Stage Fright: On The Road With Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer

Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne. Photos by Jacob Blickenstaff

This past August, Allison Moorer and her sister Shelby Lynne released Not Dark Yet, a stirring album of covers and the first album-length collaboration between the siblings. In this piece, Moorer documents the highs and lows of touring during the few weeks after an album’s release.

I don’t know if either of us remembers ever being anything close to what one might call unguarded, but today, we both feel we used to be tougher. That’s a hard thing to figure. I think the assumption is that you grow stronger and less concerned with outside opinions as you grow older. But what is strong? Is it putting your fists up to the world or is it putting them down and allowing yourself to be seen? Either approach is tricky. We’re not sure what caused the change in us, but we feel suddenly exposed. We’re not hiding behind bravado or ingenuity dipped in know-it-all-ness anymore. We’ve either aged out or evolved away from feeling like we could take on the world. In fact, we find ourselves not wanting to. Why? Could it be that we’ve grown strong enough to allow ourselves to be vulnerable? 

 I don’t exactly know. But on the eve of the release of Not Dark Yet, we talked about being thankful that we had the other to do this particular tour with because we were scared to do it alone. It turns out that deciding to screw up our courage and step on stage again, this time together, was one of the best things either of us have ever done.

Day #1. Friday, August 18

Release day for Not Dark Yet. We don’t talk about it. We instead discuss the jeans my sister has on with the star-studded boots she just purchased, and that the combination reminds us of The Nashville Palace that used to be somewhere off of Trinity Lane. We laugh until we double over. We’re giddy and we chuckle while she finds the right jeans and puts them on. My son John Henry’s babysitter arrives and we walk out the door to rehearse with our band. We have two shows at New York City’s City Winery over the weekend. We’re doing the rest of the first tour with just our guitar player, Joe McMahan, but decided we wanted the extra punch of a rhythm section for the New York shows. New York matters — it’s important to make a strong showing. We take a car to a rehearsal space on 46th street. We get acquainted with the bass player, Scott Colberg, whom we’ve never met but has come highly recommended by Rob Heath, our longtime drummer. They sound great. We don’t even have to do any of the songs twice. I tell them, “I wish we could afford to take y’all on the road with us,” and I mean it.  But such is the economics of the modern music business. The only money to be made is on the road. Keep all of it that you can, pull as much of the weight as possible on your own. 

We wrap up after three hours, happy and excited. We spend the rest of the day at home, drinking water and trying to relax through a steady stream of texts and emails. 

Day #2. Saturday, August 19

The first New York City show is tonight. John Henry’s babysitter arrives at 3:30 p.m. We go downstairs to wait for a taxi, and Hayes [Carll] and Sissy [Shelby Lynne] both light up cigarettes. I’m so nervous I ask for one. On the way, Sissy says she wants to take the band on the road. I start doing some quick and dirty math — I figure we’ll make at least a third less each on this run if they’re available and agree to do it, which doesn’t make me happy, but I get it — I want them to go too. But that’s two extra salaries, two extra per diems, and another hotel room that we didn’t budget for. We agree to ask them and take it from there. We sound check.  

There’s more pre-show food backstage than seems reasonable. Neither Sissy nor I will normally eat a thing before a show, so we leave it to the band while we go out back to talk ourselves up and sneak cigarettes. We ought to be slapped for smoking and we both know it. 

We go back in and ask Rob and Scott if they want to go on the run. They both have prior commitments. We all become momentarily depressed but quickly shift the focus to tonight’s show — we’re all excited. Sissy and I are nervous. I remind her that no one who hates us would be coming to see us. That’s good for me to remember, too.

Showtime. The band goes out ahead of us and starts the intro to “My List.” Sissy and I walk out holding hands to an applauding full house. We wave, pick up our guitars, and Sissy starts. “Let me wrap myself around you …” What we can see of the audience is smiling, accepting, sending us love. With every song we grow more comfortable. If feels right, it feels good. A few mistakes, but all in all pretty badass. We finish the show and feel great. Within 10 minutes we’re back upstairs at the merch table meeting fans, signing records. They tell us their stories. They tell us about their families. We are uncommonly touched. We see that this tour will be something different. 

