing because all I really want to do is get better.”
“I’m Doing Fine,” she sings toward the end of the record, one of those great Nashville songs that undermines its chorus. “Gonna Get It Wrong,” she finishes, because we all are.
“I used to have this dream,” Allison says. “This dream that I would get to a certain point in my life and it would be smooth sailing. I could relax. I’ve about decided that’s probably not going to happen and it’s probably not something that I even want to happen.”
Which, for better and worse, is where the songs come from.