Years After Her Parents' Murder-Suicide, Musician Allison Moorer Finds Healing

Nov 4, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 1:24 pm

Editor's note: This interview mentions domestic violence and suicide.

Singer-songwriter Allison Moorer was 14 years old when her father shot and killed her mother — and then himself. Moorer and her older sister, singer Shelby Lynne, were left to live with their aunt and uncle.

For a long time, Moorer avoided talking publicly about the incident. She wrote the song "Cold, Cold Earth" about her parents' deaths, but she buried it as a secret track on her 2000 album, The Hardest Part.

"I had in my mind if I wrote a song about it, it would answer the questions that everyone had, but I still wasn't ready to even do that in a real open way," Moorer says.

Now she's ready. More than three decades after her parents' deaths, Moorer has a new memoir and companion album, both called Blood, about her childhood in Alabama, her abusive father and the lingering emotional scars from the murder-suicide.

"So much of this book, for me, was about looking at what happened then and what it produced in me as an adult," Moorer says. "A lot of these things, I've had to try to unlearn. Some of these things, I will never unlearn."

Hear the full Fresh Air interview at the audio link, including songs from Blood, and read on for interview highlights, which have been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On the clothes her parents were wearing on the day of the murder-suicide

Why was my mama wearing her winter housecoat instead of her summer housecoat? It was August. So her winter housecoat was navy blue velour. And I think, well, that's just one of those God things, because that covered up more of the physical damage. It was less visible because of the dark color of her housecoat. Other things that really got to me were when what my father was wearing is described. I remember everything. I remember those clothes. I remember the shoes. He was wearing a black sock and a blue sock, and that just floored me. It just floored me. And it is such an indication of "I don't care about myself. I do not care about myself enough to wear a pair of matched socks." And it just makes my heart break for him to know that he was in such despair.

On how her mother would react to her father's abuse

I do not know how often he was physically violent with her. I can't imagine what went on behind closed doors and how he terrorized her. She had a habit of biting her fingernails, and I saw him dozens of times knock her hand out of her mouth with his hand, just sort of slap it away in this very violent way. Those are things that he did in front of us. I talk about in the book looking out the kitchen window one day and seeing him kick her in the thigh. She had this giant bruise the next day.

It's interesting to me — and this is one of the things that I've tried to figure out — because she presented herself to the world as a feisty person. She was not someone that you would have wanted to mess with, because she had a very quick wit and she could come up with a retort that would flatten you. So why she cowered with him, I'm not sure, but what we did not hear was much response from her during these times, when we would be in our bed and listening to him verbally abuse her. We didn't hear them going at it. She was not one of those women who could give as good as she got.

On feeling afraid all the time because of her father's abuse

The thing about growing up like that is your foundation is so unsteady. He was a person who could make you feel like you were the only person [in the world] because his smile was incredible. His laugh was contagious. He was smart. He was charismatic. He was talented. So when he turned his attention to you and made you feel like you counted, it was such a relief. But what came with that was, "Oh God, it's going to end. When is it going to end? I have to prepare myself for this moment to end." And it usually ended it pretty quickly. The cloud came back. So living like that, you're constantly nervous.

On trying to understand how her father could orphan her and her sister

I'm pretty sure he did not live his life as a person who never thought about us. I know that he did. I also know that he made many of his decisions with seemingly no regard for his family. He was sick. He was quite possibly mentally ill. I think it's safe to say that this decision was not one that was made with a clear head. That's one of the reasons why I got the autopsy reports. I wanted to see what his alcohol level was. And that's not to say that, if he had been sober, he wouldn't have made the same decision, because I think he did just break at this point.

On finding a song her father wrote titled "I'm the One to Blame," which Shelby Lynne put to music for Blood

Shortly after they died, my sister found this lyric in an old briefcase of his, and he would have been 25 or [26] when he wrote it. The lyric is "I'm the one to blame / But I've paid the cost / Time has made me see just how much I lost / Jealousy and pride drove me to my shame / I'm so sorry, dear, but I'm the one to blame."