Day #3. Sunday, August 20

John Henry mercifully lets us sleep until 7:30 a.m. I can’t afford an apartment with a guest room so Sissy sleeps on my couch, which means when John Henry and I invade the living room and kitchen, she’s up as well. We immediately start talking about finding a band. She’s adamant about it. I understand, even though we agreed to do this tour as a trio with only Joe. When I suggested him, I knew he could do the job and make us sound great and full and it would be a pro show without a rhythm section. But I really can’t argue wholeheartedly against the band idea. I start texting Joe about whom he thinks might be able to fly in and do the tour. I start texting a few people I know who might jump on the opportunity. No one can, yet. It feels a little like a Chinese fire drill so I try to remember to take deep breaths. I also remind myself that what is supposed to be will be.

I am anxious today. My son will start a two-week stay with his father tonight. I’m thankful he’ll get a vacation (they’re going to Florida) but know I will miss him like the devil. I steal as many hugs and kisses as I can.

We arrive at City Winery a little later today because there’s not a full sound check. We decide to take out, “Where You Are,” and add “Thunderstorm Hurricane,” because we need something that rocks close to the end of the show. We run through it and it does indeed rock. I sit down at the piano to run a tune with the band so we can make sure levels are where they’re supposed to be. I talk to Joe about the band and he and I agree that we’re fine with or without one. I go downstairs and find Sissy in the dressing room. Our fantastic tour manager, Ryan, tells us we have an interview in five minutes. We ask him how long it will take — we have to do some on camera performance in front of the wine barrels before the show as well — he says 15 minutes. The journalist comes in and sits down. He is nice and we don’t have to throw him out for asking stupid questions. The taping in front of the wine barrels goes great and sounds good. A minute to rest. Rick Brantley, who is opening most of the shows on this tour, comes in and we chat. Not only is he ridiculously talented but we also like him. We shoot the shit about old country songs, and Sissy tells stories about taking ecstasy and calling Barbara Mandrell, being stuck at Tanya Tucker’s house one weekend with no way to get home, and eating hot chicken with Lorrie Morgan. We’re all in tears from laughing. The show benefits. It’s expanded, more comfortable, deeper, richer, gutsier. 

Day #4. Monday, August 21, 2017

Ryan picks us up in the van at 10:30 a.m. We drive six hours to Fall River, Massachusetts, and at some point everyone does their share of nodding off. The vinyl copies of Not Dark Yet aren’t ready, and we lament not having them. Merch sales could be much higher if we did. Sissy is pissed. It casts a pall. We drive a total of six hours and arrive at The Narrows Center, which is wonderful. A former textile factory and printing company, it sounds like you’re singing from the inside of a piano — all wood and warmth.

We sound check, then bring our suitcases to the dressing room since we don’t have time to go to the hotel to get ready and get back without the stress level rising. I spray some dry shampoo in my hair because I don’t have time to wash it and it makes it poofy but a little poof onstage never hurt anything, I guess. I cut the sleeves off of one of our t-shirts and we Instagram a photo of it telling our followers that if they buy one I’ll cut theirs up too.

Showtime finds us both calm and in good voice. Joe does an incredible job backing us, holding us — and I get to play one of the best pianos I’ve ever put my fingers on. We’re close to a sell-out and the audience is right up close and personal. Our confidence is growing. We feel loved.

Day #5. Tuesday, August 22

I wake and pick up my phone. Sissy is in a room down the hall and I want to see how she is. She texts back that we did a great job last night and is having second thoughts about having pulled the trigger on a band. Joe told us yesterday that he had locked in a drummer and bass player. I tell her they’re coming now, and that it will be great. We load up the van and decide where to have lunch since we aren’t very far from Cambridge and we have a little time to kill. We decide on a joint by the water and tell road tales over our sandwiches and salads.  

