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Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne, Reconfronting a Family Trauma, Find ‘Blood’ is Thicker Than Silence

The sibling singers spoke publicly together about the abuse and murder-suicide that stand at the center of Moorer's shattering new memoir.

Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer discuss
Chris Willman / Variety

For years now, decades even, many music fans have had an intense interest in the childhood trauma of sisters Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne — along with expectation that we’d never really hear too much from them about it. Journalists and fans mostly kept their respectful distance from bringing up the unaddressed tragedy, and it wasn’t as if either of the two singer-songwriters was about to leap to bring up how they came to be orphaned. With so much esteem to discuss in both their careers (Lynne won best new artist at the Grammys; Moorer was Oscar-nominated for best original song), it felt invasive even to wish they’d someday frankly discuss how they were affected when, as teens, their father shot their mother to death, then himself.

So it felt a bit like a hell-freezes-over moment when Moorer and Lynne sat on stools in a West Hollywood bookstore last week and publicly, for the first time — and, who knows, maybe the last time — jointly discussed their parents’ abusive relationship and how its famously violent end put a stamp on who they are today, as artists and women. There were laughs and expressions of deep sibling affection at this in-store appearance, but also moments of considerable intensity where long pauses were interrupted by nothing but Lynne letting out a barely audible “whew.” This emotional convening of the sisterhood almost felt like an occasion too historic, or even holy, to be taking place just a window pane away from the logjam out on Sunset.

But Lynne had insisted it had to be here: a bookstore was sanctuary enough to be talking about the damage discussed in “Blood,” Moorer’s memoir. Lynne talked of her delight “to be in this setting with my sister who’s written a book that you can go buy it off the shelf in Book Soup. Sissy told me, ‘I want to come to L.A. and it’s either Book Soup or McCabe’s.’ I said, ‘Well, we can play music if we want to go to McCabe’s, but we want to go to Book Soup because that’s cool — that’s historic. You wrote a book; we’re gonna go to the bookstore! All right? So,” she blurted, in classic cut-to-the-chase fashion, “let’s talk about Daddy for a second.”

And with no further ado, it was off to the races, and to the gut-punches.

This is not an all-encompassing autobiography. In 300 pages of “Blood,” Moorer only occasionally mentions her estimable music career, and if you want to read about potentially fascinating topics like her marriage to Steve Earle (referred to only as “my second ex-husband”) or her current one to Hayes Carll (identified only as “H.”), or the challenges specific to raising an autistic child (who, the book makes clear, has been the love of her life), those will have to wait for another book. This one stays very focused on the title subject matter: ruinous and healing blood relations, along with every bloody detail of that 1986 murder-suicide that her memory and the belatedly sought out autopsy report can reveal. If that seems narrow in scope, Moore elegantly draws it out, using alternately poetic and profanely blunt language, to encompass whole worlds of how we grapple with the lasting impact of the darker characters in our lives, whether or not they ever pick up a .30-06.

“Blood” may stand as one of the best and most beautifully penned memoirs ever written by a contemporary musician. But would you call it a “music book,” given how little space is expended on her craft? Yes and no: It’s going to be of at least as much value as a gift to an abused woman who’s never heard a Moorer song as it is to the 20-year fan. But the meaning and making of art do exist in the margins of all the emotional turmoil. In the book’s last stretch, Moorer talks about rediscovering her sisterhood with Lynne and embracing blood harmony, touching on the literal, musical sense of that along with the figurative.

“This is not only my story, this is our story,” Moorer said, looking to Lynne as they set out to talk at Book Soup, “and I am very aware that I have exposed us in a way that neither of us had previously done. So that’s one of the reasons why I gave you the book before anybody else saw it. Because I wanted to make sure that you were okay with the story being out there.” She was.

Moorer recalled getting the idea to write the book when she went on Maya Angelou’s radio show in 2010 and the poet asked her what she intended to tell her newborn son years into the future. By the time Lynne visited Moorer’s New York apartment in 2015, her sister was so deep into the process, she’d entered an MFA creative writing program to figure out how to finesse the telling of her story.

“You were kind of in the throes at that point,” said Lynne, “and you were going back to school to get some degree that you get every now and then, ‘cause you get some of those,” she added drolly.

“That’s not your thing,” Moorer said with a chuckle, referring to one of the many ways in which the sisters are complete opposites.

“That’s never been my thing,” Lynne agreed. “I appreciate it, but I’d rather read a good book.”

And that led into a discussion of someone else who had a taste for the literary: their demonstrably mean-spirited father. For much of “Blood,” he comes off as a thoughtless, alcoholic, violence-prone hillbilly who lived for the Waylon Jennings outlaw ethos but never got over lacking Jennings’ talent — or got over being jealous of his wife and daughters’ greater natural talent for the things he most aspired to, singing and songwriting. But Moorer also points out that he was a part-time teacher, book lover and even stickler for grammar; among the many things the fearful young girls could get in trouble for in their hypertense house out in the Alabama woods was using a double-negative.

“Daddy was a major, major book reader,” Lynne pointed out, “and we would see him sitting in that stupid orange Naugahyde chair of his…”

“The one he got from the dump,” said Moorer.

