Pure Heart, Pure Voice
Iris DeMent favors short, uncomplicated words; you canread the lyric sheet to her recent second album, My Life, and rarely run across anything syllabically bulkier than "celebration" or "reminisce." You're more likely to find yourself drawn to the simple profusion of "sorry" and "still" and "daddy" and "battled" and "weary" and "wishes." Over the phone, she speaks the same way: simply, without pretension, in a voice that's unmistakably Southern but nowhere near the twangy, trembling drawl she applies to her records.
The renaissance of traditional styles of country music, following on the economic tails of its monstrous Uncle Garths and Aunt Rebas, has had its most notable expression through honky-tonk and blues-oriented country artists like Junior Brown and Billy Joe Shaver. The outlaw and virtuoso models are having their comeback. But DeMent, as traditional in her way, comes into country on the road that leads back to gospel and traditional folk.
"There's been this handful of people that I've really liked and absorbed myself in," she says. "Some of my favorite people are Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris. There's a lot of other people that I like too, but I've listened to those a lot. I have a Joni Mitchell record, believe it or not, that I've worn the grooves out in. Blue. Junior high. I listened to that one a lot of times." She's also drawn sustenance from the familial taproot of American country music, the Carter Family. My Life contains a gorgeously rendered version of the Carters' prayer "Troublesome Waters" sheltered amongst its originals.
But it's DeMent's voice, more than that one choice of cover, that recalls the style of the Carter sisters. It's dramatic, with the same sort of tremulous virtuosity that Dolly Parton long ago carried over the top into melodrama. Bluegrass singer Alison Krauss has something of the same quality, differently applied, but other than that, DeMent's instrument carries an almost unequaled purity. She soars it over a not-very-complicated framework of country-ish folk and folky country strumming and finger picking that, unobtrusive as it is, takes a solid back seat to the singerÕs tone and the songs she writes. Like most memorable country music, DeMent's songs are written close to home and heart, in straightforward narratives that rely on directness and detail for their depth. There's nothing fancy going on in DeMent's songs, but there's a lot.
The tune presently getting the most attention is "No Time to Cry," a clear-eyed, unsentimental remembrance of events following the recent death of her father. "And there's just so many people trying to get me on the phone," read the lyrics, "and there's bills to pay and songs to play and a house to make a home / I guess I'm older now and I've got no time to cry."
"I just had a feeling," says DeMent now, "and the song came quickly and I sat down and wrote it, and it seemed to cure something for me. I felt better when I was done. It's pretty simple and straightforward in my mind. I've never spent much time thinking about my songs. Writing for me isn't an intellectual thing, so it's sort of odd to spend a lot of time talking about it afterwards. Usually I write a song because I feel a need to, and when I'm done, the need is gone. At the same time it is flattering that people are interested in you enough to ask you what you think about things."
It's not just journalists, though it's certainly us as well, who want to talk to DeMent about her songs. It's not at all uncommon for fans to greet her after a show with some personal anecdote or sympathetic remembrance. "People often identify with a song and tell me very interesting stories about their own lives. I get a lot out of it," she says.
But if DeMent's voice is special, and if her songs appeal on an especially personal level, the way she's started to get that voice and those songs out in front of an appreciative audience are as normal as Nashville. DeMent grew up in a hyper-musical family with a father who had almost mythically given up the fiddle when he got saved (DeMent tells the story in a frank autobiographical liner note) and older siblings who played instruments and wrote songs. DeMent didn't start writing her own songs until age 25, but when she did, she knew she'd found her calling.
"When I started writing songs, before I ever took them out and played them for anybody, I knew that I had found what it was I'd been looking for for a long time. So there was never any doubt in my mind. It was probably the one thing in my life that I just immediately knew was right. That doesn't mean it was easy for me, because I still got really nervous, and I went through my periods of having doubts about myself, and I still do go through those, but there's always this thing in me where my music's concerned that I feel that it's what I'm supposed to do, and that hasn't disappeared. That always was there for me."
That certainty alone is a luxury most folks would put up good money to hold, but it doesn't get you signed to Warner Brothers, and DeMent served her time as the quintessential Nashville hopeful, holding down the obligatory day job as an office temp and playing open-mike nights around the city. "The first few times -- well, actually, the first year -- of just going out and standing up in front of people and playing your music, for me at least, was pretty scary. When I think back on it, playing in front of five people at an open mike seven years ago was much more difficult than standing in a theater and playing to 1,000."
Before DeMent got on a stage in front of a thousand people, though, she released her debut Infamous Angel on independent Rounder Records, and watched Warner Brothers pick up the record's distribution after a groundswell of favorable response. The attention tried to change her life -- you can hear it in that lyric about those people trying to get her on the phone when she should be grieving -- but has apparently failed. She's touring the country with her guitar and her husband/manager in a rent-a-car. It's not a fancy set-up, but DeMent's not much for the star trip. More the sort who says she's considering the possibility of doing some more temp work come winter -- not for the money, and not, she emphasizes, because she doesn't love her present job, but just for the hell of it. "Just for a change of pace. I think it would be interesting."
DeMent has tried to keep her life, like her songs, simple. "I hate to sound boring, but I'm basically just out playing a lot, and when I'm done I'll be at home cleaning house a lot and sitting around, and doing not much of anything. I like to live a normal life, just doing normal things around the house, working on my music as I feel like it ... yeah, I like home life."
But with all the attention, of course, has come the normal conflicts between corporate product mentality and honest artistic motives.
"Where my music is concerned, I do definitely try to keep a distance from certain things. I feel like music is a spiritual thing, and I feel like it should be protected, or that it should be maintained, and if I have to sort of put a fence around myself, musically speaking, in order to preserve that, then I will, and I have done that at different times."
That's a rare ability -- as anyone who's scanned the radio dial lately will tell you -- and DeMent attributes what she has of it to the same sort of rootsy traditions that flow through her music.
"I think a lot of it is just having a picture of what it is I want to do and not letting other people steer me in an opposite direction. Most people that I've affiliated myself with have been supportive of what I'm trying to do. But there have been times from the beginning where I've had to push to maintain what it was that felt right to me. I would say that if I have that, I probably got that from by dad, to tell you the truth, because that's the kind of person he was, in every way, in his life. He was stubborn." And then, thinking on what she's just said, adds, "Stubborn, that's the right word. The old-fashioned one."
Iris DeMent performs at 9 p.m., Wednesday, September 21, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Sarah Elizabeth Campbell opens. Tickets cost $8. Call 869-COOL for info.
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