Monday, November 19, 2012

"MY LIFE" - The Return of IRIS DEMENT

Most of us hipsters scorn America's "Heartland," and cringe with fear and loathing at the term, which brings up images of Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood paintings, corny sayings stitched on pillows, plastic statues of Jesus and posters of Santa, and a pantry full of white bread to be served to redneck racists. But in the right hands, written and sung by the right voice, elements of "family values" and homespun wisdom become a source of pride and purpose. And we remember that the Heartland is also Lincoln and Sandburg, and Davy Crockett and Walt Disney, and Jimmy Stewart and Red Skelton, and honest people doing a day's work, and good dreams of modesty (a chicken in every pot) and of ambition (a man on the moon). Yes, as Paul Simon sang, "I wonder what went wrong." But there's also Iris Dement, singing about what's right.

Listen via the download below to Iris Dement, and "My Life," a song that seems ages old, but was written in 1994, not 1894. The lyrics have a purity and a clarity and a truth that's just hard to find these days (and wasn't so prevalent in early ages, either). Her voice? It's plain and yet it's beautiful; if some sound engineer added a few clicks and pops, you might swear her recordings were from the Woody Guthrie era of the 30's, when the corn and wheat were covered in dust and the nation was in a Depression…but never lost its spirit.

Iris Dement's early recordings on a small indie folk-oriented label, didn't exactly set the woods on fire, but critics were kind, she was nominated for a Grammy, and old fashioned "word of mouth" helped her become popular on tour. That was most important to her, and still is. She sees herself as a comforting singer…and she didn't even bother to sit own and write more songs and put out "new product" for over a decade. This post is keyed to that new album, "Sing the Delta." It's a good one. In singing about the Delta, and about rural life, and life in general, Iris has managed to reach all kinds of people. Just check her touring schedule. Unlike so many acts in her category of folk, country or "rural" music, she isn't merely performing in the South, or the Bible Belt. Her new tour takes her from Charleston, West Virginia to Berkeley California, to Orlando Florida, to the venerable venue of Town Hall in Manhattan, and to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

That's quite an achievement for someone with one semi "hit" in "My Life," almost a generation ago. That was when she got to be on TV for a while. She brought "My Life" to several programs. She always performed it sitting at a piano, looking very much like an awkward schoolgirl at a recital, hitting the notes with practiced determination and singing in a clear voice. Conan O'Brien was one of those who, having witnessed what he might've thought was just another "singer for the last five minutes of the show," actually came over from his desk and respectfully and sincerely thanked her for her moving performance.

You may have heard another song of hers play in the closing credits of a popular movie. "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" was used by the Coen Brothers for "True Grit." Another rather pithy song of hers, may be known to you not by her version but by the one done by David Byrne and Natalie Merchant: "Let the Mystery Be." And let's have a closing word about her from Merle Haggard: "She's the best singer I've ever heard."

"My Life," your download below, comes from a 1998 Australian radio broadcast. Her new album, freely available on the Internet wherever fine albums are stole'd, is also available for sale on iTunes and at her Iris Dement website.

IRIS DEMENT sings… MY LIFE on Australian Radio 1998

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