For Allison Moorer, Forgiveness and Healing Are a Life’s Work

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The tall elegant Allison Moorer had barely taken the stage and said hello when the evening’s moderator, NPR correspondent Melissa Block, had a few words of warning for the audience: “It’s going to get pretty heavy real soon.”

Inside the intimate Jammin’ Java, a club in Northern Virginia just outside Washington, D.C., arriving patrons has already been thumbing through copies of the book Blood, Moorer’s new memoir about her life’s work to reconcile the trauma she grew up at the hands of an abusive father, culminating in the murder of her mother before taking his own life. The work to resolve the trauma and make sense of her family’s lives has resulted in thirty-three years of work. Here tonight as part of a twelve-city tour, Moorer would read from the pages of Blood and sing songs from a new album of the same name, a song cycle that she wrote as an accompaniment to the prose.

For many in the room who had followed her over the years, Moorer acknowledged we knew she had been trying to come to terms with the events resulting from an early morning in 1985. As a fourteen-year-old, she and sister Shelby Lynne woke up to the sound of gunshots fired by her father Franklin, killing her mother Lynn and then himself. The sisters have been grappling with the reality ever since that one event has largely defined their lives.

Moorer’s attempt over the past five and a half years to remember her parents began when she started jotting notes on index cards. It was an exercise to help fire up her memory to transport as many memories she could write about. The singer admitted there were times she doubted she’d be able to see a memoir completed and did not reveal the project to her sister until she was well into it.

Block, who had hosted Moorer and Shelby Lynne on NPR when they released Not Dark Yet, previewed the night as one of meditation and excavation and a lot of love and pain. “Somewhere in there is joy…. somewhere.” She started the night on a lighter note when she pulled up the tape of a three-year old Allison singing with her sister Shelby four years older.

“It came from my family, it came from my Mama,” Moorer responded about her angelic high harmonies. Moorer’s grandmother was one of fourteen children who grew up during the depression on a cotton farm. Their lives revolved around farming and music. “Everyone knew how to pick.”

The moderator cut to the chase when she asked Moorer to read her first passage. “This is my version of the story,” Moorer began in a Southern Faulknerian tone describing the “angry air” of an Alabama morning.

“Daddy wouldn’t let her have any peace.”

It was then that she recalled the sounds of gunfire. “Imagine the sound of a .30-06 rifle firing, and then think of the time it takes to snap your fingers four times to the tempo of ‘Thirteen’ by Big Star. Then imagine it firing again.” As she came out of the passage, she wiped her right eye.

The book details the enormous mental and physical abuse her sister suffered at the hands of their father. Much of the tension of the readings and discussion was centered around what was not said. In the Audible edition, Moorer chose to read the book herself. Within her varying tones and points of emphasis, she provides an essential understanding of the contradictory themes running through Blood. Her emotions span the gamut of everything from anger, joy, defiance, love, confusion and shame, to name several. In the Audible edition, Shelby Lynne reads the foreword in a ghostly way.

Moorer began her five-song first set accompanying the reading with her breathtaking tribute to her sister, “Nightlife.”  “In so many ways we are witnesses for each other,” Moorer mused. “I cling to her. We are each other’s memories.” At one-point Block had pointed out they are both called Sissy. “It gets really confusing.”

After a reprise of “Thunderstorm/Hurricane” from Down To Believing, Moorer framed song portraits she provided for each of her family members. Moorer takes comfort knowing that her mother left the earth knowing she was loved. She wrote “The Rock and The Hill” for her. “I wanted to write something in her voice she didn’t get to use.” The gospel rooted blues were built around Moorer’s wails and thick, strident chords. “This is for every woman who’s doing a lot with a little which is a lot of us.”

In contrast, Moorer chose to play a song written by her father discovered years later in his private papers. An aspiring songwriter who missed his calling, he had taken the family to Nashville to make a record the year before he passed. Moorer explained how she was thankful he had put she and her sister on a career path. In the book, she writes of how she has played his Gibson B24 guitar on each of her albums. The confessional  “I’m The One To Blame” sounded like a standard.

When Moorer began her second set, she shared a story about being in Germany on a tour bus when she was sleeping with her seventeen-month old son. She woke up to find she had two verses and a bridge. “It was a message that came from my daddy.” Moorer then sang “Set My Soul Free,” a song she described as part explanation, part apology.

During the second set, she seemed liberated having the stage alone, just her and a guitar, reaching back to old familiar songs like “Alabama Song” and “A Soft Place To Fall” and a rousing version of “Bad Weather” which begins the song cycle of Blood.  Her voice filled the room throughout the night and then to a  quiet moment of reflection when she sang “Blood.” We left the show to hear the album’s closing track, a rousing inspirational song “Heal,” a co-write with friend Mary Gauthier. It was a personal triumph for a life’s work that is still ongoing and will be for some time to come.

Block had asked earlier if she had learned to forgive her father. Moorer responded it depends on the day. She sited a lot of hard work and therapy to get to this point. Being a parent has helped. “He did a horrible thing, but no one is reducible to one thing,” she concluded. In the grief and trauma that followed, sympathy and empathy has evolved. Moorer’s journey has helped her to understand her parents in ways she couldn’t as a child.

For Sissy, she confided there was a benefit of reading Blood and seeing herself in a different way. There was also an understanding of Shelby’s self-observation of her early life about the dysfunction in the house. “By the time you came along, I was primed and ready,” she said to her sister in words that Allison has thought long and hard about. Her sister’s healing process is taking its own time. For Moorer, there was a time when she cut herself off from meeting new people because inevitably, she’d have to reveal her past. Now, at 47, she seems like she’s come to resolution. “I don’t want to protect myself from this anymore.”

Moorer took a short break before she came out of her dressing room, walking hand in hand to the signing table with her recently married husband Hayes Carll and sometimes tour moderator. The line extended deep and Moorer chit chatted while she signed books, posters and albums. Earlier she had said that in the short few weeks Blood has been out, already she’s heard from so many with similar stories. When I approached and showed her my Audible edition on my phone, she asked, “How did I do?”

Moorer said her publisher was surprised how quickly and well she did the audio version. “I was very familiar with the material,” she deadpanned.

For the singer, every show has been different because of the variables including the moderator, the audience and herself. The moderator has rotated nightly and may want to cover different things. The room has its own qualities and then there’s how she herself feels on a given night. “You have to trust the process,” she says of the approach.

There’s no doubt how exhausting and emotionally draining these shows must be. But when she imparted a message and call to action on us, it seemed all worth it. “If you see something or someone who might hurt themselves, say something,” she urged. For someone who had been brought up to repress what she saw and felt, advocacy seemed like a comfortable place–and the right place to be.

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