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So Hard To Come By

Five years and counting since her last record, Iris DeMent hits the road while her audience waits for the songs.

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Sweet is the melody/So hard to come by/It's so hard to make every note bend just right.

-- "Sweet Is the Melody," from My Life

Easy's gettin' harder every day for Iris DeMent. DeMent rivals Lucinda Williams as the most talented "roots" music artist of her generation, and she's beginning to rival Williams in the dubious field of making fans wonder when (or if) new music will be coming. But while Williams' often titanic length between records is the result of well-chronicled perfectionism, of worrying the songs until she gets them just right, DeMent's cross is that of waiting for songs to appear at all.

Leading off her second album, 1994's My Life, "Sweet Is the Melody" was a lovely, mysterious evocation of this process -- "You lay down the hours and leave not one trace," DeMent complained, before singing, "A note's just a note till you wake from your slumber/And dare to discover a new melody." But she described the process with more plain talk in the liner notes to her next and most recent album, 1996's The Way I Should: "Songwriters talk a lot about 'writing' songs, but it seems to me like I spend most of my time 'waiting' for songs. Writing is just something I do to kill time until they get here. I guess that makes the whole thing sound pretty easy, that is, unless you've spent much time waiting for something, not knowing when or if it will arrive. By the time you get this music the thrill that came with the arrival of these 11 songs will be a memory [to me], and I will have already spent several months killing time waiting for the next song and, no doubt, feeling crazy all over again."

Months have turned to years and now DeMent hits town five years after The Way I Should with no new record in sight. DeMent has kept busy during the wait: She was the feature guest on John Prine's great 1999 duet album, In Spite of Ourselves, and appeared in the recent folk-music film Songcatcher. She's made innumerable guest appearances on other peoples' records and on tribute albums and has toured consistently.

But the new songs still don't appear to be coming: DeMent deflected questions about any plans for a new record while doing publicity interviews for Songcatcher. That project completed, Dement declined interview requests for her upcoming local appearance.

In retrospect, it isn't difficult to understand how The Way I Should would be a hard record for DeMent to follow up: The record feels like the completion of a journey, a breaking-off point that, in its own small way, feels like as searing a bid for independence as John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band. And though he released plenty of music in the interim, it took Lennon nearly a decade to properly follow up that record.

DeMent was one of 14 kids, a janitor's daughter raised in an evangelical environment. She was a 25-year-old high school dropout (with a GED) and pizza parlor waitress in Kansas before she ever wrote a song. She was 31 before she ever toured. Now she's an icon of "traditional" or "folk" music who has turned her gospel-bred sound against organized religion and been interviewed by socialist newspapers. (I imagine Woody Guthrie would be pleased.) It's a highly compelling mix of biography and art -- a mix of progressive politics growing naturally out of traditional, rural, even religious values that mirrors Johnny Cash, or, to a lesser degree, DeMent's most high-profile admirer, Merle Haggard.

DeMent debuted in 1992 on the folk label Philo with Infamous Angel, an all-acoustic collection of traditional-sounding songs that put DeMent across as a safe, respectable NPR folkie, weeping for the loss of Main Street America in "Our Town" and paying tribute to her beloved mother on "Mama's Opry." But that album's first song -- and still perhaps DeMent's signature tune -- hinted at what was to come. "Let The Mystery Be" is an agnostic's hymn so sure and penetrating that it obscures how much its intellectual independence contrasts with the album's traditionalism.

My Life followed in 1994, and DeMent took Infamous Angel's blueprint and perfected it. If Infamous Angel was implicitly her mother's album (even getting her mother to guest on the concluding "Higher Ground"), then My Life was explicitly for her father, who died shortly after Infamous Angel came out and whose story DeMent recounts with great detail in My Life's liner notes. The centerpiece song is "No Time To Cry," about dealing -- or not dealing -- with her father's death, and it's still DeMent's finest moment.

But if Infamous Angel was for Mom and My Life (despite its title) for Dad, The Way I Should was the sound of DeMent finally getting around to herself. Employing a wider range of instruments -- organs, drums, electric guitars -- the album put folkiedom aside. But the record's lyrics were the biggest departure.

