A Conversation With Allison Moorer

She Talks Nashville, Her New Album and Why Her Version of "Picture" Got Booted

Allison Moorer should be a star. … Now that we’ve covered that obligatory remark about the Alabama-born singer, here are a few other things worth knowing. Her riveting new album, The Duel, feels a bit rougher around the edges than past efforts, but her alluring alto is still intact. Despite a fruitless attempt at country stardom, she has no ambition to skip town. And if the music biz gets old, she’s got her perfect bar all figured out.

Moorer recently invited CMT.com to visit her cozy clubhouse in Nashville, where she rehearses with her band, takes care of business or just hangs out.

CMT: When the time came to make The Duel, you got the job done pretty quickly. Do you like to work quickly in the studio?

Moorer: I like to do whatever I need to do. Quick is good. Slow is good. As long as the outcome is what I want it to be, I don’t care how long it takes. Sometimes it’s fast and sometimes you’ll work on something for two days. For this particular record, we did 11 songs in 12 days. Very few overdubs. Most of it is live vocal and guitar parts. We only overdubbed when we had to, like if there was something to delete that was wrong. John Davis, who’s on the record, was our multi-instrumentalist, and sometimes he’d play bass and sometimes he’d play guitar, so sometimes we’d have to go back and put bass on it.

On your last album, you stated in the liner notes that no Pro Tools were used on it. What about this record?

We didn’t even use a computer on this record. I’m not against Pro Tools. I think Pro Tools is great. It all depends on who’s using it. (laughs) Or what’s being done with it. It’s just another tool, like everything else. Being against computers is like being against TV.

Are you big on rehearsals?

Oh, yeah. I’m definitely a rehearser. Not only do I like to know what the band’s doing, but I like to know what I’m doing as well. It’s important to me to be as professional as possible in every setting and especially in the live setting. That doesn’t mean that I’m a whipcracker about everything being perfect, because I’m not. You know, I see rehearsal as, you go in and you learn what you’re supposed to be doing. Once you learn that, you can wad it up and throw it away and play. But I do think the work on the front end is important and for myself as well. Lord knows I could use all the help I can get. (laughs)

Let’s talk about the song, “The Duel.” I saw you play at a Nashville club on the night before you had to go to Alabama for your uncle’s funeral. You said you were angry about his death, and you felt like you needed to tell the audience.

I played that song, too.

Yeah. Have those big, soul-searching life issues gotten easier for you?

No, because what I have found out is that every time you lose somebody, it feels different. It depends on your relationship with that person. I was really close to my uncle. I lived with him and my aunt after my parents died, so we were very close. He was always a rock for me. That stuff never gets any easier, and there’s no way to get over it, and you don’t have to get over it.

But “The Duel” is actually a love song. And it’s about feeling that. When you lose the love of your life, you’re going to be pretty pissed off about it. And it’s enough to make you lose your faith. The whole record is really about that. The slow, chipping away of faith. And it can be faith in anything — yourself, somebody else, God, country. Whatever you want to believe in.

As in the past, you’ve got some good drinking songs and bar songs on this record, too. If you could open your own bar, what would it look like?

I’ve given this thought. (laughs) Well, I would have to go by where I hang out, which is the Sherlock Holmes Pub. We go there about once a week. I would go for the English pub but a little bit of a step up from that. I’d want it to be dark and smoky and what a bar should be.

Was there a precise moment when you realized you loved the Sherlock Holmes bar?

No, we just ended up there a lot. It’s comfortable. It’s not a scene. It’s not a bunch of people standing around trying to be hot. It’s not a bunch of people looking over your shoulder, like “Hey yeah, how ya doin’.” That whole thing. Because I hate that. I hate those kinds of places, and I wouldn’t be caught dead in a velvet-rope joint. Hmm-mmm.

That’s just not my vibe. Please. That is not my vibe. I would not survive in New York City. No way. I don’t even wait to eat in a restaurant. There would have to be nowhere else to go before I wait around. Drives me crazy.

On the last couple of records, you had your face on the cover, but this time, you’ve got an illustration. What’s the story with the artwork of this album?