The venue in Cambridge is a rock room but they put chairs out for our audience and stick us in a depressing back room for the afternoon. We sound check with an electronic piano that seems to have a ghost in its innards and once we get it working I defy anyone to touch it before the show. We wrap up and go back to our backstage hovel. We sit, and at some point put on our make up and get dressed. The show is about 60 tickets away from selling out. Not good business for a room that holds 350 or so. Well, we can’t do everything we’re doing and physically sell the tickets as well. The bright spot is the crowd is loving and very sweet at the merch table meet and greet. We head back to NYC for two days off.

Day #8. Friday, August 25

Hayes leaves at 4:30 a.m. for a flight to Austin. Hurricane Harvey has its sights set on Texas and we don’t even know if his shows will happen. But if he doesn’t show up, he doesn’t get paid. And unless the shows are cancelled, he’ll get his guarantee. I worry. I don’t like him flying right into the storm, or at least into rains and winds that could knock a car off the road. Sissy and I pack our bags plus Petey, my Chihuahua, and get it all in the van, where we will be for the next week when Ryan arrives at noon.   

The rhythm section is meeting us at World Café Live in Philadelphia. We stop in the middle of nowhere and rent a U-Haul for the extra gear. We spot a truck flying a Confederate flag cruising around the parking lot of the shopping center where we’re we’re waiting for the trailer to be hooked up. Two young black men are standing outside a barbershop. They point at it. I feel ashamed and in disbelief. Charlottesville just happened days ago.

We arrive at the venue. Rick, the new drummer, and Jason, the new bass player, are waiting on us. At sound check it’s clear the band is going to be great and fun. We order dinner from the band menu. I settle in to read for a minute. Lately it’s Becoming Wise, by Krista Tippett. I’m a fan of her show “On Being,” and found parts of myself I didn’t even know were missing in her book. 

Showtime. Sissy and I walk out to the bed of music the band makes for us. We wave at the audience and Sissy thanks them for coming out on a Monday night. I tell her it’s Friday. We laugh as I start the intro to, “My List.”

The show goes great, maybe our most emotional yet. That vulnerability that we feel is paying off — we show ourselves and our love for each other to the crowd through song intros, how we interact with each other while we sing, and how we silently and sometimes verbally acknowledge that our third part is missing. It’s the one our Mama always added when we were growing up. During our last number, “I’ll Hold Your Head,” we sing a little bit of “Side By Side,” which was a song we used to sing with her. We usually don’t make it through without crying. 

The meet and greet at the merch table is chaotic but fun. I’m a little woozy because directly after the show I impaled the side of my skull on a coat hanger. A knot springs up but I don’t realize it’s bleeding until I start to pick a scab out of my head the following week. We pack up, head to the hotel, and I talk to Hayes whose show was lightly attended due to Harvey. I tell him to please be careful and then I sleep for about five hours.  

Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer

Day #9. Saturday August 26

5:45 a.m. wake up call. Van rolls at 7:00. I stumble to the shower and get on some sort of clothes that will be comfortable for the three-hour drive to Annapolis, Maryland, where we have to load in at 10:00 a.m. for a daytime show. The fire alarm goes off at 6:40 a.m. and I just keep packing — this has happened to me before. I finally zip up my bag, get Petey into his, and Sissy and I head out the door. We’re met by Rick who grabs both our suitcases and in a chivalrous gesture, totes both of them down the stairs. The elevators aren’t usable if the fire alarm goes off — even if it’s just a drill — and we don’t know which this is. We’re too tired to worry about it too much. The six of us pile our stuff into the van and trailer and take off. We find a Starbucks within fifteen minutes and coffee up. 

We arrive in Annapolis. Sissy and I make our way to the dressing room, which is back by the kitchen, and she requests a mimosa. Playing during the day is decidedly un-rock and roll, and she is pissed. She tries to fire off an email to everyone responsible for booking us such a gig but I stop her, asking her what good it would do since we were already there. “Let’s just have fun,” I tell her. Sometimes you just have to get the money and move on. I remind her we’ll have a night off tonight and we can hole up in a hotel room together and watch stupid movies and laugh. She brightens. I sound check for her while she stews in the dressing room. I finish sound checking with the band, the piano sounds great and the stage does too. I get back to the dressing room and light a stick of my favorite incense. It’s the little things that keep you feeling human on the road. Your favorite lip gloss, your ritual for getting ready before the show, having your favorite record playing in the dressing room before you go on.  

