Labor of Love 

Singer works from life experiences to craft LP about love gone wrong

Singer works from life experiences to craft LP about love gone wrong

Allison Moorer

The Hardest Part (MCA)

On her new album The Hardest Part, country singer Allison Moorer vividly describes a love story unlike any you’ve heard coming from Music Row. Her story begins long after the flowers have wilted and the butterflies of excitement have calmed in the lovers’ stomachs—after love has taken a turn into the darkness, a void from which it can never return. Moorer takes a narrative journey into desperation, rage, fear, insecurity, even death. The concept album tells the story of a couple who can’t find peace together or apart; the only constant is pain. The Hardest Part is country music at its best about love at its worst.

“I like to call it a love story, but it’s a complicated love story,” the 28-year-old singer says of her second LP. “It’s not the heart-and-flowers, ‘this is grand and isn’t it wonderful?’ version of love. It’s more about what’s real. The story is inspired by my parents’ story; it is not their story, but it is inspired by them.”

When Moorer was 14, her father killed her mother and then himself at their Frankville, Ala., home. Until now, Moorer has refused to discuss the tragedy publicly because she didn’t want the press to exploit the painful, private details of her life. Countless editors agreed to write feature stories on Moorer, but only if she’d talk about the murder-suicide and about her singing sister, Shelby Lynne. Moorer always declined, even if it meant denying herself career opportunities.

But as is the case with most any artist, Moorer’s work is an exploration of her own life and the world around her, and she found that it was time to address her parents—both their lives and deaths. “Their lives had a whole lot more effect on me than their deaths did,” she says. “That is the thing I would like people to know and remember. Who they were and how they lived is what is important. Not that their deaths didn’t have a profound effect on my life, but what is important is how they lived.

“What has happened is my parents have been reduced to these pitiful people. I feel in a way that I’ve done my parents a disservice by not talking about them and letting people know they were more than this one event.”

There were good times growing up, Moorer says. Her father, who played bass and guitar, took her and her sister to fiddlers’ conventions, where they sang in front of an audience for the first time. Moorer learned to sing harmony as a preschooler thanks to her mother, who, in a voice reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry, sang Andrews Sisters songs to pass the time during the 45-minute ride to school in a car with no radio.

Clad in a brown V-neck shirt, faded jeans, and a brown rope necklace with a turquoise centerpiece that hugs her translucent neck, Moorer possesses an ethereal but natural beauty, a look that resembles her mother more and more as she grows older. Her full, wine-blushed lower lip, however, came straight from her dad. As she will do numerous times over the next few months, Moorer sits in MCA’s conference room and reveals the most intimate details of her life to a virtual stranger.

“My father, who was a musician and teacher, did some horrible shit, but the humanness in me sees his good qualities as well,” she says. “I mean, he’s my dad. My mother tried her best to take care of us and be strong. Their relationship to me is what this record is about. This is about two people who can’t live with or without each other, and it’s about when love is love, but it’s the wrong love. Everybody I know has been in that situation, so hopefully people can relate to it on that level.”

After graduating from the University of South Alabama in 1993, Moorer moved to Nashville to sing backup for her sister, who’d landed a country deal with Epic Records in 1990 before moving on to the Morgan Creek and Magnatone labels. Moorer then met musician Butch Primm, who later became her husband; he introduced her to the music of Gram Parsons and Lucinda Williams and encouraged her to start a solo career. His support led to a record deal at MCA, which in turn led to an Academy Award nomination after Robert Redford heard her song “A Soft Place to Fall” and included it on the soundtrack for The Horse Whisperer.

Thanks to the Oscar nomination, Moorer’s 1998 debut, Alabama Song, was something of a surprise success. But The Hardest Part, with its unflinching themes and country tunes steeped in fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and pedal steel, is a clear step forward in creative terms. It may be the best album released by a major Music Row label this year. It’s also a brave outing, considering the current commercial environment, which is dominated by bubbly beauties Shania Twain and Faith Hill. Moorer doesn’t rely on over-the-top production, anthemic drum beats, or radio-friendly hooks. Rather, the album’s subtleties—the heartbreaking quiver in her voice, the lonesome sound of a harmonica, the wail of a steel guitar—speak the loudest.

Of special note is the last song on The Hardest Part, an unlisted track called “Cold, Cold Earth,” which describes the hot August night the tragedy between her parents occurred. The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn said hiding the track about 15 seconds after the last credited song was “a perhaps naive attempt to keep the song from overshadowing the rest of the album.” Explains Moorer, “I thought if I hid it, it might not take so much attention away from the rest of the record. Maybe it was naive; I don’t regret it at all. I feel it was something I needed to do. I knew it would invite questions, and that’s fine. [The] reason why this track is hidden is I didn’t want this record to be about Allison’s parents.”

One of the reasons the record is so good is precisely because the story of Moorer’s parents doesn’t overshadow the music. The singer stresses that the couple depicted in the music is fictional; even if she has included true-to-life, biographical details, she refuses to point out which parts are based in fact. As a result, the album’s themes become universal, striking raw emotional chords. As with the best concept records, all of the songs relate—and at times even refer—to each other, yet each one stands alone. Moorer wrote all of the tracks with Primm, except “Bring Me All Your Lovin’ ” which the couple wrote with coproducer Kenny Greenberg, and “Cold, Cold Earth,” which she wrote alone.

The Hardest Part begins with the title track, which sets the tone for the tale that follows. “The hardest part of living is loving,” Moorer sings, “ ’cause loving turns to leaving every time.” In the next song, “Day You Said Goodbye,” she introduces the narrative thread by describing a woman waking alone, while the following two tracks, “It’s Time I Tried” and “Best That I Can Do,” tell of the woman’s attempts to cope with her heartbreak.

The story progresses from there, as the woman reunites with her partner but soon gives up on any hope of happiness. Nashville alt-country crooner Lonesome Bob makes a dramatic appearance on “No Next Time,” playing the part of the man. Rather than blending harmoniously into the background, his deep voice enters a beat behind Moorer’s rich, alto voice, echoing her sentiments. The two don’t sing in unison, because the woman knows what he’s going to say before he even says it: “I will never break your heart again, again, again.”

The last credited song is “Feeling That Feeling Again,” which explores just how hard it can be to end a bad relationship. “You know how people are—they just can’t break it off,” Moorer says. “I know that is the way it was with my parents. My mother left my father 15 times, but she couldn’t quite get it done.”

Finally, the album ends quietly and powerfully with the acoustic “Cold, Cold Earth.” “By the time you get to the end of the record, you know why we said [the hardest part of living is loving] in the beginning,” Moorer says.

The making of the record was a learning process for the singer, one that continues even though the project has been completed. “I keep pulling back layers on this album,” she says. “I wrote this record, and I keep finding more stuff in it that sets off a little light bulb in my head and makes me think about something I hadn’t thought about before. Having it laid out like this helps me see a lot of things that maybe I didn’t before. It’s very revealing to me, not only about how I feel about it but also about how they felt.

“My goal for this album was to make the best album I could make, so I think I’ve achieved my goal because it did tell a story and say what I wanted to say. Musically, I’m very happy with it. I’d just like to get it to as many people as possible to hear it.”

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