Allison Moorer’s Gift Of A Second Act

Americana singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, who her lost parents to a murder-suicide as a teenager in south Alabama, reflects on the writing of her new memoir and companion album, Blood, for American Songwriter.

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“There are no second acts in American lives.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon

I had no idea what my next move would be. I was almost 43, single mother to a child with profound special needs, and up to my neck in the unfulfilled promise and shoulder-slumping shame of a career as a commercially unsuccessful singer-songwriter. Dwindling were the opportunities to consistently eke out a living as an opening act or tiny folk room headliner. Almost over was the publishing deal that gave me a dependable baseline income. Absent were sympathetic music industry executives who would take a chance on giving me yet another record deal. Disappearing was my artistic identity. 

It was the Spring of 2015. I had just released my ninth album and had managed to schedule exactly eight shows around its release. Due to the challenges of raising my son, that was all the time I could carve out for a tour. Eight shows weren’t enough to make even a dent in the nearly impermeable atmosphere of a successful album promotion campaign and I knew it. I was afraid I was done. So on a crisp March morning, as my suitcase and guitar stood propped by the door of my apartment and my train ticket to DC, where I was to start the tour, waited in my carryon, I hit send on an application to the MFA Creative Writing Program at The New School in New York City.

I’d begun a memoir a few years earlier. The work had been prompted by none other than Dr. Maya Angelou, who asked me while I was taping an episode of her radio show a question that seared itself into my brain: Exactly what was I going to tell my then six-week old son about my tumultuous upbringing when the time came to do so? My early pages received favorable responses from those to whom I showed them, and I’d even managed to secure a relationship with a talented and empathetic literary agent who promised me that we’d find a book deal when I was ready, but I knew ready was farther away than I wanted it to be. I didn’t know, beyond my instincts, what I was doing as I took stabs at writing in the long form. However, I’d fallen in love with crafting prose. The urge to massage words into sinewy sentences and paragraphs gnawed at me daily. I also had a story to tell, one that I’d never quite successfully divulged through songs. With my career as a singer-songwriter all but dried up and my discomfort with chasing ever elusive success growing by the day, I had to make a move. 

It wasn’t that I’d made no progress as a recording and touring artist. I had earned enough respect to keep record and publishing deals for, at that point, nearly twenty years, but I’d been robbing Peter to pay Paul for almost all of them and I knew the music business didn’t work that way anymore. In an age where everyone is struggling to figure out how to make money using a constantly changing model, artists like me are indulged and kept around for being critically acclaimed much less often than we once were. I knew I had to get practical — there was rent to pay, a child to raise, and I wasn’t getting any younger. With a master’s degree, I thought that in addition to increasing my skills as a writer, I might be able to land a stable teaching gig that would provide a manageable schedule and lo and behold, benefits for my son and me.

I felt like an old lady when I walked into my first writer’s workshop that fall. To my delight, I’d been accepted to the program to which I’d applied, but I’d graduated college over twenty years earlier and was nervous about the terrain on which I was about to try to walk. I didn’t have an English degree, I hadn’t published but a few things here and there, and was certain I’d be seen as the middle-aged, earnest newbie who asked too many questions, but I jumped in wholeheartedly. What I found within that program, and in what was a new way of life that included reading hundreds of pages per week and turning out stacks of my own that would be read by others, was wholly inspiring. I let go of the singular identity I’d worn as a singer-songwriter and allowed myself to expand. I found new tools to help me navigate unwieldy sentences. I found a new creative impetus. I found a new way to use my voice. I found a broken open, truer, deeper, and more joyous me. 

We are so often disheartened by failure — the plan that didn’t work out, the lifelong dream that gets fragmented into shards or even dashed completely. Admitting we’re not where we want to be and aren’t likely to ever get there is a hard pill to swallow. I knew, when I became a mother, that my life and my career would change, but I couldn’t see at that time how that oh so important job, and the intensity to which I would have to do it because of my son’s disability, would give me the gift of having to figure out how to completely reshape my work life. I never dreamed I’d write a book before that question Dr. Angelou posed shimmied itself into my mind, but here I am, a published author. I’m also happy to say that I’m still making music and have now made my eleventh, and what I think may be my best, album. I’m excited about my work again, but better than that, I have deep gratitude for having found this part of myself. I know I probably wouldn’t have found it had I not had to square up against what looked like the end and figure out how to make a new beginning. Sometimes there are second acts in American lives. All apologies of course, to Mr. Fitzgerald.

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