The show ends up being glorious. Whether it’s the mimosas before the show or anger or tenderness or what, we reach a new level. The audience is kind and excited. I barely make it through “Easy in the Summertime” without bursting into tears. We both cry during the “Side by Side” part in “I’ll Hold Your Head.” We ask the audience to sing it with us. Knowing an audience feels you and is with you can make all the difference between a good show and an outstanding show.

The meet and greet at the merch table lets us know what we do makes at least a little difference. Sometimes we forget and think no one cares about this outpouring we do, this daily opening of a vein — we’re supposed to make it look easy. It’s not always. Vulnerability is part of the deal. If you don’t have it how are you supposed to touch someone? You have to give to get, and giving takes being open, and being open requires letting down the guard. A man tells me that our telling our stories makes it easier for him to get through his own awful story, whatever that may be: he doesn’t say and I don’t ask. I only nod and tell him that’s what my job is — to tell my story. I catch his eye later and mouth the words, “It’s okay.” He nods and mouths back, “Thank you.” I fight tears again. A middle-aged man tells me that I gave him “A Soft Place to Fall,” when his wife passed away and his eyes filled with tears. I grab his hand and say again, “If I can do that for you then I’ve succeeded at my job.” Sissy stands up and gives him a hug. Sets of sisters are showing up which makes us so happy. Women who haven’t spoken to their sisters in years are coming to the table to tell us they’re going home to call them. It hits us that sharing our story and bond affects people’s lives. Even just a few are enough for us. It deepens the experience and makes sharing ourselves feel okay. Like no matter if we get hurt doing it, if it helps someone else then it’s worth it. 

We congregate, in the daylight, which seems odd after a show, with Rick Brantley and discuss doing something together during his last show with us, which will be tomorrow at the Birchmere in Alexandria. I offer that we’d like to sing harmony on his brilliant song, “Hurt People.” He says he’d be honored. I tell him we’ll be ready. The band, Ryan, and Sissy and I load up and head to the next town. 

Day. #10. Sunday, August 27

“You know how some room service coffee has the taste of the smell of an armpit that hasn’t been attended to lately? I’m so glad this coffee doesn’t taste that way.” We’ve ordered some room service and I’m enjoying my coffee in bed. I’m feeling quite spoiled because I hardly ever get to do such a thing and certainly not at 7:30 a.m. The news tells us Houston has flooded. I hear from Hayes — he’s getting out on a flight from Austin, which is surprising. He’ll be back with us that night. Sissy and I decide to donate that night’s t-shirt proceeds to Houston flood relief.  I post a photo on all of our social media pages saying so. We also decided we need one more of her songs in the second half of the show. We decide on “Miss You, Sissy,” a great song that was written for but didn’t make her seminal I Am Shelby Lynne album. I send a text to the band and ask them to have it ready at sound check. 

We leave the hotel at 2:30 p.m. for the Birchmere. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been playing here for almost 20 years, but I spot my name on several of the poster-sized calendars backstage. Sissy and I were even here together once, in 2010, the first time we tried getting this record together. Tonight feels even better. We rehearse, “Miss You, Sissy,” with the band and they have it pretty tight. We wrap up and head backstage. Hayes makes it in, to my great relief. We talk about what’s happening in Texas and then run into Rick Brantley and decide to rehearse our parts on his song, “Hurt People,” to his and our delight.

Then there’s the wait. We do a lot of hurrying up and waiting, but that’s one of the reasons why bands and crews become like family, or at least a tribe. We laugh, show each other stupid YouTube videos, and get off on things like Brook Benton doing a sublime performance of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” on some random television show that looks like it’s from the late 1960s or ‘70s. Rick goes on and calls us out at the end of his set. We sing our harmonies on the choruses and the bridge. The song ought to be a standard. We’re honored to lend our voices to such an incredible composition covering a subject we know so well. The three of us are in tears by the time we’re finished.