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"Sorrow took the pride / I'll take the blame" — that's the line that blows me away. That is such a despondent line, and it reveals so much. I have no idea what his intentions were for this song. I never heard him sing it. I have no recollection of the song at all. So to find it after he died was just, it shook us to the core.

In typical survivor fashion, my sister thought, "That's pretty good. I think I'll put music to it!" And she did, and she put great music to it. Neither of us have ever recorded it, but I thought this album was a perfect opportunity to do so. I wanted him to have a voice. I wanted to say, finally, "Here you go, Daddy. You get to be heard."

On singing at home with her 9-year-old son, John Henry, who has autism and is nonverbal

It is interesting that both of his parents are highly verbal people. John Henry did develop words. He was about a year old when he started to say words. And by the time he was 17 months old, they started to go away, so I got a very small window of time when I was able to hear his voice. He has some sign language now. He has a program on his iPad which enables him to make choices, and he sings melodies.

I don't necessarily go to him with songs to sing to him unless it's something that just pops in my mind. I want to hear what he's singing so that I can sing with him. I'm always prompting him to communicate, so that means that I wait for him to sing a tune so I can see what he's gonna do before I join in with him. [Music] is a language after all, and it's the universal one.

On deciding to have a family, despite her traumatizing childhood

I've always known I had a ton of baggage — and I knew that if I did decide to have a child, I was going to have to be really careful — but I'm not sure that I knew, at the time I got pregnant with him, just how deep it was [and] how it affected me.

I did not want to have a child unless I could provide that stability. I didn't want him growing up feeling like I did. So I wanted to be stable, and stability is a bit of an illusion, and it can also change at any time. ... Not only [is stability] what he needs as a person with autism, but I think it's what I need to provide for him considering what I've been through. He needs calm; he needs routine; he needs to know that he can depend on certain elements of life being there. I admit that I have spoiled him to death and probably have given him everything he wants. The main thing I've tried to do is make him feel safe and loved and [to] be there on time.

On writing the song "Heal"

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It's an absolute prayer. I absolutely believe in God, and I believe in God more now than I've ever believed in God. I wrote, in this memoir, this prayer I used to pray: "Please, God, don't let Daddy hurt Mama." I would pray it, and pray it, and pray it, mostly at night waiting on her to come tuck us in. I didn't pray for a long time after they died. I don't know what that means other than maybe I thought it was useless. I was too angry. I was not in a place where I felt close to my own spirit. But as I've gotten older, I've realized what an important part of life that is — to have a relationship with your spiritual self and what a comfort that is — because having faith that life unfolds as it should, whether or not we agree with the way it unfolds, is a source of peace and comfort.

Heidi Saman and Joel Wolfram produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Cyrena Touros adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I've heard many songs about murder over the years - folk ballads, country songs, arias. But I think singer-songwriter Allison Moorer's song "Cold, Cold Earth" is the first murder ballad I've heard where the singer actually witnessed the crime. Moorer was 14 when she heard the gunshots her father fired, killing her mother and then himself, leaving Allison and her 17-year-old sister orphaned. Her sister Shelby Lynne is also a singer-songwriter.

The murder-suicide is a subject Moorer has tried to avoid talking about in public until now. Her new memoir, "Blood," is about growing up in Alabama, witnessing her parent's dysfunctional marriage and watching her father's rages in which he would beat a dog or Allison's mother or sister. The good part of her childhood was the music. Her mother sang. Her father played in local bands and wrote some songs she later discovered, one of which she performs on her new album. Moorer and her sister won awards for their duets when they were children. Moorer's new album is a companion to her memoir and is also called "Blood." Allison Moorer's music has been nominated for an Oscar, a Grammy and an Academy of Country Music Award.

