A Haunting Tune

A country music star’s harrowing memoir

By Stephen E. Smith

If a memoirist’s job is to make sense of the raw, shifting facts of the past in order to instruct the future, country music singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, best known for having composed and performed the Academy Award-nominated “A Soft Place To Fall,” has a new calling. Her first literary publication, Blood, has the potential to change lives for the better.

This sometimes poetic but more often bitter memoir is no sob story about the hardships of being a celebrity. It’s about the brutal, cold facts of real life. On an August morning in 1986, Moorer, who was 14 at the time, had her world upended when her abusive alcoholic father murdered her mother and then committed suicide in the front yard of their home in Mobile, Alabama.

The expected response to such an intensely traumatic experience might be to distance oneself from these horrifying memories, and Moorer’s older sister, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, has downplayed this life-altering event by fending off interviewers’ constant questions, claiming to have come to terms with the family ghosts. Moorer has chosen to directly confront the past, and she begins her memoir with a detailed recounting of the murder-suicide.

Although her recollection is sometimes sketchy and often confused by the fact that she was awakened by the gunshots that took her parents’ lives, she relentlessly investigates, ruminating on forensic reports, death records, and by interviewing relatives and friends. Much of what she writes is suggested by personal items and family mementos — photographs, random notes penned by her father, his song lyrics, a coffee cup and keepsakes such as her mother’s ring, which she wears always, and her father’s Gibson guitar, which she continues to play in recording sessions. These items are talismans which Moorer employs to reveal, bit by bit, the terrible events of her childhood, and to demystify the details of the murder/suicide in order to assuage the grief and guilt surrounding her mother’s final moments.

“I hope she didn’t hear me call for her,” she writes. “If I were shot in the chest and in the process of bleeding out in my front yard and heard my child call for me from the side door of the house, I can’t imagine I would die peacefully. The idea that Mama might’ve known I was looking for her haunts me. The idea that she might’ve died hearing me call for her, that my voice might’ve been the last thing she heard and that might’ve served as a terrible torment for her last conscious seconds, brings me indescribable sadness.”

Old photographs foreshadow the tragedy. A 1975 snapshot taken in a chicken coop outside the family home suggests that her mother’s despondency was present early in her marriage. Her posture seems to indicate that clinical depression had “grabbed her around the throat and started slowly choking the life out of her . . . She just looks sad. Resigned. Older than thirty-one.”

In a photo taken in Nashville 10 years later, Moorer detects the same forlorn look as her mother stands beside a display case filled with antique rifles: “. . . the look of ‘I wish I could disappear’” is even more obvious.

Moorer doesn’t employ the customary chronological structure for her storytelling. Chapters jump from one disconnected episode to another, and short lyrical passages are interspersed with the narrative, mimicking the pattern of obsession the author experiences.

“There are things that require no recalling,” Moorer writes. “They are here in the morning, they are here in the evening, they are here in my chest. They are knocked loose and into my mind by a stack of magazines on the floor beside my reading spot, the crossword puzzle in the newspaper, the color of an eggplant, the smell of morning on a work coat . . . ” Still, the narrative progresses in a timely and engrossing fashion, and the final effect is to bring the depth and detail of the story into full, horrifying focus.

Blood is a memoir of despair, the story of a family tiptoeing around unpredictable behavior, drunken abuse and needless cruelty, all of which might have been avoided if Moorer’s father had received treatment for alcohol abuse and depression. She acknowledges his alcoholism but doesn’t offer it as an excuse for his behavior. And she can only wonder about his mental state: “Was he bipolar? I know he was depressed. He was unpredictable. He did dangerous things. I’m pretty certain he didn’t care if he lived or died.”

She speculates that he may have been schizophrenic or suffered a personality disorder, but her judgment is necessarily simplistic and straightforward. Her father was “mad about what he didn’t do with his life” — which is, of course, a common affliction in a society that touts unobtainable goals. Alcohol abuse and mental illness remain constants in American life; the CDC reported more than 47,000 suicides in 2017.

The value of Moorer’s memoir is twofold. First, it is an unburdening, a release for the writer. Committing her past to paper has no doubt forced Moorer to confront her demons and relegated them to a permanent and peaceful place in her life. More important, her storytelling may act as a wake-up call for those who live with physical and emotional abuse, a signal for victims to get out of dangerous relationships — and perhaps the memoir will serve as an eye-opener for those caught in the grip of alcoholism and mental illness, encouraging them to seek treatment, which would be no small accomplishment in a culture plagued by despair, anger and violence.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

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