Allison Moorer wears many hats– singer, songwriter, mother, wife, and most recently, author. In her new memoir and accompanying album, both titled Blood, Allison opens up about the 1986 murder/suicide of her parents. By itself, Blood the album is a work of art telling stories of her childhood alongside her Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter sister Shelby Lynne. But her deeply personal and heart-wrenching memoir took me to Hell and back.
AD- Your album and your memoir both were just equally gut-wrenching and beautiful. Allison, what made you decide that now was the time to bring those memories, your story to light?
AM- It wasn’t really a decision that it was time. I think that I’m an artist, and I make art out of my life– and why is probably different every day and from one day to the next… But I guess I’ve been pretty focused on trying to figure out why the self as a subject is so compelling these days. Certainly, I’ve been working on my memoir for a very long time as a singer-songwriter. It’s just what I’ve got to work with. This book, I think that I have been trying to understand my own family and my own history for a very long time and trying to understand my parents. I think having an understanding of where you come from is necessary for understanding who you are and where you’re going. I’m just one of those people who wants to understand. I do that by writing. I do that most successfully through making art. That may not be a very specific answer that that turns into, you know? I don’t think I could have written this book before I became a parent, and I don’t think that I would have had the impetus to do it before I became a parent because the need to understand my own history was not as present as it became after I had John Henry. I feel like I wanted to understand myself better in order to be at ease with where I’ve come from so that I can be a better parent to my son. By understanding my own self.
Was one easier to write than the other? Did you find the music easier to write because you’re a songwriter, you’re a musician? Did you find the written word harder to write?
Well, songs take a lot less time than books. So there’s that. I probably have a lot more confidence as a songwriter than I do as a prose writer, but I’m working on it.
You’re amazing at both. I don’t know that you give yourself enough credit, but you really are amazing with both the written and music. It’s eloquent, and it hits home for a lot of people I think.
That’s been a really interesting part of this process. Something that I didn’t necessarily plan on was the feedback that I would get from people who have read my blog and have come to me and said, “Because you have told your story, it makes me feel better able to tell my own.” Which absolutely floors me and makes me feel like I did something good, beyond just doing work for my own self or my own family and processing my own trauma. I wasn’t really prepared for that. What I have found… I have always known that there was a lot of pain in the world, but I know it now like I didn’t know it before. I think that we’re in a season of investigation, examination, and attempts to heal as a species. And I think that that’s a really interesting place to be.
The release of your first song, “The Rock And The Hill”, prior to the release of your book… When I heard it, it just hit me in the face. As a woman, as a mother, as just a person that’s struggling so much right now with just the most minuscule things, I related to this song so much. Then you said that the response that you have gotten to the book has been overwhelming? I can imagine it being that way. I can imagine it because I know that there are people out there that are hurting, and you’ve kind of opened that door. You’ve cracked that window for them a little bit. Have you ever thought of creating a space for individuals that have been in the same situation that you have? Children, siblings that have gone through these traumatic, horrible events, a place for them to kind of come together to support one another?
Well, no, but I think that there are a couple of obstacles to that. I think in an idealistic way, it’s a really good idea and I think that those places do exist in therapeutic environments and more treatment-oriented situations. I think one of the things that people from troubled backgrounds face is isolation. And it’s kind of a Catch 22 because I think that we want to connect with others, but because of our trauma we often don’t, we often shy away. That’s something that I think is done in baby-steps.
We have both been mining this territory for a very long time in song– but in songs, you can hide. With a memoir like this, there’s not much hidden. So I needed to make sure she was okay with that.
The song “I’m The One To Blame”, I know it was an originally unfinished piece from your daddy who was an aspiring musician and songwriter, and your sister Shelby found it in his briefcase after his passing and finished those lyrics. You all have sung it together, but it wasn’t ever recorded until now. How important was it to you to include this in the album?
The lyric was finished. It just was a lyric that she found, and then she put music to it. It was important for me to include it on the album because I wanted to give him a moment, and I wanted to include his words because they’re the only ones that we have of him expressing how he felt at that moment. It was just important to me to say, “Here’s this document. This is what we have. This is all we have that has any sort of window.
She did a great job putting the music to it, and I think it’s beautiful. I got to meet you [and Shelby] at Americana Fest. You all were great. I can tell the bond that you all had is just… It’s crazy. It even shows in the way you interact with just your body language. You all are so at ease around one another. Has any of this affected your relationship? Has it made you closer? Has it opened your eyes more?
The first thing I did when I finished the manuscript for Blood was I gave it to my sister to read because I needed to make sure that she was okay with what I had done in exposing us in such a way. We have both been mining this territory for a very long time in song– but in songs, you can hide. With a memoir like this, there’s not much hidden. So I needed to make sure she was okay with that. And she gave me her blessing. It has not been easy for either of us to know the world knows these details about our family, but at the end of the day, in art, all bets are off.
Something that really struck me after the release of both the album and your memoir was when Shelby portrayed Johnny Cash’s mama in Walk The Line. Oh my Lord, she just did an amazing job. Was it difficult for you to watch her play a woman on the cusp of an abusive marriage?
No, I knew where she was. I knew what she was drawing on. I understood it.