As you can probably tell, this interview will have stories related to depression, domestic abuse, murder and suicide. Allison Moorer brought her guitar to the studio, and she'll sing some songs for us a little later. But first I want to play a track from her new album - the song about the murder-suicide called "Cold, Cold Earth." We'll start with the second verse.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLD, COLD EARTH")

ALLISON MOORER: (Singing) A slave to the bottle, he'd driven his family to leave. A wife and two daughters he treated so terribly. Drunk with grief and loneliness, he wasn't thinking straight. He knew he couldn't live unless they pardoned his mistakes. He went into the city to try to make amends, asked his love for pity, but she would not give in. Overwhelmed with sadness, he reached for his gun and took her life along with his before the morning sun. Now they are lying in the cold, cold earth. Such a sad, sad story. Such a sad, sad world.

GROSS: Allison Moorer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your new memoir and on this wonderful new record. You know, there's a great tradition of murder ballads in folk music, but this is one - this is a murder ballad you wrote about your own parents. I want you to tell the story through your memoir and read an excerpt of the memoir from the morning of the murder. And you were sleeping in the living room on the floor because your mother had left your father and moved with you and your sister to a rental apartment. She had served him divorce papers. He wanted back into the family, and your mother and her best friend Carolyn (ph) were concerned that he might do something dangerous. So she - Carolyn, the friend - was sleeping in your bed, which is why you were sleeping in the living room floor. So if you could read an excerpt from the beginning of your book in which you describe your perception of the murder-suicide.

MOORER: (Reading) I think it was around 5 a.m. when the gunshots woke me. There were two. They came very close to one another. Imagine the sound of a .30-06 rifle firing and then think of the time it takes to snap your fingers four times to the tempo of "Thirteen" by Big Star. Then imagine it firing again. I lay there for what feels now like a few minutes, terrified to move even a centimeter or even to breathe. My eyes darted around the barely lit living room for a clue about what to do. I knew without question what I'd heard, the unmistakable sound that takes a life. But I couldn't quite comprehend that I'd heard that sound coming from the front yard that was just on the other side of the living room wall. I was only a few feet away.

I wondered if it could have been thunder leftover from the storm that came the day before or maybe another one coming. I wondered if it could have been something else that might imitate the vibrations from a cannon. No. I knew it wasn't anything but what I knew it was. I'd been close enough to guns to recognize exactly the sound they make. A pop but a little longer than a pop - a burst, violent and hard, then the reverberation. I told myself, no. It couldn't be what I knew it was, even as I simultaneously started rearranging every cell in my body to start accepting that, yes, it was. Yes, I knew that it was.

I got up off the floor where I'd slept and shook myself to the kitchen door. I was 14 years old. I opened the door, which opened onto a carport, and called out into the thick early morning for mama. Mama? I didn't turn my head to the left, where I knew they probably were. And the darkness was merciful enough to give me no peripheral vision. I just stared straight ahead as I called her one time and not again. I knew there was no need to repeat myself, and I wasn't surprised when there was no response. I couldn't step outside.

I turned around to go back to the living room and met Sissy and Carolyn headed in my direction. Carolyn said something about hearing what she thought might have been a gun and that she'd looked into mama's bedroom, and it was empty. I knew mama wasn't in her bedroom. I knew she was outside, though I hadn't confirmed it with my eyes. Sissy did. She walked straight out the front door into the approaching morning. She then walked back inside. Carolyn, keep Allison in the house. It's mama and daddy. I'm going to go get help.

GROSS: That's Allison Moorer reading from her new memoir, which is called "Blood."

You know, one of the really just horrible things in terms of what your father did is he didn't think about you and your sister at all. I mean, he shot your mother and killed her and then killed himself. That's horrible enough, but he left two orphans behind. And he left you both with the most traumatic memories. And that strikes me as being so selfish. I mean, obviously, selfishness a very underwhelming word to use here. But it - does it trouble you how little he thought about you when he did this horrific action?

MOORER: I'm pretty sure he did not live his life as a person who never thought about us. I know that he did. I also know that he made many of his decisions with seemingly no regard for his family. He was sick. He was quite possibly mentally ill. I think it's safe to say that this decision was not one that was made with a clear head. His - you know, that's one of the reasons why I got the autopsy reports. I wanted to see what his alcohol level was. And that's not to say that if he had been sober, he wouldn't have made the same decision because I think he did just break at this point.