“No, not the one from the dump; that came later,” said Lynne, just as much of a stickler for detail. “He’d sit there under the floor lamp with a tumbler full of whisky, reading Steinbeck and Louis L’Amour books and a little Hemingway, and we’d hear him rare back and chuckle as he’d sit there and drink and read. It’s a picture that doesn’t leave me, because books are such a powerful thing for me. And it’s been running over in my mind for weeks now: What would he think about us sitting here right now in Book Soup, talking about your book? And I think: Well, asshole, you missed that.”

No beating around the bush. “I’m going to go ahead and get to the hard stuff and get that on out of the way,” Lynne declared. She read a passage Moorer wrote about finally ordering up the dual autopsy reports after 30 years, hoping to find clues from the bullet entry and exit points that might indicate the first death, her mother’s, had been an accident as they perhaps grappled for the rifle while the sisters slept. The clinical details of the autopsies only raised more questions for Moorer, though. Lynne focused on the little things. “This is the part that got me: the contents of her stomach.” They had happily eaten Chinese food with their mother the night before the pre-dawn shootings, after she’d gotten the moxie to leave her husband, never imagining it was their last supper.

Moorer and Lynne both discussed forgiveness. They are not on the same page about it. Moorer seems more inclined to forgive, or at least to try for compensatory empathy toward a monstrous figure in her life, than she used to be. Lynne might be on an opposite trajectory: reading the accounts of cruelty toward dogs and children in her sister’s manuscript, as well as re-experiencing how he “shrank” their gorgeous, once vivacious mother into a shrinking violet whose inner life they saw little of, reignited some of her rage.

“This book is about me looking under my rocks,” Moorer said, to “somehow find some peace… The point is also: No one is reducible to one event, and every person is worthy of forgiveness and grace, however long it takes us to get there. …. I did this so that I could work through my own stuff so I could be a better parent, because that’s what he (her 10-year-old son, John Henry) deserves. He doesn’t deserve the baggage to be put on him like it is put on so many people in so many families. So the point is to say it, and if you say it, you have a chance of healing it.”

“Yeah, I think that we’ll forever be healing,” Lynne agreed. But, she said, “You write about Daddy whipping up on me in this book, and I was real little the first time he hit me — about 8, I think. I’ll never forget that feeling. And I’ll also never forget never trusting him again, and I didn’t like him much, either, after that. So when we got older, I was in the know of what kind of man he was, and we lived with it every day. But the one thing I couldn’t tolerate at all was any advance he made toward mama. And it didn’t matter how big I was, or what the situation was. If he was drunk enough and mean enough and awful enough to start going at her, I kind of suited up. So you were a witness to this. And I don’t know what’s worse, the suiting up or the witnessing.”

Lynne read a passage from the book about how their father kicked their mother on the thigh so hard that, when she slept on the couch, the girls crept in and gazed at her baseball glove-sized, eggplant-colored bruise — and also the ineffably sad expression on her face as she slept. “When I was talking about those pictures that we had of them from before I was born and I saw that beautiful angel who gave birth to us, and when I read (in the book), ‘Her face was sad. The corners of her mouth turned down. That’s how you disappear a woman. That’s how you erase somebody’ — I can’t, and I will not, forgive this man. And that’s okay. I will not forgive him for taking her, because her ass would be sitting right there. And that’s just my prerogative.”

Lynne stopped herself there. “But Lord have mercy,” she exclaimed. “Let’s get on to something else!”

The “something else” was something not necessarily lighter, but more hopeful: the promise that “Blood” could be instructive for women in situations similar to their late mothers, or to the family members who look away or merely suspect. “This book’s going to do a lot for people in domestic violence situations,” Lynne said.

“Mama told us, ‘Don’t talk about our business,’ and that’s normal for abused woman with children,” Lynne said. “Because the shame that goes with what she has to deal with is too much for a woman who’s trying to rub two nickels together, who’s trying to keep gas in the car, who’s trying to keep the young ‘uns in school and do what mamas do, and then she’s terrified. So this is why this book is so good. Women need to read this. Because it’s a lesson in What… Not… To… Do.”

Moorer and Lynne shared a slightly uneasy laugh about the compulsive ways they similarly but independently came to deal with live with living with constant fear and anxiety at a young age.

“Remember this morning how you were saying you need order, above all things?” Moore asked. “Well, never knowing what to expect when you’re a child puts you on edge in every area of your life, so you control what you can. So what did we both do? We counted every damn thing. I still count my steps if I get nervous. Or I’ll count the letters in a word, or count up the words in a book, or just anything I can to get control of the situation.”

“Yeah,” agreed Lynne, “I count my teeth in my head every day.” She chuckled. “We’ve got serious f—ing problems, man!”

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Chris Willman / Variety

But that rigor and control manifested itself in other coping mechanisms besides OCD tendencies — like becoming, or staying, brilliant. One of the reasons reading “Blood” isn’t bleaker than it is is knowing there’s implicitly a somewhat positive ending, in the sisters’ separate but equal, duly acclaimed careers. Moorer seems reluctant to put too self-satisfied tag on things at the end, out of humility, or maybe just out of the reluctance to minimize a black cloud by painting a silver lining onto it to suggest that everyone sublimated happily ever after.

