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03 February 2003 — Iris

About six years ago, Paul and Amy Jo loaned us an album by Iris Dement, a country singer of sorts. I say "of sorts" because Dement's music is difficult to classify: it's certainly folk or country or bluegrass or spiritual, yet it's none of these. And all of them. Also, Dement's singing voice has a distinctive nasal twang that can be off-putting at first. Kris and I didn't know what to think when we first heard her. With time, Dement's voice grew on us; it's not polished or produced, but it's authentic. (I'm reminded of hearing my grandmother and my cousins sing when I was a child.)

We saw Iris Dement in concert last night. The crowd was largely middle-aged: grey hair and bald heads abounded. Joel and Aimee might have been the youngest couple present. Though the crowd was old, it was plenty enthusiastic.

The show was great.

Dement's voice is just as quirky and powerful in person as it is on record; her recorded sound can be described aptly as unproduced. Dement looks girlish, and she dressed in a plain dress. She took the stage alone, and alternated between a piano and an acoustic guitar, playing songs and chatting with the audience.

Dement writes many of her own songs, and her music and lyrics are deeply rooted in the country tradition, and in the hymns and spirituals her family sang when she was a child. She's been influenced by the Carter family, by The Weavers, by Jimmie Rodgers. Her own music rests comfortably beside these country legends.

Many of Dement's songs are bittersweet paeans to small towns, to family, to childhood. Hers is not music you'd want to listen to while feeling down; to do so would only exacerbate your blues. Not all of her songs are downers, though.

This song is an ode to her mother:

Mama's Opry by Iris Dement

She grew up plain and simple in a farming town.
Her daddy played the fiddle and
   used to do the calling when they had hoedowns.
She says the neighbors would come and
   they'd move all my grandma's furniture 'round.
And there'd be twenty or more there
    on the old wooden floor dancin' to a country sound.
The Carters and Jimmie Rodgers played
   her favourite songs.
And on Saturday nights there was a radio show and
   she would sing along.
And I'll never forget her face when she revealed to me,
That she'd dreamed about singing at the Grand Ole Opry.

Her eyes, oh, how they sparkled when
   she sang those songs.
While she was hanging the clothes on the line,
   I was a kid just a hummin' along.
Well, I'd be playing in the grass, to her,
   what might've seemed, obliviously,
But there ain't no doubt about it:
   she sure made her mark on me.
An' she played old gospel records on the phonograph.
She turned them up loud and we'd sing along,
   but those days have passed.
Just now that I am older it occurs to me,
That I was singing in the grandest opry.

And we sang Sweet Rose of Sharon, Abide With Me,
'Til I ride The Gospel Ship to Heaven's Jubilee.
And In That Great Triumphant Morning
   my soul will be free,
And My Burdens Will Be Lifted when
   my Saviour's face I see.
So I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to this world below,
But I know He'll Pilot Me 'til it comes time to go.
Oh, nothing on this earth is half as dear to me,
As the sound of my Mama's Opry

And we sang Sweet Rose of Sharon, Abide With Me,
'Til I ride The Gospel Ship to Heaven's Jubilee.
And In That Great Triumphant Morning
   my soul will be free,
And My Burdens Will Be Lifted when
   my Saviour's face I see.
So I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to This World below,
But I know He'll Pilot Me 'til it comes time to go.
Oh, nothing on this earth is half as dear to me,
As the sound of my Mama's Opry

"Mama's Opry" is typical of Dement's early songs. Her first two albums are touched with sweet nostalgia and gentle tempos. Her third album disappointed some people. It's more rock-and-roll. It is less about personal introspection than her previous efforts. It embraces a traditional aggressive folk activism as typified by this song:

Wasteland of the Free by Iris Dement

We got preachers dealin' in politics and diamond mines
And their speech is growing increasingly unkind
They say they are Christ's disciples
But they don't look like Jesus to me
And it feels like I'm livin' in the wasteland of the free

We got politicians runnin' races on corporate cash
Now don't tell me they don't turn around and
   kiss them people's ass
Now you may call me old-fashioned
But that don't fit my picture of a true democracy
And it feels like I'm livin' in the wasteland of the free