So I don't know if this was something that he had thought out. He did carry a gun in his van all the time. He kept it under a beanbag that my mama had actually made for him to have in this van that he liked so much. So how she got out there with him I don't know. And she - you know, she told my sister and me a couple months before this happened that on several occasions, he had begged her to shoot him and put the gun in his hand so that it would look like a suicide.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer and musician Allison Moorer. She's written a new memoir and has a companion CD. And the memoir is about growing up in a family with an abusive father who eventually - when Allison was a teenager, he shot and killed her mother and then shot and killed himself. And her new CD is all songs that relate to that in some way. They're both called "Blood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and musician Allison Moorer. Her new memoir "Blood" is about how when she was in her teens, her father shot and killed her mother and then took his own life. And so the book is the story of the family before that, during that day and then after, when she and her sister were orphans. She also has a companion CD called "Blood." And all the songs on it relate in some way to the murder.

So you got the autopsy reports. And you reprint some of it in the book. Tell us what you learned from the autopsy reports for your mother and your father that have the most significance for you in trying to understand what happened.

MOORER: Well, first of all, I was under the impression that my mother had been shot more in the abdomen rather than the chest. When I got the autopsy reports, I saw that she had been shot directly in the chest at close range. The bullet track sort of bounced around and basically destroyed all of her organs. It came out of her left breast. It went back into her left arm and lodged itself there. So basically, it just destroyed her insides, this bullet. And one of the things that sticks out to me is the coroner wrote that she had on peeling lavender toenail polish, which - my mother never would have chosen lavender. I just don't think he knew what color he was looking at because she always chose darker colors for her toenails (laughter). So always been like, no, it wasn't lavender. I know it wasn't lavender. And as far as my father, I had been told that he shot himself under the chin. And that might have been what the person who told me that believed. That might have been what they were told. I don't know. But the truth is he shot himself in between the eyes with a rifle.

GROSS: As I was reading the autopsy report. I was thinking, it's so lucky that it was dark and that you couldn't see because what you would have seen - it just would've been horrible. Thank God you don't have those graphic images in your mind.

MOORER: Yeah, but my sister does.

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause she went out and saw it.

MOORER: Yeah. And luckily, it was dark. You know, there are things like, why was my mama wearing her winter housecoat instead of her summer housecoat? It was August. So her winter housecoat was navy-blue velour. And I think, well, that's just one of those God things because that covered up more of the physical damage. It was less visible because of the dark color of her housecoat. You know, other things that really got to me were when what my father was wearing is described, I remember everything. I remember those clothes. I remember the shoes. He was wearing a black sock and a blue sock, and that just floored me. It just floored me. And it is such an indication of, I don't care about myself. I do not care about myself enough to wear a pair of matched socks. And it just makes my heart break for him to know that he was in such despair.

GROSS: So, you know, you mentioned how your sister actually saw them lying dead. You were spared seeing that, but she was not. And you have a song on your new album called "Nightlight" that's basically about how she was your nightlight, about how she was your protector and the person who could show you the path. Could you sing a little bit of that for us?

MOORER: Sure. Well, if I can get through it. It's - you know, talking about her in this process of talking about this book and this record has been the most emotional part for me. It's - because I guess it's one thing to talk about people who are no longer here, but to talk about someone who is and went through this with me is - it's just - it's been pretty heavy for me. So if there's one song on this record that makes me break down, it's this one. So I will do as much of it as I'm able. I'm going to have to get tough on myself about it (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) All right.

MOORER: (Singing) Hold on to my hand. Don't let go. Remember that she will eventually show. But until she hears us call and tiptoes down the hall, you're my nightlight. Ain't no way to know what's goin' on. Are we here? Are the echoes? Let's wait to say our prayers even though we're scared. You're my nightlight. You're my first light, last light. Daylight, moonlight. In the morning, we'll go fishin', but for now let's stay up listenin', whisperin'.