Time for our set. We are welcomed with a standing ovation and the show is dark, emotional, deep, and, for us, great. We hope the audience feels the same. We ended up raising $600 from our t-shirts. It’s not much but it’s something. 

Day #11, Monday, August 28, 2017 

Drive. Drive. Drive. Drive. Cornfields. Gloom. Bad jokes. Trying to entertain ourselves. Sleep. Drive. Drive. Bad food. Finally the hotel — outskirts of Cleveland. Ryan locates a decent restaurant and everyone goes but Sissy. Hotel rooms are starting to blend together. I tell myself I should start photographing them and then I ask myself why? As if I really need another project. 

Day #12. Tuesday, August 29

Rain. We leave the hotel at 10 a.m. and head to Chicago. We stop in the middle of nowhere for lunch. The band and Ryan go in then I follow about ten minutes later. It smells like an old folks home with gravy poured on it so I head back out to the van to eat some cheese and crackers. They finish up as quickly as possible and we drive on.

We arrive in Chicago around 4:30 p.m. and check into our rooms. I shower. The water is lukewarm. I feel confused, lonesome, stressed. I check in with Sissy and she’s hanging out with the band in the bar. Hayes and I stay put and order room service. My body tells me I need rest and water. Some argue that the road isn’t for women. I argue that it isn’t for anyone. We do it all for the 90 minutes we get to be on stage. Different cities can be interesting to visit, but at our level we don’t get to see much past the hotel and the venue. It’s an alternate universe, a state of suspended animation. 

Today is Mama’s birthday. Maybe that’s why I feel out of sorts. I craft a social media post about her and domestic violence. The whole day makes me feel like someone took a cheese grater to my skin.

Day #13. Wednesday, August 30

Chicago night one. We were supposed to do a performance at the A.V. Club today but it got cancelled. They have a policy against bands performing covers and somehow the message didn’t get relayed that Not Dark Yet is a covers record save for one song. You can’t spend too much time trying to figure out where a ball gets dropped, you just have to move on. And move on we do — almost happy that we get to skip it and concentrate on our show. Kelly Hogan is opening tonight. I’ve been a fan of hers for almost 20 years and asked specifically for her to open these shows. Her voice is as great as I remember and she’s a gem of a human. Sissy and I talk about how every show we do seems different from the last. Details and other details about the next run, which will be on the west coast the first week of October, fly around. We won’t have Ryan and need another tour manager. Can the band do it? Can we afford to have them do it? Do we need a west coast-based band so we don’t have to pay for expensive plane tickets? Joe is, of course, going to be there no matter what but we have to talk about Rick and Jason. They want to go and the show is great with them. We’ll have to figure it out.

So many things have to happen to make a show come together. We’re all pros here, there’s no denying that, but we’re also humans that can be shaken. The crowd is 70 light tonight — that makes us nervous, but tomorrow looks better. This run has been really well attended so far but with only four sellouts out of 11 shows —30 shy here, 12 there — we want it to be better. Sellouts count if not in actual money then definitely in perception. Perception isn’t everything in the music business but it means at least half as much as what is real.

The show is good. The band is tight. I’m so impressed with their willingness to work, but then why wouldn’t they do their jobs the best they can? I lie in bed that night and think about why I expect so little of everyone else and so much of myself.

Day #14. Thursday, August 31

Chicago night two. I wake up feeling like someone has taken a jeweler’s hammer to every joint in my body, but I have an 8:00 a.m. phone session with my therapist so I get up and make a cup of coffee with the little machine in the room. Tastes like an armpit smells, but it’s a caffeine delivery system and I need caffeine to talk about myself. I finish up in an hour and text Sissy. I take Petey to her room and she’s already ordered me some salmon and eggs. Petey eats most of it. We talk about the flood in Houston some more and decide to donate that night’s t-shirt proceeds to Miranda Lambert’s Mutt Nation Foundation. She’s going into flooded areas and rescuing dogs. I then go back to my room where Hayes and I have coffee and decide to visit the new American Writer’s Museum. I notice that my master’s thesis advisor’s name is on the dedication plaque. 

