Here are the things Allison Moorer didn't change when she set out to record The Duel (her indie label debut on Sugar Hill, due April 13) in the summer of 2003: she kept her husband, co-writer and co-producer Butch Primm around, but they're pretty much stuck with each other; she continued to build upon her remarkable rapport with producer R.S. (Bobby, to his friends) Field; and she retained her unwavering devotion to singing hard songs of deep and emotional truth.
And her voice (the one she sings with, and the one she writes in), she didn't change that. Everything else (including her record label) is just a little bit different.
Start with the sound of The Duel. Where 2002's Miss Fortune (her last studio album, followed by 2003's live The Show) was an elegant, sophisticated update on classic southern country soul, The Duel is heedless and blunt, and a little bit rough around the edges. That opening guitar figure on "I Ain't Giving Up On You", for example, isn't exactly studio house-broken.
This is intentional. Allison and Butch and Bobby took a new, thoroughly unrehearsed band into the studio and cut eleven songs in a dozen days. Butch even lured Bobby into picking up his drum sticks for the first time in eighteen years. The rest of the core ensemble - Adam Landry (Stateside, The Sways), John Davis (Superdrag) - are hardly your first-call Nashville session dudes.
But, no, The Duel isn't exactly a rock record. It's simply the newest installment in the series of deeply personal and profoundly beautiful albums Moorer has made. It's a wee bit louder, that's all.
That the first four of those records came out on a Nashville-based major label is as powerful an endorsement of her tenacity and the quality of her work as one could ask for. That she finally felt compelled to walk into one of those corner offices and ask for her release seems, in hindsight, almost inevitable.
On the other hand, the charts (and streets) are filled with gifted singers who have willingly chosen to compromise their artistic vision in pursuit of stardom. "I'm actually not doing this to ride in limousines," Moorer says, a trifle tartly.
But, then, we knew that. It takes a brave soul to write these songs, much less sing them in public. No wonder she chose to take a few more risks on The Duel. "It's what I have to say, it's what WE have to say," she says. "Making music is emotional. I don't want it to be any other way."
Moorer is also a very smart woman and the songs she writes and sings aren't simply vast rivers of untamed emotion. "All the songs on this album could've been called 'The Duel'," she says. "They're all about the fight, not the outcome. The outcome is always about the winners - but during the fight, the losers still think they have a chance."
Butch is quick to point out that label politics had less than nothing to do with the creation of The Duel. "No matter what label she would have been on, this would have been the record," he says.
And that is the freedom Moorer was looking for when she began sorting through the deals she was offered as a free agent singer-songwriter. "What I really need," she decided, "is a really powerful independent label that allows creative control but also has influence and muscle. I had met Steve Buckingham, Senior VP of A&R for the Welk Music Group, and he was very encouraging to me about what I do."
And, in fact, when they delivered the finished album to Sugar Hill it was a surprise to everyone who heard it. A good surprise, mind you.
The back story of The Duel's creation may beg the question, has Allison Moorer abandoned country music? (OK, it's a dumb question: She comes from deepest Alabama, and you'll always hear that in her voice. And it'd be a dumb question even if she came from Alaska.) She shrugs. "First of all, there's the old question, What is country music? I have my own ideas about it, I'm sure you have yours. I know what it means to me, but I don't think about music in terms of ?what it is' anymore. I haven't turned my back on anything. I'm happy for anybody who wants to listen to me to listen to me."
For the rest, well, as they used to say, it's in the grooves.
And these details. Moorer received an Academy Award nomination for "A Soft Place To Fall," which appeared on The Horse Whisperer soundtrack. She's made a few videos, cut a duet with Kid Rock, graduated from college. Shelby Lynne is her sister. Their parents died when they were young. Those stories have all been written. The important stuff, what matters to her, is in her songs.