GROSS: That's Allison Moorer playing her song "Nightlight." She just played that for us in the studio, but that song is also on her new album, "Blood," which is a companion CD to her new memoir, "Blood." That's about her experience with her parents and what happened after her father shot and killed her mother and then took his own life immediately after.

Thanks for doing that. It's a beautiful song, and you have such a beautiful voice.

MOORER: Thank you.

GROSS: Your father had threatened your mother a lot. And he had been violent with the family. He had beaten up your sister. He beat up your mother several times. He threw things in the house and shattered things. I mean, he could turn very violent. He drank. And he had alcohol in his system, he had alcohol in his blood, the night that he shot and killed your mother and himself.

When your mother would try to talk him down from a violent episode or try to prevent a violent episode by talking to him, what would she say? Did you overhear any of that?

MOORER: What I heard from her was very little. She was a person who - and it's interesting to me, and this is one of the things that I've tried to figure out. Because she presented herself to the world as a feisty person, you know? She is not someone that you would have wanted to mess with. 'Cause she had a very quick wit, and she could come up with a retort that would flatten you. So why she cowered with him, I'm not sure. But what we did not hear was much response from her during these times when we would be in our bed and listening to him verbally abuse her. We didn't hear them going at it. Like, she did not - she was not one of those women who could give as good as she got.

So I don't know. Now, on the night before they died, when my sister and I were at the rental house with my mama and Carolyn, and he kept calling - he called, and called, and called, over and over - what I heard from her end was still, again, very little. I don't know what he was saying. I don't know what - I don't know if he was saying, I'm going to come over there and kill you, I'm going to come over there and kill you all. Or, I'm going to kill myself in this trailer.

Or - I don't - I just have no idea what he was saying. What I heard from her side was a dwindling response. Like, it went from, I know, Frank, yes, Frank, I know, to almost silence every time he would call. 'Cause he probably called, you know, 15 times. And it finally got to, I know.

GROSS: My guest is Allison Moorer. Her new album and memoir are each called "Blood." After a break, she'll play more music. We'll hear the song that her father wrote the lyric for. And we'll talk about being the mother of a son with autism who doesn't speak. Music helps them communicate. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOD")

MOORER: (Singing) A candle on the windowsill burning bright, burning still, leads you home. It lights the way. There today, like yesterday.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with singer and songwriter Allison Moorer. Her new memoir, "Blood," is about her childhood, her parents' dysfunctional marriage and the trauma of having heard the shots when her father killed her mother, then turned around the rifle and took his own life. Moorer was 14. Her sister was 17 when they were orphaned. Her sister, Shelby Lynne, is also a singer-songwriter. Moorer wrote a series of songs connected to her memoir. They're on a new album also called "Blood." Just a heads-up - this interview has disturbing stories about domestic violence.

You have a section - and I'd like you to read an excerpt of this, if you will - it's on page 112. And the chapter's called "What Happens When You Hit Your Daughter." So would you read that excerpt for us?

MOORER: Yes. What happens when you hit your daughter? First, she will bond to you out of fear, mistakenly thinking she has done something wrong, and if she can just manage to not do it again or somehow please you, you might not hit her or anyone else anymore. She will even think you will love her properly if she can earn your approval. She won't realize this is impossible.

Then she will either do that with every man she comes within 100 feet of for the rest of her life or until she learns not to - this will take much doing - or she will despise them with such vehemence that she can barely stomach one around. Sometimes she will do a combination of both of those things, working herself into a pattern of push and pull - I love you, I hate you, I need you, I don't need anyone - that will drive her a little crazy. She won't understand at first, if ever, why she only attracts other masochists.

Whatever numbing agent she's picked for herself - she will probably try drugs, drink too much alcohol, starve herself or binge and purge, maybe cut herself, act out sexually - in fact, she may do all of those things - that continues to help kill her spirit and dulls her enough to keep her participating in living like a maniac will be consumed to varying degrees depending on need. She will be more likely to commit suicide than if you hadn't abused her. She will give herself away and will mistake admiration and infatuation and sometimes even abuse for love.