Maybe, as gifted as they were, they would have gone on to the same great things without being driven by devastation. It’s remarkable to look at the childhood photos in “Blood” and see the same expressions on their tiny faces that a fan recognizes in them today: younger sister Moorer with the broader smile, and older sister Lynne with the knowing smirk that suggests she already knows more than the grown-ups in the picture. Were they born that way, or had they already learned their distinctive approaches to the constant tension in their household? “We were opposites in many ways. Still are,” Moorer writes in the book. “She never backed down from a fight, while I tried to smile through it all, knowing that was my greatest power. … I knew more about protecting myself than Sissy did and it occurs to me I might’ve learned how to do it by watching her not be able to. I knew what to avoid. I ran out while she ran in. … Sissy has always been brave. Primed and ready is an understatement—she, in some ways, searches out and craves the comfort of confrontation. We want what we know.” But they might finally have more in common after all: It doesn’t get braver than “Blood,” anyway, a book that proves that true shamelessness can be eloquent, belated and hard fought.

Moorer has all the F-words Lynne does in her vocabulary, including the non-forgiveness ones. She writes of “Daddy,” “F— him for making his daughters grow up scared to death of their father. F— him for making me scared of men. F— him for making me always try to please them, for making me always try to please him, for making me always try to please him through them.”

But, later, she gets to a different heart of the matter: “I’ve fought like the devil against reducing my parents to my daddy’s final act—I don’t believe anyone deserves that—but it’s damned hard to think about anything else some days. … I’m still trying not to be the daughter of a murderer. I’m still trying not to be the daughter of an abused and murdered woman. I’m still trying to redeem them. I dream their dreams, I speak their thoughts, and I sing their songs. I carry the structure of their bones around my insides and try to tell the world, ‘This is what they looked like. They looked like me. Can’t you see them? Can’t you see there was more to them than how they died? That isn’t all there is to it. They were more than that.’ Sometimes I have to remind even myself of those things.”

Moorer also has a new companion album out titled “Blood,” which attempts, in a more oblique and condensed fashion, to wrap its arms around all these things, too — from a song that treats the murder-suicide in the style of an old country murder ballad (“Cold Cold Earth,” previously recorded as a hidden track on an earlier album) to Lynne’s adaptation of one of their late father’s unfinished lyrics (“I’m the One to Blame”) to a snippet of the sisters’ youthful theme song, “Side by Side,” and a song about the girls sharing hopes and fears in their childhood, “Nightlight.”

“I’m proud of you, so proud of you. I love you so much,” Lynne told her sister as the book shop was turned back over to holiday shoppers. Moorer had already returned the favor in her book, writing in a note to “Sissy”: “Just so you know, you were the first love of my life.”

Days after her appearance with Lynne, Moore popped up again in Los Angeles at the Grammy Museum, to help explore some very different family ties. The occasion was not a stop on her book tour but rather a discussion of her husband Hayes Carll’s most recent album, “What It Is.” Moore co-produced the record on top of co-writing half the 12 songs before they wed in May.

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Chris Willman / Variety

In the museum Q&A, the focus was on Carll’s record, with only a passing mention of Moorer’s memoir or her excellent new album —  also titled “Blood” — that is a companion piece to the book. But it was clear his bride wasn’t showing up just as a dutiful helpmate. The talk turned to how Moorer has played the part of ass-kicker in his life as a songwriter and further established that, even in a quiet assistance role, she’s an alpha female.

The couple was asked by Grammy Museum moderator Scott Goldman about the song that leads off Carll’s album, “None’ya.” “Allison is from South Alabama and has some regional language, but also some of her own family language that they’ve created. You start picking up on some of these phrases and things that she says. And one thing she says sometimes that is probably regional is ‘None’ya, tend’ya, mind’ya’ — (meaning) none of your business, tend your own business, mind your business. My songwriter ear said there’s something there. Initially, I wasn’t thinking about writing about us. I just had some characters in mind… So I was sitting there trying to capture that attitude and personality of someone who would say ‘none’ya’ to somebody, and she walked into the room and…”

“Caught him being vague,” she said, picking up the story from her husband. “I said, ‘Don’t do that. Why don’t you put something in there about the real stuff that really happens? Because people love that shit! Why don’t you write about when you laughed at me because I insisted on painting the front porch ceiling turquoise because it keeps the evil spirits out?’ And I went to great lengths to make sure the breakfast room ceiling was painted turquoise too, because it’s on the other end of the house and we don’t want ‘em in. You include these details because that makes it personal, and people respond to that. Especially in our big wide genre of singer/songwriters, that’s actually what people latch onto, I think, in my experience — not some character you made up. Because you’ve got a character standing right in front of you.”

“She’s right,” Carll agreed. “I’m always looking for stuff outside of me. And she is a good reminder that a lot of the really meaty, interesting stuff is right there. You just have to not be afraid to look at your own life.” He’s got quite an in-house role model for that.