Roots Watch: Iris DeMent Returns; Crenshaw & BRox Rock
At the height of the alternative country scare in the mid- to late- nineties, Iris DeMent became one the most revered singers claimed by the field—although you would most likely find her CDs for sale in the folk bins (they had bins in those days), and since she regularly stunned audiences live and on record interpreting classics by the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, and Tom T. Hall, many simply called her “country.” She also wrote songs—seemingly simple, pointed songs alternatively, sometimes simultaneously haunted, questioning, and awestruck—about family, home, memory, faith and justice. She was very good.
If you saw her in concert at the time, you got a hint that maybe there were aspects of the whole “write, record, tour, perform your heart out” routine which she loved a lot less than others; shows occasionally came to a halt with a manifestly vulnerable Ms. DeMent immobilized at the piano, trembling, and supportive audiences trying to be encouraging. And then she caught a lot of apparently unexpected flak for going political on her 1996 album, The Way I Should.
For the sixteen years since then, there’s been no album of new Iris DeMent songs at all; she did release one traditional gospel collection exactly half way along, eight years ago, done smaller shows here and there, recorded with and opened for John Prine. Now the long wait is over: a collection of new DeMent originals, Sing the Delta, is set for release on October 2nd. Having spent time with it, I’m eager to report that it strikes me as a major event, one of most moving releases of this decade. Iris’s singing, on record, has only gotten richer, as nuanced now as it can be nakedly direct, her voice thicker, her range seemingly deeper. (However that’s happened to happen, producers Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett have helped us hear it.) The music spans the American roots spectrum, with a few unquestionably hard country ballads and much of it in the gospel-influenced zone. The remarkably honest, at times heartbreaking songs, all working the classic DeMent themes of memory, expectation, and loss of expectation, make little compromise with pop norms, and some—the title song, “The Kingdom Has Already Come,” and the album closers, evoking her mother and her relation with her (“Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” “Out of the Fire”) are emotional epics that seem destined to be seen as classics.
I was among those privileged to see and hear Iris at a brief but potent fifty-minute pre-release show at the Country Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater on August 11th. Her concentrated intensity at the piano had the audience riveted throughout; I momentarily turned my head and found my wife in tears during DeMent’s performance of “Sing the Delta (Love Song for Me).” There was little chatter between songs, some words of salute for Tammy Wynette, and allusions to her absence (“I was getting pretty good at cooking…”) and “I expected about five of you” to show up, then a change of pace comic duet with Mr. Prine, their patented version of his “In Spite of Ourselves.” Just this for now: When you can hear and buy this album do it. If you get a chance to see her perform these songs, take it.
What’s more: While in New York recently, I caught an exciting pairing that I (among others) wouldn’t have expected, as a Bottle Rockets-Marshall Crenshaw show at the somewhat staid City Winery turned out to be not just the roots rocking alt.country stalwarts opening for the 1980s power pop retro-rocker star, but the “BRox” also becoming Crenshaw’s band. They proved to be so complementary that I hope they get into a recording studio together as fast as possible without crashing into each other on the way through the door. Brian Henneman and company brought muscularity to Crenshaw; he focused them on their more lyrical, pop-influenced side, and then, of course, they all love classic honky tonk. The pairing was especially strong in areas of interest overlap—on Buddy Holly covers, and the Holly-like Richard Thompson number “Valerie,” long covered by Crenshaw, for instance. (The Bottle Rockets’ “Welfare Music” had some sonic similarities to Thompson’s “Time to Ring Some Change;” so there’s no doubt some common interest in that direction, too.) Someone in the crowd caught that one. I’ve since learned that the combined musical polish and vocal harmonizing has developed as they worked together a few places before, St. Louis and Houston among them. Make it official for a project, guys—someday, someway, but soon.
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