Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Soft Bomb

Singer gets pleasant surprise

By Michael McCall, Bill Friskics-Warren, and Jim Ridley

MARCH 8, 1999:  On Feb. 9, as Allison Moorer returned home from breakfast with her husband and songwriting partner, Butch Primm, her cellular phone rang. On the other end of the line was Bruce Hinton, chairman of the Nashville division of MCA Records.

That got Moorer's attention. In the nearly two years since she had signed with MCA, Hinton had never called her. He opened the conversation by telling the singer that Tony Brown, president of MCA Nashville and the man who signed Moorer to her contract, was in the office with him.

"My first thought was, 'Oh my God! They're going to drop me from the label!' " Moorer laughs.

After all, MCA had been at the center of recent music-industry consolidations, and several artists connected with MCA/Universal had lost their record contracts in recent weeks. Because Moorer's first album, Alabama Song, hadn't sold particularly well, she feared the label might be letting her go.

But Hinton's call was anything but bad news. The label exec informed Moorer that her song, "A Soft Place to Fall," had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. The tune, written by Moorer and Nashville rocker Gwil Owen, was featured in the Robert Redford movie The Horse Whisperer. Moorer appeared in the movie as a nightclub singer, performing the song while Redford danced with actress Kristin Scott Thomas.

"I had no idea the nominations were coming out that morning," she says. "It had crossed my mind that maybe the song would be in the running to be nominated, but I never thought in a million years that it would actually happen. So when Bruce gave me the news, all I could say was, 'Oh my God, you're kidding?' "

Last spring, the movie role helped jump-start Moorer's career. But country radio unjustly ignored "A Soft Place to Fall," a languid, melancholy ballad rich with emotion. Apparently, "power country" programmers found it too low-key for their tastes, and they assumed listeners would naturally tune out in search of something peppier.

Indeed, there may be no better example of country radio's head-in-the-sand approach to programming. Even Jay Leno, an avowed country music fan, expressed his frustration about this very subject prior to Moorer's performance on the Tonight Show Feb. 15. As the host put it, she's appearing in films, Robert Redford loves her, movie fans love her, music critics love her, and now she's been nominated for an Academy Award. Yet she's still not getting any airplay. "What's wrong with those people?" Leno asked.

At least Moorer can feel vindicated in knowing that her nomination will result in a flood of exposure. To top it all off, on Oscar night, she'll perform "A Soft Place to Fall" during the worldwide telecast. That means she'll be seen by millions of people--and, in music-industry terms, that's millions of consumers.

People picking up on Moorer in the next couple of months will likely be asking two questions: One, why haven't we heard this outstanding and unusual singer before? Then, once they start thinking about the country music they do hear on the radio, they'll echo Leno and ask, "What's wrong with those people?"

There is one way to change that: Call a country radio station and ask the program director to play Allison Moorer. Should he refuse, ask him, "What's wrong with you people?" Then tell him you'll be listening to another station from now on.

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