The Way I Should was marked by what can only be described as protest songs. And awkward ones too: The Vietnam meditation "There's a Wall in Washington" sounded like something 10,000 Maniacs might have written a decade before. This record's centerpiece was a wide-ranging litany of political complaint with the almost embarrassing title "Wasteland of the Free." In short, the record was a mess but a thrilling one. What a lot of people missed about The Way I Should's political content is that the most important part of it wasn't what DeMent was saying (though there's plenty of righteous truth there) but her need to express it. In theory, it's a punk record -- the sound of someone discovering her voice, discovering the freedom in voicing ideas she isn't supposed to voice. The political songs are a necessary companion to the record's better and more elusive songs of personal freedom -- "I'll Take My Sorrow Straight," "Keep Me God," and, most of all, the title track.

The Way I Should was the sound of DeMent purposefully challenging the expectations of not only her upbringing -- rural, conservative, religious -- but of the audience that embraced her -- urban, liberal, urbane. DeMent had previously been a comfortable example of Quality and Authenticity -- serving the same purpose for her audience that the same audience later found in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Now here she was railing against the rich on "Quality Time" and "Wasteland of the Free."

It was a brave move for DeMent and not without consequences. During an interview I had with her a couple of years ago, she admitted being aware of what kinds of audiences might respond to the new songs in what ways. I saw her soon after the record's release at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis -- the land of Prairie Home Companion -- performing before the kind of upscale, liberal audience that gave her a career, and she avoided "Wasteland." Visibly nervous, she did tell a story about walking down the streets of downtown Minneapolis earlier that day and seeing a punk kid with a Mohawk and piercings and the works and made a point of telling everyone how much she admired his confidence and individuality.

A couple of years later, at the Hi-Tone Café before a packed, adoring, and decidedly less genteel crowd (DeMent didn't play until about 9:30 and the club was at capacity three hours before that), DeMent played the song.

According to some recent reports, "Wasteland of the Free" has been removed from her playlists since September 11th. This is understandable, not just because the patriotism police are sure to frown on anything remotely negative or questioning about life in these united states. But it's still a shame, because recent events certainly shouldn't take economic justice (among other of the song's subjects) off the table as a legitimate issue in this country.

When the demure DeMent sings the song ("Who else could intimate raging obscenity by putting the words 'ass,' 'crap,' and 'damn' in the same song?" Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote), it sounds like she's finally discovering herself, like the journey from being Flora Mae and Patric Shaw DeMent's daughter to being her own person is finally complete. It's no wonder it's taken Dement so long to commence the next chapter.

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

Iris DeMent

The Bartlett Performing Arts Center

Friday, November 9th


Local Beat

by CHRIS HERRINGTON

Pat Alger
The Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission begins its third week in the TV business this Friday. The commission has partnered with WREC-TV Channel 3 to produce a weekly segment titled Memphis Music Scene, which airs as part of the 4:30 p.m. news on Fridays and then repeats throughout the weekend. According to music commission president Jerry Schilling, the idea has been a year in the works, with its genesis as an idea that the commission took to Channel 3, whose anchor and segment host Alex Coleman has worked with the commission in the past. Memphis Music Scene is a mix of taped segments and live interviews with Coleman and Schilling. The debut segment, on October 26th, focused on the opening of Isaac Hayes' new downtown club. Last week's segment spotlighted Ardent Studios and successful producer Paul Ebersold. Channel 3 produces the segments, with input from the commission. This week's segment hadn't been finalized as of press time, but Schilling says that future subjects could include the Soulsville development, the city's hip-hop and rap scene, gospel and Christian music, MADJACK Records, the North Mississippi Allstars and Jim Dickinson, the commission itself, and a look at area music venues.

The board of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) recently approved a $650,000 settlement to resolve sexual assault and battery charges against the nonprofit organization's chief executive, C. Michael Greene, who has a noted history of working with the Memphis chapter, particularly in the failed bid to land a Grammy museum here. The regional NARAS branch headquartered here declined comment on the matter.

The relatively new Club 152 on Beale has an interesting event scheduled this week. Accomplished country songwriters Tony Arata, Pat Alger, Kent Blazy, and Kim Williams will be performing at the club on Thursday, November 8th. All of the performers have written or co-written songs recorded by Garth Brooks, and Alger and Blazy rounded up these songwriters for their own takes on the Brooks-identified songs on the recent and surprisingly decent album In The Beginning: A Songwriter's Tribute to Garth Brooks. Tickets to the show are $15 at the door, with all profit going to the band instrument recycling program Play It Again Memphis.

Due to a new distribution agreement between their label Tone-Cool and Artemis Records, the new North Mississippi Allstars record, 51 Phantom, has seen its release pushed back for a second time. The new record is now scheduled to drop on Tuesday, December 4th.

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