In the music press, it was Allison Moorer’s big sister, Shelby Lynne, who was the bee’s knees last year. Lynne’s surprising resurrection after years of major-label mediocrity made for good copy, and My Name Is Shelby Lynne (Island) was admittedly a great record–but it couldn’t hold a candle to Moorer’s nearly perfect and sadly ignored The Hardest Part (MCA), the best mainstream country record I heard all year. Of course, just because a record is released by the Nashville division of a major label doesn’t mean it sounds mainstream, and Moorer’s album didn’t get the necessary radio play–it had way too much personality. The songs, all originals written with her husband Doyle Primm, address sticky romantic situations with heartstring-tugging depth–and without the requisite happy endings offered by automatons like Faith Hill and Shania Twain. Made with a cast of excellent sidemen, including Buddy Miller (see separate Critic’s Choice) and ex-Wilco guitarist Jay Bennett, The Hardest Part is a masterful and cohesive survey of rock-informed country styles: the title track, a frank, straight-up honky-tonk meditation on the enduring pain of memory, features the killer lines “The hardest part of living is loving / ‘Cause loving turns to leaving every time / And the hardest part of leaving is living”; “It’s Time I Tried” is country soul swaddled in strings a la Dusty Springfield’s famous Memphis sessions; “Think It Over” is hooky country rock; and “No Next Time” features twangy, tidied-up Crazy Horse-style guitar soloing. Moorer plays two intimate shows here; Sally Timms opens the first and Bennett opens the second. Sunday, September 16, 7 and 10 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marina Chavez.