We got CEO's makin' 200 times the worker's pay
But they'll fight like hell against raisin'
   the minimum wage
And if you don't like it Mister
They'll ship your job to some third world country
   'cross the sea
And it feels like I'm livin' in the wasteland of the free

Living in the wasteland of the free
Where the poor have now become the enemy
Let's blame our troubles on the weak ones
Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy
Living in the wasteland of the free

We got little kids with guns fightin' inner city wars
So, what do we do, we put these little kids
   behind prison doors
And we call ourselves the advanced civilization
But that sounds like crap to me
And it feels like I'm livin' in the wasteland of the free

We got high school kids runnin' 'round in
   Calvin Klein and Guess
Who cannot pass a 6th grade reading test
But if you ask them, they can tell you
The name of every crotch on MTV
And it feels like I'm livin' in the wasteland of the free

We kill for oil then we throw a party when we win
Some guy refuses to fight and we call that the sin
But he's standin' up for what he believes in
And that seems pretty damned American to me
And it feels like I'm livin' in the wasteland of the free

Living in the wasteland of the free
Where the poor have now become the enemy
Let's blame our troubles on the weak ones
Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy
Living in the wasteland of the free

While we sit gloating in our greatness
Justice is sinking to the bottom of the sea
And it feels like I'm livin' in the wasteland of the free

Yes, Dement can be bitter. Very bitter, as evidenced by her cover of "God May Forgive You" (right-click here to download an mp3 of the song -- Mr. Record Company Executive, please don't sue me: I'm trying to sell your music here):

God May Forgive You
by Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock

You say that you're born again,
Cleansed of your former sins
You want me to say "I forgive and forget"
But you've done too much to me
Don't you be touching me,
Go back and touch all those women you've made

Ccause God may forgive you, but I won't
Yes, Jesus loves you, but I don't
They don't have to live with you and neither do I
You say that you're born again, well so am I
God may forgive you, but I won't
And I won't even try

Well, the kids had to cry for you
I had to try to do
Things that the Dad should do
Since you've been gone
Well, you really let us down
You may be Heaven 'bound
But you've left one hell of a mess here at home

'Cause God may forgive you, but I won't
Yes, Jesus loves you, but I don't
They don't have to live with you and neither do I
You say that you're born again, well so am I
God may forgive you, but I won't
And I won't even try

I won't even try

Though Iris is a critical darling, she's never enjoyed much mainstream success. Her voice is unique, and not well-suited to Big Media country radio. Many people were exposed to her (though they might not realize it) when her song "Our Town" was played at the end of the final episode of Northern Exposure.

Dement, the youngest of fourteen children, was born on 05 January 1961 in Paragould, Arkansas, just west of Missouri. Hard times for farmers forced her family to move to California when she was three-years-old. Even an hour from Los Angeles, her life was a rural one: her parents' rural ways were deeply ingrained, and the family lived in a community filled with other transplants from Arkansas and Oklahoma. Music was an integral part to the Dement family.

Her family was also deeply religious -- and this has influenced her music -- but Iris left the organized religion when she was sixteen. She dropped out of school when she was seventeen. Iris moved around, performing odd jobs, and eventually obtained her GED. While taking a creative writing course, she decided that she could write songs. And she did.

She released her first album, "Infamous Angel", on an independent label in 1992. A Warner Brothers executive heard the album and signed her. "Infamous Angel" was given a wider release, and Iris followed it with "My Life" in 1994, and "The Way I Should" in 1996. It has been seven years since Dement released a new album! Unfortunately, at last night's concert, she revealed that she has no plans to release one any time soon.

For more information about Iris Dement, check out these pages:

What are you waiting for? Support a fantastic artist. Purchase Infamous Angel, My Life, or The Way I Should from Amazon! If you're a fan of Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith, Dar Williams (who has a new album due out soon), or the Indigo Girls, then you owe it to yourself to check out Iris Dement.

