Nashville's Allison Moorer earns her spurs

She has a knack for the kind of real-deal country you can't fake. Her strawberry blonde good looks la Nicole Kidman and her sultry voice are magnetic on stage.

Throw in a rock-solid debut CD and a big-screen performance in Robert Redford's "The Horse Whisperer," and you have a pretty good start for an Alabama country girl. In the crowded world of country wannabes, Nashville newcomer Allison Moorer stands out as a fresh face who plans to keep her authentic sound.

At a time when country singers are "crossing over" to reach a wider audience, Moorer plans to stay true to her roots. As she hopscotches the country performing in small venues, she looks every bit the part of a country-legend-to-be still earning her spurs.

"In the current class of very classy female country singers, Moorer will likely be one of the most important," says Billboard magazine, the music industry weekly.

Moorer's country is not a retro attempt to sound like the six-string days of yesteryear. But it is rooted in sultry summer nights, screened porches, and a Southern way of life most don't take the time to try to understand.

"I kinda go for the hard-core country thing," Ms. Moorer says after a recent performance at The Birchermere, a country-music venue in northern Virginia. During her first-ever solo tour, she says, "The thing I hope to get through is that we are doing music that reflects the traditional country spirit."

Huge dollars and high-profile gigs often await established country stars that cross over to sing pop music. Just look at Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes. But Moorer says she'll keep her country boots on. "Some people have mentioned possibly crossing over [to pop music], but it's just not my thing," she says.

Moorer grew up in Frankville, a town in south Alabama "with a store and a post office. Basically, the sticks," she says with a laugh. Her success hasn't come as a surprise to her musical family back home, which claims Moorer was singing by age 3. Her father played in bands on the weekends during Moorer's childhood. She arrived in Nashville two years ago to sing backup for her sister, Shelby Lynn.

From somewhere in her musical background comes a stage manner that's unusually relaxed for such a newcomer. Her casual interchanges with her two-man band and unique intimacy with her audience are signs of a natural performer - even when things go wrong, as when she forgets to turn on her amplifier. "When you get gigs, you've got to be a pro!" she says to the audience self-effacingly as she stops and then starts the song again.

Moorer writes much of her own material. Ten of the 11 songs on her "Alabama Song" (MCA Nashville) debut CD are either hers or collaborations. "The inspiration for songs usually comes from out of nowhere. Rarely does something happen that gives me an idea," she says. She often collaborates with her husband, Butch, who accompanies her on the road.

"One of the great things about the two of us working together is we are so good together we can say, 'no, that's not any good,' or 'yeah, that's great,' " she says.

Undoubtedly her biggest break came when the makers of the movie "The Horse Whisperer" approached her record label when putting together the soundtrack.

The story of a rancher with a knack for communicating with and helping horses is set in rural Montana. MCA Nashville sent the movie's producers a demo tape of country performers and just happened to stick one of Moorer's tunes at the end. The movie folks liked the song - and Moorer - so much they asked her to play herself in the movie (now in release on video). In her scene, Moorer sings the love ballad "A Soft Place to Fall" at a square dance as the Horse Whisperer (Robert Redford) and his leading lady (Kristin Scott Thomas) slow dance.

"I went up to Montana, and we shot for four days for that one scene. It felt like I sang that song a million times," Moorer says laughing, estimating she more than likely sang it 80 times. "And I still dig it," she adds, "so it's a good thing!"

For her growing number of fans, chances to catch her on the road are good. She'll be touring into the new year as she works on material for a follow-up CD.

* Allison Moorer is touring through Dec. 5 including stops in New York tonight (Nov. 20); Somerville, Mass. (Nov. 21); Chicago (Dec. 2 and 3); and Las Vegas (Dec. 4 and 5).

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