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Album Review

Allison Moorer's Mockingbird was released a mere two weeks after her sister Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin', a Dusty Springfield covers tribute. Moorer's album is a natural sounding set of covers that runs the gamut from rock and barrelhouse blues, to jazz, country, and traditional and indie folk. Mockingbird was produced by Buddy Miller and includes a stellar cast of players including husband Steve Earle, Richard Bennett, Julie Miller, Darrell Scott, Tammy Rogers, Tim O'Brien, and Phil Madeira. It feels organic.

The set opens with the title cut, the only original. It's a breezy acoustic ballad with warmly layered guitars, a brushed snare, a hi-hat, a B-3, and the Nashville String Machine ensemble. The cut shifts midway and becomes a graceful pop tune kissed by R&B, courtesy of Jim Hoke's tough tenor sax solo. June Carter's "Ring of Fire" is in a very slow 4/4 with violin, viola, and B-3 walking alongside the singer as she lets her voice just ring out over the top. The reading of Patti Smith's "Dancin' Barefoot" has to be heard to be believed. It's a contender for best track on the set. Moorer's enunciation captures what is at the heart of Smith's song, expressing a powerful desire as it surrenders to raw need. The lyrics walk a knife's edge as the singer observes herself in both first and third person. It's awash in blazing electric guitars, tambourines, cymbals, popping drums and organ; they wash through it all violently, yet reflect the lyrics perfectly.

Moorer's take on Nina Simone's "Sugar in My Bowl" is a bluesier one. She can sing anything; her voice sways, swings, and swoops through acoustic guitars, bluesed out keyboards, and whispering drums. It's wonderful to hear Kate McGarrigle's "Go Leave" again, especially given this spare, reverential treatment. It will hopefully create in listeners the desire to investigate the McGarrigle Sisters' own records. Moorer's voice simply allows the song to have its way; she follows its turns with rapt attention. A New Orleans style bass drum, mandolin, Earle's nasty guitar, and a vintage microphone displace time on Ma Rainey's "Daddy Goodbye Blues."

Of the remaining tracks, Moorer's interpretation of Julie Miller's "Orphan Train" takes us down a moving path: her father killed Moorer's mother and himself, in front of her and Lynne. Lynne's stirring "She Knows Where She Goes," precedes it. Together they reflect the deliberately forgotten, topically tragic side of the American country tradition — Nashville is just plain afraid of songs like this. The album nears its end with Chan Marshall's simple yet deeply moving "Where Is My Love," especially as a follow-up to the aforementioned cuts. It feels as if it's sung by a survivor; an empty handed, full-hearted hero who paid the price and has little but loneliness to show for it. When Moorer, Buddy Miller, and company bring it to close with Jessi Colter's lusty "I'm Looking for Blue Eyes," it's as if the circle that began with "Mockingbird" is complete. Moorer, who has followed a restless career path through the wiles of Nashville's machine and lived to tell about it, ups her own ante here both creatively and emotionally. It is her warmest, most ambitious, and gutsy record yet.


Born: 21 June 1972 in Mobile, AL

Genre: Country

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Allison Moorer was born into a musical family and raised in the small southern Alabama town of Frankville; when Moorer's father shot her mother and then turned the gun on himself, older sister Shelby Lynne -- soon to become a country singer herself -- took charge of raising Allison. After attending the University of South Alabama, Moorer moved to Nashville, hoping to get her start as a studio backing vocalist. She struck up a songwriting partnership with musician and future husband Butch Primm, and...
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