Allison Moorer will never forget how the song “One Voice” came to her. Up late one Saturday night in June of 2021, Moorer was getting ready to write after putting her son John Henry Earle to bed. Sitting at the dining room table, she recorded “Stardust & Freedom,” a song that then connected to another, “One Voice,” two songs reflecting a special mother-and-son connection through song. “I knew that the lyric I’d written for ‘One Voice’ was connected to it but didn’t know exactly how,” Moorer shares with American Songwriter. “I just spontaneously joined the two songs while the tape was rolling, and it worked. I feel like John Henry was coming through me for certain that night. We have a kind of telepathy. We’ve had to develop one, and I’m so grateful for it.”
The songs had even more importance, because John Henry, who was diagnosed with autism at 23 months old and has lived with a severe speech disability that hinders his ability to speak, helped Moorer come up with the melodies for the five tracks of her new EP Wish For You.
Wish For You came together somewhat magically. Once Moorer noticed her son coming up with different melodies—some she would call his greatest hits—and humming along to sounds he was hearing, he began memorizing his musical patterns and singing along with him. “Any chance for communication with my son is one I can’t ignore,” shares Moorer.
“Sometimes he would say a line, then I’ll say a line and it was this conversational pattern with music,” she continues. “It was a spirit conversation. It’s a soul conversation. It’s the universal language because we don’t necessarily need to understand the lyrics. It doesn’t even have to have lyrics.”
Pieced together with a collection of instruments, Moorer started each song off with different melodies John Henry created and recorded rough demos in Garage Band before fleshing out the tracks with longtime collaborator, producer, and guitarist Kenny Greenberg, playing or programming all the instruments including drums , percussion, and flute.
Calling the music she began creating with her son “spirit music,” Wish For You It is a departure from the country artist’s typical soundscape, and a stretching into a higher vocal range and experimenting with harmonies and crisscrossing several different genres. “These songs don’t really have anything to do with who I’ve been as an artist except that I feel like everything I’ve previously done on record finally adds up,” says Moorer. “It got me here, to the most meaningful and positive music I’ve ever made.”
As the songs pulled Moorer out of her comfortable musical zone, they also gave her son an avenue to communicate with her, through music. Like John Henry, Moorer lives her life through melodies and tones and the songs were a new adventure and new territory for her.
“It’s out of my normal wheelhouse to really branch out and do some things that I haven’t necessarily done on records before,” says Moorer. “I love soul music. I love harmonies. I love The Beatles. I love psychedelic stuff. Music doesn’t have boundaries for me. I think at this point in my career, I will do the music that wants me to do it.”
Accompanying Wish For YouMoorer released her second book I Dream He Talks to Me: A Memoir of Learning How to Listen in October 2021. A follow-up to her 2019 memoir blood, the new release documents her journey with her son so far. “They’re just grounded in love,” says Moorer of the book and the music that followed.
How the songs of Wish For You came together also breaks some of the barriers imposed around language and communication, says Moorer. “That’s part of the beauty of being able to communicate through music, across cultures, across language differences,” she says. “Music is a great uniter. It’s very important that we look at ability instead of disability.”
throughout Wish For You, Each arrangement is significant to John Henry’s melodies, from the opening space-pop and the beating drums around “All We Have Now,” a song that initially started two and a half years earlier when he came up with a melody while playing in the park . Playing on one particularly squeaky ride, John Henry started humming a melody in between the squeaks and began stomping his foot to the rhythm, which his teacher recorded for Moorer, who began writing the opening track around her son’s melody.
“He was able to find the music in that, and it’s such a good lesson for me because it makes me see that there’s music in everything,” says Moorer, who featured recordings of her son on most of the tracks. “And I think that’s a really good reminder for us all.”
Rounded out by the lo-fi drift of the title track through the toe-tapping “Stardust & Freedom,” the soulful “One Voice” and the closing ballad “Thank You” with its refrain from affecting You’re flying / I’m flying / Your heart / My heart, Wish For You may just be the beginning of a beautiful, musical relationship for mother and son.
Today, music is still a big part of John Henry, who has eclectic tastes for his young age, opting to listen to Billie Holiday, Nirvana, and Hoagy Carmichael and his favorite artist Adele. Getting him his own CD player and a stack of CDs for Christmas, Moorer believes helped her son keep his attention when listening to music over streaming platforms and other digital apps.
“One of the things that people may not realize is one of the traits of autism can be short attention span, and for years, I’ve been encouraging him to listen to music on the iTunes, his iPad or other platforms,” she says . “I thought it would be a good way for him to listen to music, but what I realized is sometimes his attention span doesn’t allow him to stay in one of those apps, and he’ll exit out of it.”
Moorer hopes her story makes a connection to whoever listens to Wish For You or explores the book.
“Music can connect,” says Moorer. “When you see someone light up because they’ve made a connection with another person through a thing like music it’s very powerful. When I first played John Henry one of these songs, he knew it was his. Just because a person is autistic does not mean that they are not 100 there, and I know that to be true.”
She adds, “The main thing I want people to get from it is joy. I want people to feel joy, and release, and love, because that’s what it’s about. Just because someone is limited in their ability to express themselves through language doesn’t mean that they can’t fully contribute. We have to find a way, those of us who have the ability, to help those who do not have the ability to express themselves.”
Making Wish For You, Moorer says, has also set her free as an artist. “These songs sound like what I think John Henry might like, and they reflect how I feel when I’m with him in our calm and joyous moments,” she says. “They also indicate how little I have to prove as an artist anymore. I’m just grateful to be here and to still be making music, however I’m called to do it.”
The greater message around Wish For You centers around finding acceptance in something that’s not easily understood, like autism. “John Henry has taught me so much about that,” shares Moorer. “We have challenges, but we also have so much joy and so much love, and my intention is that wherever he is accepted and loved and welcomed he goes. I am honored to be his mama, and I’m honored to make music with him.”
On Feb. 11 at 6:30pm, Moorer will celebrate the release of her book and Wish For You with a reading at Parnassus Books In Nashville. Click here for more details.
Photos: Propeller Publicity