Roots Watch: Iris DeMent Returns; Crenshaw & BRox Rock

Barry Mazor | August 22nd, 2012

irisdement

 

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.

 

  1. Leeann Ward
    August 22, 2012 at 8:03 am

    Yay!! I’m very pleased to know that the Iris Dement album is so good. I’m excited to hear it.

  2. Rebecca
    August 22, 2012 at 9:15 am

    16 years?! Lifeline, released in 2004, is on more recent Iris release. It’s beautiful.

  3. Kathy Anderson
    August 22, 2012 at 9:15 am

    really looking forward to hearing the new Iris Dement album. Thank you for writing about it Barry!

  4. Leeann Ward
    August 22, 2012 at 9:56 am

    Rebecca,
    Barry did mention Lifeline as the gospel album that was released eight years ago.

  5. Arlene
    August 22, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Not to sound like People Magazine or anything but as it happens, co-producer Bo Ramsey is Iris DeMent’s son-in-law; she’s married to singer-songwriter Greg Brown, whose singer-songwriter daughter, Pieta Brown, is married to singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer Bo Ramsey. How’d you like to be a fly on the wall at a guitar pull at one of their family gatherings?

  6. Jon
    August 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    Guitar pull at their family gatherings? That one made me chuckle.

  7. Rick
    August 23, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    I purchased the “Infamous Angel” CD when it first came out due to a great article on Iris by Alanna Nash in Stereo Review magazine back in the 1980’s. I was highly disappointed by the recorded sound quality, but the album did contain some stand out tracks. The use of “Our Town” as the closer in the final episode of “Northern Exposure” was perfect.

    I love Barry’s comment: “And then she caught a lot of apparently unexpected flak for going political on her 1996 album, The Way I Should.” I picked up a used copy of that CD for cheapsies back around 2004 and after listening through “Wasteland of The Free” I took the CD out of my car player and smashed it to little pieces. The fact Iris would not expect a reaction proved she had always been surrounded by liberals only and assumed everyone was like that.

    Also, I remember Iris going on stage at a concert in the early 2000’s right after GW Bush had sent troops into Iraq. Iris was so sickened by this turn of affairs she told the audience she was unable to perform. Its a good thing no tomatoes were available or the conservatives in the crowd might have given her a good pelting!

    Speaking of politics, I’ve never been a fan of the Bottle Rockets due to the political correctness of many of their songs. Well that and the lead singer’s crappy voice. On the other hand Marshall Crenshaw was the person who compiled the song list for the excellent “Hillbilly Music, Thank God. Volume 1″ album from Capitol Records. That is one of the best compilation albums I’ve ever acquired, so Marshall earns big brownie points in my book!

  8. Leeann Ward
    August 23, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    Sounds like you might have a rage issue, Rick?

  9. Redd Dirt
    August 23, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    I’ll bet that Rick smashed all of his Hank Jr. CD’s too after he went political..crikey!

  10. Jon
    August 23, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Crikey!

  11. Barry Mazor
    August 24, 2012 at 9:11 am

    As usual, Rick treats us to every puny little angry detail of why he doesn’t like and doesn’t want to hear people, mainly political, utterly oblivious to the simple question, “Who exactly do you imagine is dying to hear volunteered details details on what you DON’T want to hear. It’s like a child’s garden of irritation, with crickeys chirping in the night.

    When you tell us what music you DO want to hear and why, suh, you can be very interesting. Why don’t you just stick to your long suit..instead of needling people into suggesting you just plain stick it.

  12. Arlene
    August 24, 2012 at 11:08 am

    “The fact Iris would not expect a reaction [to "Wasteland of the Free"] proved she had always been surrounded by liberals only and assumed everyone was like that.”

    FYI. Iris DeMent, the youngest of 14 children, was born in Pargould, Arkansas and raised as a Pentecostal Christian.

  13. nm
    August 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Please, Arlene, let’s not encourage Rick to go on any longer about Iris DeMent. I don’t want to hear his opinions about her body, which is where he always goes after politics, with female artists.

  14. Jon
    August 24, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Exactly, Arlene, but Rick’s never been a stickler for the facts.

  15. g j
    September 13, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    16 years since the release of any new, original material. Lifeline was largely covers of tradition songs and just kept her in the game a bit. At least the Coen Brothers picked up on one sonf from it for True Grit last year!

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