We found a designer in L.A. who I clicked with. I had seen some of his work and really liked it. And I was intrigued with the idea of not being on the cover. Everybody does that. I got bored with it. I had done four record covers with my head on them, and I was kind of sick of it. And I didn’t feel like this record was about a beauty shot. I’m a little bit worn out on that whole thing anyway. People say, ’Oh, you’ve got to be on the cover to sell it.’ Well, obviously that doesn’t help! Because I’ve been on four of them. So I can shoot holes in that theory.

This designer [Cole Gerst] is a young, with-it guy, and everything on the cover — all those elements — have to do with the lyrics of the songs on the record. I was very impressed that he actually listened to the record. That’s a new concept. So, it all has to do with everything that’s inside the record. On the back of the booklet, there’s a cuckoo clock with the bird on the ground, and there’s a crown buried in the dirt in one part. Heaven and Hell and all the elements that the record deals with. I just loved it, and he came up with it all on his own. I thought, ’For once, I don’t have to do this!’

“A Soft Place to Fall” is the song you came on the scene with. You sang it on the Oscars, and you’ll probably be identified with it forever. Are you OK with that?

It’s funny because it wasn’t a hit. It was in that movie [The Horse Whisperer] and got nominated for an Oscar. I think it got to a whopping No. 67 on the country charts. But it’s cool. I love the song. I still play it from time to time. I don’t always play it because I don’t always play anything. I play what I want to play. Obviously my sound has evolved quite a bit since then, but I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve ever done at this point. I’ll stand by it all, and I think that’s the most important thing. I make a lot of my decisions based on that. I don’t ever want to look back on something I’ve done and commit it to tape and say, “Oh, God, I wish I hadn’t done that.”

On that note, I wanted to ask you about the song you recorded with Kid Rock, “Picture.” If you could have ended that story any differently, would you?

(laughs) Well, yeah. Yeah, I would’ve. What happened with “Picture” was, Sheryl Crow recorded this duet with Kid Rock on his album. He wanted it out as a single. She and her record company said no. He asked me to replace her for a single version. I said yes. Universal South put it out as a commercial single, which went gold and was the No. 1 selling [country] single for 31 weeks, which was great. But after our version was shipped to radio, somehow the Sheryl Crow version got pushed, for whatever reason. I was told they said no, but all of a sudden, there was this change. They came back and said, “We changed our minds.” So obviously, who’s radio going to play: Me or a star? Radio played their version, and mine got kicked to the curb. So I’d change that.

But it’s not like I’m pissed off about it or anything. Be in this business for a year and you’re going to have your share of that stuff. It’s one of those political, music business things that happens, and I don’t regret it. Kid Rock is a great guy. It happens.

Did that raise your name recognition among music fans? Did you notice a rise in the number of hits to your Web site?

I don’t know how many hits to my Web site there are. I don’t keep up with that. I don’t know if it did anything for me at all, actually.

You got a plaque for your wall, maybe?

Yeah. That’s it.

Just by being on the major label for a while, you probably met a lot of slimy music biz people. How hard is it to find a really cool, musically kindred spirit in Nashville?

I just think you stay away from jerks, you know? I don’t always, but usually do, have a pretty good detector with that kind of stuff. It has probably been to my detriment, but I have never been one to try to be seen in the right place or with the right people. I’m not a starf—er. I’m not that person. I’m not star-struck. I’m not impressed easily with flash and fame and money and that sort of thing. I’m impressed by people who are good at what they do. I never got into that whole icky, icky thing. It makes me feel like I need to go home and take a bath.

I’m still hanging out with the same people — the ones this town hasn’t run off — that I’ve been hanging out with since 1996. Therefore, I still feel the same. I pretty much am the same. I’m just doing this for a living instead of working at [the local coffee shop] Fido. (laughs) … For the most part, I keep to my people.

What is the most surprising thing about the live music scene in Nashville?