Comments
On 04 February 2003 (06:06 AM), Paul said:

JD,

We saw her here in Alexandria right before Christmas. It was interesting to notice the crowd's reaction to her; when everyone thought she was this harmless, plain-Jane in a flower print dress singing nostalgic, yet painful songs they were happy. But at the very end, for her encore I think, she said, "Well it's Christmas and were going to have another war...I think we should call one of them off". Then she sang "Wasteland of the Free". You'd think she peed in their cornflakes the way some people reacted. Before she sang "Wasteland" the table next to us was on their feet cheering for an encore but afterward they were silent and indignant. It's a different crowd here than you would see in Portland. I imagine there were people there that worked at the Pentagon, congressional staffers, military, etc. They thought they knew her. They thought she was "one of them" with her Christian allusions but she's not.

I was very happy to see her. There were many times I was almost in tears because her songs are like old friends that I haven't seen in years. You're right her voice is unique. I think her voice is what I like most about her--it's an acquired taste, it grows on you. I thought it too twangy at first but it is so honest you can't ignore or dismiss it.


On 04 February 2003 (07:08 AM), Amy Jo said:

I've seen Iris in concert three times, and every time I see her I like her more and more. It was good to see her in December, and like Paul said, I left feeling like I had visted a good friend whom I hadn't seen in a long time. It was a good feeling. I was lucky to discover her shortly after Infamous Angel was released. She opened for Nanci Griffith at the Fox Theatre and played with Nanci throughout the evening. It was a strange venue to see her in. I had no idea who she was, but I was instantly taken by her plainspoken way of singing. I purchased the album shortly thereafter. The second time I saw her was with Paul at the WOW Hall in Eugene. The intimacy of that space fit her much better. It was also at a time when I was living at home and in the middle of multiple, overlapping family situations (I don't know how to best describe this). My Life had recently been released and it seemed to speak to all the emotions that ruled my life at that moment, especially those tangled up with my feelings about my emerging adult relationship with my parents and siblings. It was a time of great sadness and for some reason, the sadness of that album comforted me. I didn't feel so alone and I could cry when I listend to it.

Amy Jo


On 05 February 2003 (09:31 AM), Kiffin said:

I have never heard of her until now, but after having checked out her homepage and listened to some of her music clips, I will be sure to check her out the next time she is in my part of the woods. Seems like quite a future famous star of sorts I would think...


On 25 March 2003 (09:53 PM), Janice said:

I heard about Iris Dement through my boyfriend - he just loves her voice, lyrics to the songs - especially "wasteland of the free" - I started listening to Iris' songs and really love them, and I enjoy her unique voice. We would love to see Iris in concert, and hope that she will be up in the Vancouver, B.C. area in the future


On 24 January 2004 (03:52 AM), Charlie Blank said:

I loved her voice the very first time I heard it on Austin City Limits. I listened to all her songs I can find. When I'm sad Iris, John Prine, Eric Bogle and Kate Wolf make my spirit vibrate. Her songs and her voice at their best suggest the bitter sweet nature of life, love,loss and sadness,and a poignant sense of the power of nostalgia and memory to fightnobly against the inevitability time's passage. But she is also funny, cute,naughty, a tease and a humane critic of the injustices of life and society. I think of her in the classic American country/folk tradition of say Sarah Carter, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubbs, Jimmy Rogers and John Prine. I have yet to see her in performance, but hope to do so. I am also in that oldster category you describe above (63). But I am more enthusiastic about her voice, her twang and her talent. She is a remakable artist with the rare gift of making the members of her audience connect with their own deep feelings and as one of the writers said above, makes many of us feel less alone in our moments of reflection or sadnees. She deserves the growing admiration and praise she is receiving from her peers and from a growing number of fans.


On 18 February 2004 (05:41 PM), Thomas said:

I am house bound and dearly love to listen to Iris's music while sitting here with my thoughts. Her music is a real blessing to me. For some it doesn't take a lot to do Gods work and so many never know what part of His plan they are playing. God bless you Iris.


On this day at foldedspace.org

2007This Day Would Have Been Enough   In which I have a strange day, but it's all fulfilled by some time at the roller-skating rink.

2006TRACKS MONKEYS WITH LASERS   In which I partake in junk television, watching Beauty and the Geek.

2005The Great Conversation   ln which I argue the greater your familiarity with the classics, the richer your everyday reading experience.

2004Yakima 2004   In which we spend a wonderful weekend in Yakima with the Gingerich family.