GROSS: And do you feel like all of those things have happened to you, that you've gotten into relationships that were going to end badly because of your father having hit you and that you've tried all these numbing agents because of the pain that you exposed to from your father as a child?

MOORER: I wrote this piece specifically for my sister.

GROSS: Oh.

MOORER: I - he never hit me, never hit me. The worst I got were things like being thumped on the head for talking too loud in the back seat of the car, or being snatched, you know, or being shaken by the shoulders or, you know, pushed around. And that was usually because my sister got in - put herself in the way. And I also knew to get out of the way. I also knew when to run. I knew when to make myself scarce. And she did not do that. She ran in when I ran out.

I still experienced seeing a lot of the abuse. And the violence in the household permeated everything. I think I was 4 years old when he threw a lamp through the window. I think I was around the same age when I looked out the window one day and saw him throw our puppy across - against a tree...

GROSS: Oh.

MOORER: ...And break his leg. And my sister was 17 when he beat her up so badly that he changed the shape of her nose.

GROSS: You know, you write in your book that living life afraid - and you were afraid of your father, and your mother and your sister were afraid of him too. One thing we can say about your father that's positive is that he loved music, and he so much wanted to be a songwriter and a professional musician. He had bands that he played in. But, I mean, they didn't go anywhere as they played, you know, local places. And he had to have day jobs, or sometimes he was just unemployed. But he loved music.

And he had reel-to-reel - a reel-to-reel tape recorder and would tape the family singing, would tape you and your sisters singing when you were young. And you have a briefcase in which he collected some of the lyrics that he'd written and some of those recordings that he made of the family. And there's a song that you sing on the new album that's a lyric he wrote and a melody that your sister, Shelby Lynne, wrote for the song. And I want to play the song from the recording because I'm just not sure you could ever top (laughter)...

MOORER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...The version on the recording. It just seems perfect to me. But tell us a little bit about the origin of this song and what it says to you about your father. I should preface this by saying it has a very telling title - "I'm The One To Blame."

MOORER: Right. Yeah. Shortly after they died, my sister found this lyric in an old briefcase of his. And he would have been 25 or 6 when he wrote it. Yeah. Just the title alone, "I'm The One To Blame," the lyric is, I'm the one to blame. I've paid the cost. Time has made me see just how much I've lost. Jealousy and pride drove me to shame. I'm so sorry, dear, but I'm the one to blame. Sorrow took the pride. I'll take the blame. That's the line that blows me away. Sorrow took...

GROSS: Why is that the line?

MOORER: Sorrow took the pride. I'll take the blame - because it reveals such a sadness and such a just - that is just a despondent line. And it reveals so much. And, you know, I have no idea what his intentions were for this song. I never heard him sing it. I have no recollection of this song at all. So to find it after he died was just - it shook us to the core. And - but, you know, and in typical survivor fashion, my sister thought, hm, that's pretty good. I think I'll put music to it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOORER: (Laughter) And she did. And she did, and she put great music to it. Neither of us have ever recorded it, but I thought this album was a perfect opportunity to do so. I wanted him to have a voice. I wanted to say finally, here you go, Daddy. You get to be heard.

GROSS: So let's hear the song with your father's lyric and your sister's melody, "I'm The One To Blame." This is from Allison Moorer's new album, "Blood."

MOORER: (Singing) I'm the one to blame, but I've paid the cost. Time has made me see just how much I lost. Jealousy and pride drove me to shame. And I'm so sorry, dear, but I'm the one to blame. Sorrow took the pride. I'll take the blame. Take the hurt away. Take me back again. Only time will tell how we'll get along. Oh, love is not the same once the trust is gone, but I'll do my best if you do the same. And forgive me, my love, 'cause I'm the one to blame.

GROSS: I just think that is such a sad song, and your version of it just - I get chills when I listen to it. It's really so emotional. You said that he was jealous of your mother's talent. Like, your mother was a natural singer, and you and your sister just grew up knowing how to sing harmony, and you both have great voices. But your father had to work on it, and he never - you know, he's the one who really - he wanted to be a professional and wasn't. Do you think jealousy of your mother's talent figured into his anger at her?