Have you found it difficult to perform the songs from this album? You know, live versus recording? It has to be a completely different feeling, a different energy.
I’ve lost it a couple times, but usually, when that happens, it’s if I’m trying to perform “Nightlight”, which, you know, it’s a song about our relationship. Yeah. It’s the one that’s still very close. But most of the time, I can hold it together. The songs are obviously very personal, and they hold a lot of weight for me. But at the end of the day, I’m also a professional, so I can usually hold it together. And if not the audience is there to help– and they do. And I’m very thankful for that.
When I say that getting the feedback from people… Of, ‘You telling your story has made me feel like it’s okay to tell mine…’ That’s fulfilling on a level that I’m not sure I can describe yet. That makes me feel like I did this for a reason other than just to tell my own story
Since you’ve been on your book tour and performing readings, has that been difficult for you? I can just imagine how terrified I would be to get up and to speak and to read those words, those memories, those feelings…
Not the easiest thing in the world! Certainly, it is not the easiest thing. To read my own words in front of people, I’ve certainly gotten more at ease with it, but it’s still not like reading the newspaper.
One thing I really did appreciate about your book is the tender and lighthearted moments that you made sure to include, like the funny words that your mama had for certain things. The three of you all singing in the car. I can relate to all of that with my childhood. I think as humans we tend to cling to the bad over the good. It’s just a defense mechanism. Did you struggle to recall the good moments?
No. I think that I have a pretty good memory of the good moments. But the thing about traumatic memory is trauma makes a bigger impact on us because that’s partly for survival. We remember our traumatic events because we want to make sure they don’t happen to us again. When you’re dealing with a difficult childhood, a lot of the negative memories are going to be the ones that come up first. But I found that in trying to remember my mother, I had a little bit harder time conjuring her than I did my father because trying to talk about her was [like] trying to explain a book that you had embodied but couldn’t remember a single word from. My parents are both in me and both made an indelible mark. I think it is human nature for us to remember traumatic things more than peaceful.
Over the past few months, you have had so many interviews… Does this get tiring? Just the constant questions? I know it has to take a toll on just wearing you out?
It can, but it’s also part of the job. So I accept that, and I do it with gratitude because it’s a whole lot better than no one wanting to talk to me about my work.
Has this given you any peace? Has the book and album release given you any relief? Any solace?
I think that recovering from trauma and shame is a whole lot easier if you say things out loud. I am not sure that you can heal from what you do not share– at least to one other person. I’ve done this on a big level, and I do think that telling stories then encouraging others to tell their stories is good work to do. When I say that getting the feedback from people… Of, “You telling your story has made me feel like it’s okay to tell mine…” That’s fulfilling on a level that I’m not sure I can describe yet. That makes me feel like I did this for a reason other than just to tell my own story for myself. And even though I definitely did write this book for myself and my own immediate circle, being able to put it out there and have a reaction such as this helped me. It goes a long way towards my healing too.
Do you think you’ll continue to write?
Yeah, I’m continuing. It’s, I guess, my path at this point. We’ll see what happens. I just am not quite sure what the next thing is right now other than I’m working on a second book, and we’ll see. That’s all I can do.
You’re right. You just never know. You never know from one day to the next.
No, you don’t.
My grandmother, I called her Nana, she was a seamstress. She made all of my dresses, and she made sure to take that extra material and make my baby doll dresses to match so that I could pack them to church with me. She even made my bloomers because I could never sit or behave like a lady. I was constantly rolling around with my legs up in the air doing bicycles. You just hosted your first Handwork is Heartwork event in Nashville. You had a large group that came together to craft and make and stitch, and that’s so important. I know it’s a way for you to connect with your grandmothers and your mama even. Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve made?
Oh, gosh. I’ve made a lot of garments, and I do embroidery and if I’m not writing, I’m usually stitching on something. Really. Probably my favorite piece that I’ve made is a pair of pants that I made for John Henry. He was just barely crawling. A little pair of drawstring pants that were railroad stripe. And I embroidered his initials on the back of them, and they’re hanging on his closet door. Oh-my-goodness, they’re probably my favorite. I love everything that I’ve made, and I’ve made a lot of stuff. I mean, I’ve made full-length, hand-sewn garments, you know? But I also keep him in a jean jacket that always that has patches on it. Like he has several jean jackets that I’ve done for him over the years. I keep him in sort of a current jacket. We pick up patches along the way, and I’ll sew them all on. And they kind of serve as little time capsules for us. I struggle with not hanging on to every little thing, and this is a way that I can just keep his jackets. So it’s kind of a fun thing.
That’s the best idea ever because you’re… I mean, I hold on to everything. Sewing is almost a lost art. I am– well we all are– super excited to have you here in Macon. Next week, you’ll be here with Hayes to perform on the Creek Stage at The Rookery. Is there anything you can tell me or give me a sneak peek on? Do you all plan on doing anything together?
Oh, I’m sure we will. We haven’t even really talked about it yet, but I’ll open the show, and yeah, we’ll definitely sing some stuff together. We don’t know what yet. So we’ll see.
Allison Moorer and Hayes Carll will be performing LIVE on The Creek Stage @ The Rookery, Thursday, January 16th. For more information on upcoming shows, visit hargraycapitoltheatre.com.