Archive for January, 2013

Iris Dement article in the Demazette – 1/27/13

January 27, 2013

Hallelujah and humanity define talented DeMent

When it all goes dark and I start losing vision … I gotta go back to telling my truth.
— Iris DeMent, “Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth”

Sometimes we make too much of tenuous connections. That the singer-songwriter Iris DeMent was born and lived her first three years near Paragould hardly makes her worth celebrating as a favorite daughter. What makes her worth celebrating is a fierce, calm talent marked by intelligent and compassionate detachment from what most of the people who remark on such things would regard as an exotic — or at least primitive — upbringing.

More than in Arkansas, DeMent was raised in Pentacostalism, a faith she followed as a teenager in California and whose traditions inform her to this day. She was the youngest of 14 children and was involved with the church and its music from her beginning in it. But if the stereotypical pop culture story is that of rebellion against one’s fundamentalist upbringing, DeMent’s work is gentler and more empathetic. Pentacostalism is about being touched by the Holy Spirit, about the experience of feeling intimately connected with something larger. This, coupled with a plainspoken respect for common humanity, has always been the foundation of DeMent’s songwriting. (See her wonderful skeptic’s hymn from her debut album Infamous Angel, “Let the Mystery Be.”)

After a couple of wellregarded singer-songwriter records in the early ’90s, De-Ment collaborated with John Prine on a duets album in 1999, but has been mysteriously silent until October. That’s when she released Sing the Delta, a deceptively deeprunning cycle of songs about the Arkansas Delta and her family. It was the first album of new material she has released in 16 years and it has been hailed by the tastemakers at National Public Radio and No Depression as one of 2012’s best albums.

And it is, in its unfussy, direct way.

You might have to listen to it a couple of times to understand exactly how special it is. You have to listen to the language, not just the singing; to the complex ideas expressed in simple words amid the soft stumbling drums and blocked-out piano figures.

Most of the time, it doesn’t pay to listen hard to lyrics.

And that’s OK, maybe that’s the way it ought to be. Even as careful a writer as Paul Simon gets annoyed when people write about music like it’s English literature. Bob Dylan is no more a poet than he is a second baseman, and you can be forgiven for not attending to the words of Bruno Mars or Steve Miller.

Still, if you can listen casually to Sing the Delta, you might come away thinking it’s but a slight and shiny thing, a traditional-sounding record that starts off with stately, syncopated Randy Newmanesque 19th-century piano chords and ends with a waltz-time eddy of piano, steel guitar and accordion. In the intervening 55 minutes or so, DeMent’s singular voice — a piercing instrument, a silver needle — laces through, sunlight glinting off its shaft, finding a sweet spot between Dolly Parton’s soprano quaver and Lucinda Williams’ slurry alto twang. You might find it pleasant, you might not be thoroughly moved.

But listen again to the fourth track, “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray” and attend to the narrative riding light atop the convoy of “Harper Valley PTA” -esque seventh mandolin chords:

I was laying on my belly,
on the middle of the living room floor
I was watchin’ Howdy Doody,
so I’m guessing it was right around four
When I saw my baby brother,
tumblin’ from the top of the stairs
He was lyin’ limp and silent,
and the blood was drippin’ through his shiny hair ….
Well I prayed into the evening,
never even took the time to have a bite
I was sure if I prayed hard enough,
that God would make it right
We were at the kitchen table long past bedtime,
when we finally got that call
And I knew that it was over when my sister,
slammed that phone against the wall
That was the night I learned how not to pray,
God does what God wants to anyway …

DeMent smuggles a devastating, sketched-from-life story into the album on the back of what may be the most country radio-friendly melody she has ever written (she used a similar strategy on 1996’s ambitious and overwrought “Wasteland of the Free”). It’s a shocking, marvelous song that feels autobiographical. (It’s not quite — it’s not DeMent’s story but that of a childhood friend.) And it quite simply lays out the case against a benevolent God with His eye on the sparrow without histrionics. It is honest, and it hurts.

Elsewhere there are memory plays that stand as tributes to family, to decency, to the little heroes whose works — whose acts of grace — occur in small houses in poor towns, behind screen doors, out of sight of anyone except maybe the God who does what He wants anyway.

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