MOORER: I do, and I will say that my mother had a leg up. She was raised in a very musical family. Her mama was one of 14 children. She was born in 1926, so that was in the Great Depression, and they didn't have much to do to entertain themselves but sing and play music. So my grandparents would have what we called fiddlins (ph) at their house, and we would often join in. And everybody just knew - everybody on my mama's side of the family, most of them - just knew how to sing and play and sit around and at least play three or four chords on the guitar and know how to hear a harmony part. And it was just a - it was a way of life. Music on my mama's side of the family was just a given. Somebody came over in the afternoon for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee, as they often did, they would end up picking out a tune on the guitar or the piano and just - it was just always around.

My daddy did not have that experience. His parents were not musical. Daddy didn't get the immersion that my mama did, so maybe he didn't have a chance to develop as great an ear as she had. Maybe - you know, maybe - I don't know. There was a lot of natural talent in my mother. She had a great voice. She had great rhythm. She had a great ear. Daddy had to work very much harder at just being OK, and I do - like, his rhythm wasn't very good and, you know, he wasn't someone who could really sing harmony that well.

GROSS: Yeah.

MOORER: So if he got - for instance, like, if he - there is a - I have a tape of the two of them singing together, of Mama and Daddy singing together. And he all of a sudden changes the key, and she whispers to him, you changed the key. And he corrected himself, but the tape cuts off very quickly, and I thought, oh, God. I wonder what price she had to pay for correcting him because he hated to be corrected.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Allison Moorer, and her new memoir and companion CD are both called "Blood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and musician Allison Moorer. Her new memoir and her new CD are both called "Blood." Her memoir is about her family, and when she was in her teens, her father, who was abusive, shot and killed her mother and then turned around the rifle and killed himself.

Could you play a song for us that you sang as a child that you still love and that means a lot to you?

MOORER: You know, I was thinking about that. We listened to a lot of Everly Brothers records when I was little, and they were very influential on us because of the two-part harmony, and plus they're great songs. And so I was thinking about this song, which is called "Brand New Heartache." And it's a little weird to sing it without another part, but I'll do a little bit of this one. This is an Everly Brothers tune.

(Singing, playing guitar) A new boy came to town. I ain't seen you around. I feel a brand-new heartache coming on. It happened once before when a guy moved in next door. I feel a brand-new heartache coming on. Why can't I trust in you? Why do you try to make me blue the way you do? You said we had a date, and you're three hours late. I feel a brand-new heartache coming on.

GROSS: Thank you for that. That sounded great.

MOORER: Thank you.

GROSS: And I should mention you and your sister inducted The Everly Brothers into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

MOORER: Yeah. We were part of that. It was incredible.

GROSS: Yeah. I guess you were one of the performers. You didn't read the induction speech.

MOORER: Right.

GROSS: But yeah, you were one of the performers. So, you know, we've spent a lot of time talking about you as a child. I want to talk a little bit about you as a mother. You're the mother of a son who is autistic, and he does not have language. You write that he'd had 25 words, but by the time he was diagnosed, he'd started losing those 25 words. So how old is he now?

MOORER: John Henry is now 9 1/2.

GROSS: It's, you know - it must - it's always hard if, like, your child has autism and can't communicate through language, but you're a writer. I mean, you have a new book. You write lyrics. It must be, like, very frustrating for you to not be able to communicate through language, but I assume you've found alternate ways to communicate with him.

MOORER: Well, it is interesting that both of his parents are highly verbal people.

GROSS: I should mention his father is your former husband Steve Earle, also a songwriter, singer, musician.

MOORER: Yes. John Henry did develop words. He was about a year old when he started to say words. And by the time he was 17 months old, they started to go away. So I got a very small window of time when I was able to hear his voice. He has some sign language now. He has a program on his iPad which enables him to make choices. And he sings melodies.

GROSS: Are they melodies that he makes up?

