Had things gone the way his original record label had planned, Ian Moore could have easily coasted down that long, narrow highway which these days one might as well call Kenny Wayne Lane. By the time he cut his self-titled debut album for Capricorn in 1993, Moore had already served a year in Texas Guitar College (a.k.a. the Joe Ely Band). He had all the hot blues licks down pat, a soulful voice and a full mane of straight dark hair to boot. In short order, he was opening for ZZ Top and the Rolling Stones. At twenty-one, Moore was a bona fide guitar hero.
And for the most part, he hated it.
He hated his debut, from the slick production on down to his still unrefined songwriting, and hated the spirit-breaking battle he fought with his label, Capricorn Records, over the direction of his second album, 1995's Modernday Folklore
. "I knew things were going to come to a head because they were selling me as something I wasn't, and I wasn't happy and they weren't happy with the direction I was going," Moore says. "There were a couple of times on the Stones tour when I was on stage going, 'I'm going to have a rough
couple of years.' I knew it."
The crux of the problem lay in Capricorn's eagerness to build Moore up as a southern blues rocker. "I think they would have been just happy as shit to hear me do the Allman Brothers 2000," Moore says, shaking his head -- the mane long-since chopped down to a tight buzz cut. "I hate
the fucking Allman Brothers. I mean, no offense, but I'm not a southern rock fan." And though he readily admits to loving Texas guitar, he chaffed at the often-cliched confines of the roadhouse blues genre. "I like guitar rock, but to me guitar rock is interesting stuff, it's not gratuitous soloing. You go down to Austin, or even New York, and there's fifty guys doing that," he continues. "Playing blues guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan is fucking easy -- I could teach you how to do it in six months. It was hard for him
, because he invented his style. But now it's just a step above hack country. I'll tell you what's hard -- playing Elliott Smith's guitar parts."
He goes on with the list of the unconventional guitarists -- and artists -- he most admires: Radiohead, Chris Whitley, Jeff Buckley, Neutral Milk Hotel, the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and his "mentor," maverick songwriter Terry Allen. It's a list that speaks volumes about the music he's been able to freely pursue since leaving his former deal. Moore's first post-Capricorn album, 1998's self-released Ian Moore's Got the Green Grass
, was an unabashedly eclectic rootsy collection that found him largely eschewing electric guitar leads for turns on bazouki, balaika, sitar, and above all else, serious melodic songwriting chops. He's brought the guitar back to the forefront for his new Koch Records debut, All the Colors
, but when he solos, it's for the sake of the song, rather than vice versa.
Moore's maturity as a songwriter was in evidence as early as his second album, which kicked off with the devilishly clever single "Muddy Jesus." The blistering guitar-work wasn't too far removed from the AOR mold he was still trying to break free of, but the lyrics recast the New Testament on the Mexican border: "Mother Mary said your time has come . . . For the love of God and every man/Jesus cross the Rio Grande." On All the Colors
, that keen originality remains intact (one song features a floating Johnny Cash brandishing an electric Bible), but the straight-up blues remain only in spirit or in the soulful shades of his voice, with his guitar exploring areas more supernatural than primal. "My primary goal in playing guitar," he admits, "is to make it sound like a sitar."
He's also picked up the violin again, an instrument he started playing at age six. Further supplemented by a band that includes Terry Allen's son Bukka on organ, Wurltzer and toy piano, All the Colors
is a richly textured modern rock album with deep, twisted roots.
"I think sonically I'm just trying to develop kind of a gothic darkness," Moore says. "Like a Flannery O'Connor feel, that shadowy thing of the South that you see like in New Orleans, with the kudzu vines covering everything. There's a density that I wanted to grab."
His only regret with the album, he explains, is that it's not more schizophrenic. "I'm a little bit disappointed this one's not all over the place," he says. "But it's probably good for my career, because most people don't like albums like that. I do. I like 'The White Album' -- that's what I want to make." Thanks to a Beck-worthy deal with Koch that allows him to release albums on his own imprint label, Hablador, Moore at least has the freedom now to further explore that pursuit. How far his established fan base will follow him down such flights of fancy remains to be seen, but Moore is optimistic that most of those still with him are up to the task.
"I have some people that became my fans because of maybe a rock single like 'Muddy Jesus' or 'How Does it Feel,' but we shed those people pretty quick," he says, laughing. "They realize that this is not the guy who's going to play all the hit songs -- he does his own thing, and they stop coming to our shows. We still have a few stragglers who go, 'Oh, God, why won't you play 'How Does It Feel?,' but that's not the general following that I deal with."
The heart of that following remains in the music mecca of Austin where Moore first came into his own, even though he's since moved to an "artist community" on a small island near Seattle. "Austin's a very loyal town," he says. "Everything's so slow to change in Austin, so once they like you, you're in forever. And even if some of them didn't like what I was doing, there's a whole new group of people that have become my fans because they realize that I have had all these struggles and that my music has been my music and not anybody else's, especially on these last few records. That's something I learned from Joe Ely and Terry Allen. It definitely made the road a little bit more crooked, but I'm a lot more proud of the stuff I'm doing."
Written by RICHARD SKANSE for RollingStone.com News