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Nick Coleman on Allison Moorer

VOICES: 4/ sweet home

Allison Moorer: "Alabama Song" (MCA Nashville, 1998)

Sometimes – perhaps even often – a singing voice can come off as truthful in all the very best senses of the expression, yet you're not entirely sure of what that truth might be, or even if it's a truth you're comfortable hearing. You sense it though, like the scent of a crime on the breeze.

I first heard Allison Moorer's voice randomly and without any useful context towards the end of the nineties. There wasn't much breeze in the room. It was this song I heard, "Alabama Song" (not the one by Brecht/Weill), one of two stand-out cuts on her debut album for MCA's Nashville label. I heard it in my front room in north London while scanning a ruck of new releases for things to like and, indeed, I enjoyed it a lot, registering the song and performance straightforwardly enough at first as a ravishing Southern mezzo pulling hard in the service of glossy Nashville product. High-end nostalgia with dark shading. It seemed classy, rich, languorous, melancholic. Lovely, really, and not that hard to fathom. I liked it so much that I found myself coming back to it repeatedly over the course of the next fortnight or so.

But over that fortnight I came to the conclusion there was something not quite right about "Alabama Song", something you might only sense rather than hear. Something just out of reach. And I think that it may have been that wrongness that kept me coming back to it – there seemed to be in the song a deeply ingrown dissonance, to use a word that is both apt and currently fashionable.

Wrong or maybe just strange? Well, the voice seemed to be unusually heavy with feeling, burdened even, overladen, while the lyrics expressed a standard, rather fragranced longing for "sweet southern pines", "big old cotton fields" and for the common local practice of lying around in "beds of camellias to watch the sun shine" – the sort of republic-of-nature romanticism Southerners often attach to their place of origin, especially when displaced from it. There seemed to be a disconnect in there somewhere. Surely nostalgic longing is a reason for sweet-toned reflection, not gloom or bitterness or plunging spirits? Yet this longing felt overweight, serious, almost as if "longing" were not the right word and was certainly not the whole of the story. The unease was further amplified at the end of the song when it is revealed that the singer is actually quite prepared to ditch the prospect of Alabama altogether and divert to – well, what have you got? California?

I became addicted to the song's structural details, too, in particular the delicate and very occasional shafts of vocal harmony that shine through the song's upper branches courtesy of Moorer's sister, Shelby Lynne. Harmony and more dissonance. Listen to the extraordinarily beautiful hanging suspension at 1.24 on the fourth syllable of the word "Alabama", which cuts into the song like a soft blowtorch and does not resolve. It's beautiful but uncomfortable. (It's beautiful partly because it's uncomfortable.) And it fortifies what was becoming clearer and clearer about the song's mystery: this is a song that purports to express one feeling vividly (that Alabama is longed for) but does so with so much pent-up misgiving that it undercuts its ostensible message and invests you, the listener, with the clear conviction that the problem here may actually be Alabama itself. Indeed, should Alabama not be a convenient destination for you at this time, then "any place'll do". It is a song not about Alabama at all really but about the weight of irresolution arising from a need to keep moving, away from Alabama.

A year or two later, Moorer's second album The Hardest Part came out and this time I paid closer attention. I met Allison – a serious, perpendicular, red-blonde woman with ice-blue eyes and a very slow smile – interviewed her for the newspaper I worked for, liked her a lot and learned about her life, insofar as she felt able to say anything much about it. I got to understand "Alabama Song" at last.

Historically, Alabama in song trails a long tail of misgiving, as well as longing. John Coltrane, Randy Newman, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp, John Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn, Ani DiFranco, Lead Belly, the Drive-By Truckers, Shovels & Rope… They've all had something to say about the state in which Birmingham is the most populous and notorious city. Not all of the things they've had to say have been unfavourable, but there's always misgiving.

But that is not the Alabama of Moorer's Alabama song. Because rural Alabama is the place where Allison and her elder sister Shelby grew up, a place of pines and camellias and sunshine and muddy rivers; and the place in which their father shot their mother dead before turning the gun on himself. He did it on the front lawn while their teenage daughters lay listening in bed a few feet away. Shelby went out to face the carnage. Allison remained, frozen, indoors.

She's written a very good book about the consequences of those killings, and about the possible reasons for them, plus the possible meanings of them. It's called Blood and is published by Da Capo. I recommend it to you. And as part of the effort surrounding its release a year ago Moorer made some recordings of new songs and remarked on several occasions that very little of her musical output over the past twenty-plus years has escaped the baleful influence of the events that changed her life for ever ­– even when the songs in question are free of balefulness themselves. It's in the grain of everything she does.

It's in her voice.

I would not argue that to listen to Allison sing is to hear the sound of abuse and murder. Far from it. Moorer's voice is powerful and resourceful, life-giving, strength-imparting, courageous, beautiful. It's one of the most beautiful voices I know in fact – I listen to it often, just for the good it does. But it is a voice that carries a burden that it upholds with every last drop of its owner's fortitude – and you can hear that in "Alabama Song" even as she sings about how much she longs to return to that place. Or not.

Here's the thing. She does and she doesn't want to go back. She does not want to return to the place where her life was blown apart, along with her parents' bodies. But, at the same time, Alabama is the location of her childhood and the best memories of her parents, especially her mother. It's where her life began. It's the place that furnished her life, nourished it, embellished ­it, before it also wounded it for ever. You can take any song from the now-substantial Moorer canon and you will find that it is marked, at some level, by the sound of carried weight, even as it also expresses the fortitude that was required to lift that weight in the first place and then hang on, sometimes by the barest fingernails.

"Alabama Song" isn't a great song in and of itself, though I think the singing of it is marvellous and very moving. But it is possible to feel in the sound of that voice, and in the words that it enunciates so ambiguously, both the tragedy of its singer's younger life and also something more prosaic: something that belongs to many of us – the feeling that home is a place about which we have inveterately ambivalent feelings. Do I want to go there?

Yes, I do.

But maybe not.

Nick Coleman is the author of three books: The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Trust book prize; the novel Pillow Man; and Voices: How A Great Singer Can Change Your Life. All are published by Jonathan Cape/Vintage.


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