When we get back to the hotel I run into Joe in the hallway. He and I discuss the band thing. Should we take the rhythm section to the west coast? We know we can do it as a trio but if Sissy is happier and more comfortable with the full band then is that how we should do the shows? We leave it up in the air and both hope she’ll come around to the trio idea. By the time Hayes and I get down to the street to load up in the van she’s already gotten Rick and Jason to commit to the run. Question answered.  

We get to the venue and I run a few things on stage. We then hang around in the dressing room while some super fan of Sissy’s, who I later have to dismiss from the dressing room, comes with her table to give all the guys massages. We overhear Rick Reed tell her he works out and we all double over with laughter. Such is life on the road — we rib each other, give each other hell, really, and have each other’s backs like you wouldn’t believe.

The show is electric — visceral, unpredictable, and great. Sissy starts singing the Everly Brothers’ “Dream” at one point and I join in just like I did when we were little girls. The audience loves it. It’s like being on a tightrope and it’s one of the best shows yet. 

We drive to Indianapolis after the show to sleep for four hours so we can get a jump on the drive to Nashville. If we could afford a tour bus we wouldn’t have to rely on our overworked tour manager to do the driving. This is old school. Two more shows to go. I fall in bed in my clothes and makeup.

Day #15. Friday, September 1

“Are my bills paid?” I wonder as I open my eyes. I remind myself I’ll be back home in two days and can pay them then. “It’s okay,” I tell myself. I do that a lot.

Playing Nashville is a big deal. I lived here for 12 years and still consider it home. I even still have a place here, which I get to see for an hour between dropping everything at the venue and going back for sound check, and get to sleep in my own bed, which feels like a treat. I get the pre-show jitters. I know I’ll have friends and business associates in the audience and that it makes me want to hurl. I never wanted to give up being a part of this close-knit musical community so I never really have. I’ve kept one foot here. My people are here. I claim Nashville as home wherever I go in the world, so doing my best for it is important to me. Sissy feels the same. She got her start here, too, and never really stopped being a part of it though she lives in Los Angeles. Once you’re a part of the Nashville family, you always are. 

We finally get onstage, with the addition of keyboard player Michael Webb, and the band sounds great from the downbeat. There’s a sense of heightened awareness. This audience understands what we’re doing in a way others don’t. They are savvy.

The show was deep, weighty, and meaty. We say hello to friends and associates, and Sissy, Hayes, Ryan, and I are back at the house by midnight. It strikes me that we’re tame. Fifteen years ago I’d have stayed out until the wee hours. I’ve grown past that now, and there’s one show left, which deserves as much of me as the first one did.

Day #16. Saturday, September 2

We rise and have coffee. We don’t want to leave but onward we go. The van rolls out at 10:00 a.m. for Atlanta. We talk in the van about how everyone’s getting home tomorrow. “Where are the amps, merch, and guitars going?” “When do you need this?” It’s a moving circus even at our small level. Someone has to get the merch that wasn’t sold. Someone has to be responsible for the quarter-inch cables, the capos, the tuners.   

Showtime. We finally step on stage to a revved-up crowd. There are those crowds who want to interact with the performer so badly that they can disrupt a show if you’re not careful about not interacting back. The last night of the run. Sissy and I grab each other and hold on for a minute after we finish the last song, then we invite the band to join us for a group bow. We did it. 

Yes, vulnerable we may be, but I learned something on this tour — that it’s okay to take that to the stage. Most audiences want to know who they’ve paid to see, and giving them as much as you can, as much as you can afford to, pays off. They love you back, even for just 90 minutes. For most of us, the after show is the hardest part — the quiet takes back over, the loneliness can set in, the tiredness creeps up after the adrenaline has finished doing its job. But allowing that, and knowing that, is part of this job. It’s a job I’m honored to still be able to do, and this time, I’m honored to do it with my sister. We may feel way less invincible than we used to, but what we’ve found out is that it makes people love us even more. That bolsters any weakness and keeps us going.

The next run starts in one month. West coast, here we come. With the band.

A condensed version of this article appears in the November/December 2017 print edition.