MOORER: He makes up his own melodies. He also picks up melodies from songs that already exist. And, you know, I don't necessarily go to him with songs to sing to him unless it's something that just pops in my mind. I want to hear what he's singing so that I can sing with him. I'm always prompting him to communicate. So that means that I wait for him to sing a tune, so I can see what he's going to do before I join in with him. So he - you know, he's made up this little tune recently this summer. It goes like (singing) dut-duh dut-duh dut-da-duh dut-duh dut-duh dut-da. Dut-da-duh-duh. Dut-da-dut dut-dut-duh (ph).

It's - you know, he listens to a lot of classical. He listens to everything, like we do. So I don't know where he comes up with these things, but they're really amazing to me. So the other day, when I saw him on Tuesday, the first thing I did was sing (singing) dut-duh dut-duh dut-da-duh dut-duh dut-duh dut-da (ph) 'cause I think it's kind of our song. And then he joined in with the (singing) dut-da-duh-duh (ph) part. It's just one of the ways we communicate, and it's very sweet.

GROSS: So it's just another way that - another dimension of how music has shaped your life.

MOORER: It is a language after all, and it's the universal one.

GROSS: Let's pause here and take another break, and then we'll talk some more. And if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and musician Allison Moorer. She has a new memoir and a new CD. They're both called "Blood." We'll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUY MINTUS TRIO'S "OUR JOURNEY TOGETHER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and musician Allison Moorer. Her new memoir and her new CD, both called "Blood," are about her parents and her childhood. When she was in her teens, her father shot and killed her mother and then turned the rifle around and killed himself. He'd been abusive to Allison Moorer's mother and to her sister. And Allison Moorer grew up in constant fear. I want to end with a song that you do on your new album, "Blood," and it's called "Heal." And it's the last song on the album, and it's kind of like a prayer.

MOORER: It's an absolute prayer. It's a plea.

GROSS: Yeah. Who are you praying to?

MOORER: God.

GROSS: I was unclear whether you had any belief left in God.

MOORER: I absolutely believe in God.

GROSS: OK.

MOORER: And I believe in God more now than I've ever believed in God. I, you know, I wrote in this memoir this prayer I used to pray - please, God, don't let Daddy hurt Mama. And I would pray it, and pray it and pray it, and mostly at night, waiting on her to come tuck us in. Please, God, don't let Daddy hurt Mama. Because what we heard indicated that he would.

And I also say that I didn't pray for a long time after they died. And that - I don't know what that means, other than maybe I thought it was useless. I was too angry. I was not in a place where I felt close to my own spirit. But as I've gotten older, I've realized what an important part of life that is, to have a relationship with your spiritual self, and what a comfort that is. Because having faith that life unfolds as it should, whether we agree or not with the way it unfolds, is a source of peace and comfort.

GROSS: Allison Moorer, thank you so very much.

MOORER: Thank you, Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAL")

MOORER: (Singing) No matter how I try, I end up on the ground, another orphan waitin' in the lost-and-found. Over and over, I take it on the chin, fists up to the world, fightin' a fight I cannot win. Help me lay my weapons down. Help me give the love I feel. Help me hold myself with kindness. Help me heal. Remove all of the false. Show me what is real. Oh, Lord, help me heal. Yeah, I'm tough. But I wasn't born this way. I grew hard because I had to, carrying the weight. I want to let it go. I want to set it free. But everywhere I turn, the fight follows me. Help me lay my weapons down. Help me give the love I feel. Help me hold myself with kindness, and help me heal. Remove all of the false. Show me what is real. Oh, Lord, help me heal. Help me lay my weapons down. Help me give the love I feel. Help me hold myself with kindness, and help me heal. Remove all of the false. Show me what is real. Oh, Lord, help me heal.

GROSS: That's Allison Moorer from her new album "Blood." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about hearing in a deafening world. Our guest will be journalist David Owen, who says we take our ears for granted, abusing them with rock concerts, loud restaurants and power tools. Most of us will lose some hearing before we reach retirement age. His new book, "Volume Control," explores the mystery of tinnitus, breakthroughs like cochlear implants and more. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.