In February 2010, when sultry Alabama-born singer Allison Moorer released her last album, Crows, she was married (to fellow musician Steve Earle) and was just two months away from the birth of the couple's son, John Henry. Now, nearly five years later, as she prepares for the release of her next LP, the brilliant — and extraordinarily candid — Down to Believing (due March 17, 2015, on E1 Records), she is separated from Earle and navigating the bewildering diagnosis of John Henry's autism.
It's hardly the first time Moorer has addressed personal struggles (or tragedies) on record. Those tragedies include the murder-suicide of her parents in 1986, when Moorer was 14 and older sister, singer Sheby Lynne, was 17. Moorer was in Nashville last week to debut songs from the new album at the Americana Music Association conference. She sat down with Rolling Stone Country for a revealing conversation about the life-changing events that shaped the songs for the record, her eighth studio album since the release of 1998's Alabama Song, and without a doubt her most personal collection to date.
When did you actually find out about your son having autism?
He was diagnosed at 23 months, which is almost 2 1/2 years ago. It's not something that you ever get used to because it constantly changes. John Henry has been in a special school and has done ABA [applied behavior analysis] therapy since two weeks after we found out. He started speech therapy and occupational therapy even before that because we knew something was going on. It's something that we were able to jump right on because we were lucky and caught it. A lot of kids don't get diagnosed until way later, whether it's through denial or whatever. We were just very aware of it. So I spend a lot of my time paying attention to that, making sure that he's OK. I'm living in New York because there is a school there that really is great and provides everything that he needs under one roof. And his dad lives in New York. Well, he tours most of the time but John Henry and I live in New York state.
One of the standouts on Down to Believing is "Thunderstorm Hurricane." In addition to having some amazing guitar work, it's more than a little dark, so anyone who didn't have some idea about things going on in your personal life probably couldn't help but wonder where the idea came from.
It came from feeling very frustrated and sad over miscommunication and not being able to get on the same page so to speak with someone that I love very much. It's a funny song because it's 13 lines. That's all it is. It's probably the most economical song that I've ever written. I got really lucky and didn't need any more words than are there. Musically, I've sort of mined that territory before, but I feel like it's probably the best I've done that particular thing to date. There's no wasted energy on it. I knew what I wanted it to sound like. The day I recorded it I had a 102-degree fever. Kenny Greenberg, who produced this record, it was the second time we had worked together in 12 years. He produced my first two albums. I was just writing songs and when I was making demos for my publishing deal, I called Kenny because I needed a guitar player that could make things sound fabulous in a really short amount of time. He's just fantastic, one of the best guitar players in the world. He's also very nurturing to me, we have a long relationship and I felt like we needed to make music together again for a lot of reasons. This particular day we cut four or five songs in the morning and "Thunderstorm Hurricane" was on the list. He made it really, really special.
"Mama Let the Wolf In" has some of the most ferocious vocals you've probably ever done. There's a line about the wolf being a "big bad motherfucker," which is kind of startling.
It's about how I feel about my son having autism. As a parent, whatever your children go through I think there's a certain amount of it that you feel responsible for, even if you know it has nothing to do with you, even if you know that there's absolutely no way to protect them from the world or what they have to go through, whether it's being bullied, having a hard time in school, or being an addict. When you can't protect them from going through something that's hard, you feel responsible for it. No one knows what causes autism; no one knows how to cure autism. It's a confounding condition. I admittedly have lied awake at night and asked myself what did I do, where did I go wrong? I know I must have done something to cause this. If I had just not done this or if I hadn't exposed him to that. A million things have gone through my head. Basically the song is channeling that energy and expressing that extreme frustration at not being able to protect him. It makes me feel very powerless.
"Down to Believing" is one of the more painfully beautiful songs on the record.
It's about the end of my marriage. It's about acceptance, figuring out which way to go, just taking it on the chin. We've been separated for two years. We're not actually divorced yet, but working on it. [Laughs]
Music has obviously played a huge role in getting you through some very tough times.
It's my saving grace. A lot of people seem to view it as a burden because it does hurt to try to sit down and try to get the words and the music right. It's not an easy job, but it's an important job. I have always thought that writing songs and singing was my way of communicating and my way of putting out something that I needed to put out there. I've had quite a few hard experiences in my life, from losing my parents at a young age, to difficult relationships, to just having a hard time in the music business. I do seem to have a life that is pretty tumultuous but I also know that I can absorb it and reflect it back out so that someone else might feel less alone in their own experience. That's why I'm going to say I wrote a song about autism ... about feeling powerless as a parent and not being very happy about it. I'm going to say I wrote a song about the end of my marriage because marriages end every day. A lot of them. It's just what the job is — being able to reflect your own experience and put it in a common language so that people can commune.
Your sister Shelby Lynne has her own record label and has been self-releasing her albums. Will your new one be self-released?
No, E1 is releasing it. I couldn't self-release a to-do list! [Laughs] I have so much to do, running a record label is not one of the things I want to put on my list! That's why I say this record exists because people love me. I wouldn't have a record if it weren't for those relationships that I've had for so long.