That’s there’s some good music here. (laughs) You know, people always bitch and moan about Nashville. Blah! “It can’t be good if it came from Nashville.” That’s crap, you know? Something good can come out of wherever. I do think we have the best musicians and songwriters around, in this town. I like living here because obviously there’s been a lot of magic happen here. I can’t imagine living anywhere else and having the musical possibilities at my disposal that I have. I can call up my band and say, “Come over and learn some new songs and we can do that.

But what would people be surprised about? That we don’t have hay hanging out of our asses! We wear shoes and don’t ride in a horse and buggy to work. That kind of stuff.

Have you always encountered that attitude, coming from Alabama?

Oh, yeah. People think we’re sitting on a hay bale with a banjo on our knee. (laughs) It’s like, no, it’s 2004 here, too. People just have that perception of the South, which in some cases is well deserved, but not always. I happen to have a college education.

The one thing that struck me as different about The Duel is that it seems more cinematic than your past albums.

That’s funny because I think all the songs can be taken in a number of different ways. You can see them as love songs, or you can see them as not love songs. I think there is a lot of room for interpretation. I like that about it. I like that it’s not so literal. “I love you, you don’t love me, you suck, I’m gonna cry.” Or “I went to high school, got married, had some babies and now I’m dying a happy man.” … So many songs you hear are these one-dimensional portraits of suburban boredom.

“We met, had a baby, and then mama’s dying.”

“… And I’m so glad she got to see the baby before she shut her eyes for the last time.” You know, s— like that. I hate s— like that. I hate it! Why do people think country music sucks? Because of that. Cornpone, simpleton music. I don’t like it.

Do you have country music on the presets in your car?

Man, I don’t even keep up with what’s going on. I used to, but when I was sure I was going to move along from trying to be a country artist, I gave it up. I’m still in love with what I think country music is, but I honestly don’t see much of that being done. I get my juice from other places. I’d rather listen to [Neil Young’s] Harvest than most current country music I hear. That’s more country to me than anything current. So if I need that, I’ll go there and get it. You’ve always got Merle Haggard. (laughs) …

I just do my thing and don’t worry about what category it goes in. I know other people do, but I don’t. If one person doesn’t have to worry about it, it’s me, because I’m just trying to do my thing. Butch [Primm, her husband] and I are writing our songs and we’re playing them. That’s all I can do.

I didn’t want to ask you about categories because everybody must ask you that.

Yeah, and it’s really hard because they’ve got to know where to put you. They have to, and when you fall beneath the cracks, it makes it difficult. But, so be it.

Do you get tired of reading things like, “Oh, she should be a star”?

Yeah. Maybe they’re right. Maybe they’re not right. I don’t know. Of course, I’d love to be a star. I’d love to be famous. I’d love to sell millions of records. That would be great. I think that’s a big misperception about me, that I’m just trying to do my thing and don’t care about commercial things at all. That’s not true. I’ve never gone in the studio and said, “I want to do something that fails.” Who would do that? I’ve never said, “I’m going to make something only I like.” The truth of it is, there are a lot of closed minds out there and you have to do a certain amount of playing by the rules to get on the radio or to get an opening slot with whoever. I’m just not focused on that, but maybe that makes me a bad businessperson. But I’ve never said I wasn’t a bad businessperson.

What did you study in college?

Public relations. (laughs)

I remember last time I talked to you, you said you wanted a hit song, so I’m glad to hear that you still strive for that.

Well, yeah, but the thing is, where am I going to get it? It’s not going to be on country radio. They shunned me from day one. So I’m not really making music that’s geared for that. I’m certainly not a pop singer. That kind of leaves it like, “Well, get out there on the road, honey, and go ahead and sing for the people. That’s all I can tell you to do.” But even that’s hard because if you don’t have a hit, then you can’t really tour and have it pay for itself. It’s very difficult. I’m not sure that the public understands that. Maybe they don’t need to understand it. But I know people have said to me, “Why don’t you tour more?” And I say, “I take every date I can.” Hopefully things will improve, and I’ll continue to move in the right direction and it’ll happen. We’ll see. I’m hopeful about it. I haven’t quit yet. (laughs)

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.