In all sorts of ways it’s easy to write Allison Moorer’s story as a series of lurid headlines and Down To Believing fits right into that story with an exclamation mark. It’s a break-up record, recorded in the fall out of the unravelling of her seven-year marriage to Steve Earle. Now living as a single parent, it also comes on the back of their now five-year-old son’s diagnosis with autism. Both of those factors figure large in the record, but if you’re going to write the headlines then you should also be prepared to tell the story and there’s so much to this record. There is passion, anger, there are questions with few answers, but there is defiance, acceptance, a glimmer of reconciliation and a dash of hope. It walks a highly charged emotional line and in doing so delivers a record that confirms Allison’s place amongst the very best of America’s singer songwriters.
In all sorts of other ways, this is a record that very nearly didn’t happen. There’s a telling quote in the attendant press release that tells the back-story as Allison explains, “I didn’t even know it was going to be a record, 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.” She puts the start down to reuniting with guitarist Kenny Greenberg and she continues, “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.”
Greenberg had actually produced the first two albums that Allison made in her own right for MCA in Nashville and does so again here. Before making her debut Allison had eventually followed her sister Shelby Lynne to the Tennessee Music City, spending some time singing backing vocals, before hooking up (in all senses) with Doyle ‘Butch’ Primm. The couple married and started writing together and the first results came out on Alabama Song, released in 1998, followed a couple of years later by The Hardest Part. Rekindling the relationship forged with Kenny over those early records felt good as Allison explains, “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.”
Listening back to those early records, it’s easy to see how Moorer was marketed as a country artist, but in truth she never really proved a perfect fit for that mould. She certainly had the voice, but in writing or co-writing her material had the more Americana leaning production, especially on the second record, she was already on a different artistic flow to the Nashville mainstream. In truth neither Allison or her sister Shelby were going to make it as straight A list country stars, despite, or perhaps because of being allowed a degree of artistic freedom, both would move on. Moorer did, signing to the rootsier Sugar Hill for the release of The Duel in 2004. By then, however, the template was well and truly set and although Moorer has subsequently been through several record deals, there’s the sense that each record has been important in its own way, each a record that she had to make at that time.
That is unquestionably true here, despite those original waverings, as once Allison got started there was no letting go. It did, however, take its time and necessitate a new way of working. Moorer had long since moved out of Nashville. Both she and Earle turned their backs on The South, relocating to New York, although he did much more emphatically than she. In turning to Kenny Greenberg, however Allison also decided to record in Nashville. Perhaps the distance between her and her estranged husband was necessary, but it then meant commuting back and forth, while juggling the care of her son. This in turn meant sequencing with the musicians, with some inevitable drop outs and diary clashes, so the album was constructed piece by piece.
Previously Moorer had always worked in a block of time, making the record from start to finish, but she has admitted that the extra time to think helped in the creative process. None the less, there are almost 20 musicians used in different permutations on the record, but a combination of Nashville know-how, Greenberg’s production skills and Allison’s excellent songs and vocal performance make for a pretty seamless blend.
That said she also credits Greenberg with tapping into her rockier side and the first three songs are shining examples, awash wish overdriven guitars. This is rockin’ Americana at it’s finest as Like It Used To Be with it’s hooky riffs and searing solo, is matched by the brooding chug and soaring lines of Thunderstorm / Hurricane. Allison lays out the emotional terrain in the opener with lines like, “Love shows up and love goes south,” before admitting that, “Don’t wanna say goodbye but it will set me free.”
The second starts slowly but builds a huge sound, soaked in strings amongst the guitar crunch, as Allison admits, “I ignored all the signs, so it took me by surprise.” I Lost My Crystal Ball offers no let up, with more guitars layers around a mandolin riff, that once more push the track into sizzling rock territory as Allison sings with passions boiling over, “I lost my crystal ball, Found me a wrecking ball,” before finally acknowledging, “But it ain’t hard to see, It’s made a wreck of me.”
The title track offers her the first chance to slow things down with a waltz time and slower tempo. Her voice softens a little too and she also plays piano, but the song is still simmering with a passion, albeit laced with memories and regrets, as she sings about the head in the clouds highs of love and the fall from grace. After a banjo-groove setting acoustic start, however, Tear Me Apart puts the pedal to the metal once again, with the kind of looping, wheeling riff that Robert Plant would delight in and an appropriately bluesy howl as Allison confesses, “What am I supposed to do, When I wanna scream every time I look at you, I ain’t safe, I ain’t sound, Might as well put me in a hole in the ground.”
There are more tender moments provided by If I Were Stronger, another piano led ballad that is, as its title suggests, full of regrets, with a mournful steel guitar to spike the emotions. Blood too is a gentle acoustic admission of unconditional love and written for Allison’s sister Shelby. They sandwich another brooding mid-paced classic Wish I, in which Allison literally tries to wish herself into her ex-lovers life, before conceding, “But I guess I ain’t your Cinderella, And if you don’t want me I don’t want you back.”
Mama Let The Wolf In is Allison’s response to the diagnosis for her son autism. It’s that hopeless thing as a parent, wanting to do everything for your children to keep them from harm, although in reality it’s impossible. This is a cathartic release as Allison blames herself through a reverb-drenched howl that echoes Creedence. Those echoes themselves reverberate in a cascading version of John Fogerty’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain? Which, as we know, in this case comes down on a sunny day.
Between those two, however are two more gems that flip-flop with the emotions. I’m Doing Fine suggests that menial everyday tasks are a distraction, but not too well, from the heartbreak. The song swells with a puffed out chest as Allison repeats, “I just wanna let you know that I’m doing fine,” while the opposite is actually true. Back Of My Mind opens the possibility of Allison finally realigning, confining her ex partner to a place that offers a little chance of freedom from the pain, as finally she sings, “I put you back where you belong, In the back of my mind.”
Finally there’s the Dobro and acoustic strum through the aching Gonna Get It Wrong and amidst all of the pain and heartbreak is the realisation that despite it all, Allison is a survivor. As she has candidly recognised in the press release, “I used to have this dream, 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.”
If that suggests that it’s time to count her blessings, then thankfully the prognosis is that she is doing just that. Allison’s also acknowledged that she’s living happily with her son John Henry. They’ll face the challenges of his autism together and that will be their primary job for life. With it comes another admission of no regrets for the time she spent with Steve Earle, even generously crediting him for teaching her a hell of a lot about the songwriter’s art. But in truth, she’s long possessed a unique songwriter’s gift, working on her own terms and Down To Believing, her eighth studio album, confirms a level of creative consistency that few can match. Working with Kenny Greenberg has also proved an inspired move adding fuel to the flaming passions of Down To Believing. It was never in doubt.
Review by: Simon Holland
Down To Believing is released March 16, 2015 via Proper Records
Order via ProperMusic: Down To Believing (Ltd Autographed Art-Card)