Iris Dement – Homespun of the Brave
Even so, DeMent stresses that gospel music still matters to her deeply, both personally and artistically. “The thing I picked up on as a kid, and that I still sense in those older gospel songs, is just a lot of sincerity. People had struggles, they had a lot of problems. Most of the people who wrote those songs came from poorer settings where they were really struggling with life, and you hear that in the songs. That’s the quality in them I’m drawn to…not the religious dogma. It’s just that sense you can get from them that they were written for the right reasons.
“Also, I have so many good memories wrapped up with singing with my family and at the church, and I’m not willing to leave those behind. I don’t, however, sing gospel songs that have ideas I just flat out don’t believe. I won’t sing the more extreme ones about hell because I don’t believe it. But there’s a lot of them that have really comforting concepts in them, and encouraging concepts, and I like that, so I go ahead and sing them.”
Since Infamous Angel, the earnest, stripped-down country gospel of DeMent’s youth has become closely associated with her music, which is yet another reason why The Way I Should is such a brave record. Besides tackling taboos such as religion, sex and politics, DeMent’s new disc has a bigger, more atmospheric sound that, on at least a couple of occasions, is nothing short of rock ‘n’ roll. Produced by Randy Scruggs, the album pairs DeMent’s music for the first time with a full, plugged-in band (including sidemen Steuart Smith on guitar, Chuck Leavell on organ, and Dave Pomeroy on bass, in addition to special guests including Mark Knopfler and Earl Scruggs). The result is a record that not only sounds nothing like what people expect to hear from Iris DeMent, but nothing like what people expect out of Nashville.
“In the middle of my last record, I knew I was bored,” DeMent recalled. “I remember saying to myself, ‘Next time around I have to do something different.’ And it really didn’t stem from the desire for my records to change or anything. It was more that I just was bored. I wanted to be in a different environment, and I know that a lot of that difference comes with a different producer.
“So when Randy and I decided to work together, he asked me, ‘Is there anything that you don’t want to do on this record? Do you want it to be acoustic, are you against drums?’ And my answer was, I’m not against anything. If it sounds right, if it works, I don’t care if we have half a dozen horns on there. I just want the songs to be treated totally without limitations….I just want to have a good time and be free the same way I am when I’m in my room writing a song.
“We did the album in four days with the same group of players. Then we spent a couple of weeks bringing in special guests and mixing and overdubbing — the finishing touches did take a while. But most of it was live, a group of people in a room. We talked about the songs, and we played ’em.”
One of the new songs recorded in this fashion, the delicate “This Kind Of Happy”, was co-written with Merle Haggard, the man who, at least in part, inspired DeMent to try a bigger band in the first place. After contributing a version of Haggard’s “Big City” to the 1994 HighTone Records album Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute to Merle Haggard, DeMent gathered in San Francisco with other artists on the record to perform before Merle himself took the stage.
“I got to get up and sing with the Strangers,” DeMent beams, like she still can’t believe it. “I did ‘Big City’ and ‘Hobo Bill’s Last Ride’. And that was the first time I’d been onstage with a full band behind me, and a really good band at that, and I really liked it. That was it for me. That experience probably had a lot to do with the sound of this record and the fact that I want to go out with a band now. It was just one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.”
She also got to meet Merle that night, beginning a relationship that has now spawned a Haggard recording of DeMent’s “No Time To Cry” [on his 1996 album] and a brief touring companionship. “I went out [with Haggard] for two weeks. I just had a little electric keyboard. You know, I’m not a Stranger-quality player. It was really just a thing that Merle offered me to do. I think he…just knew that it would be a great experience for me to follow him around. And I knew that it would be too.”
DeMent’s stylistic shift seems especially appropriate in light of her new album’s sweeping, socially conscious vision. Buoyed by swelling organ fills and gospel imagery, the disc’s opening track, “When My Morning Comes Around”, is a prayer of healing from a narrator who yearns for a day when she “won’t be thinkin’ there’s something wrong with me/And I’ll wake up and find that my faults have been forgiven” — and she’s not necessarily willing to wait for heaven to find that moment of grace. The electric ebo that frames “There’s A Wall In Washington” recalls the eerie chop of a military helicopter, even as it seems to be comforting the pain of those left tracing names in “cold black granite.” Behind a full band, “Wasteland Of The Free” is transformed from Woody Guthrie-esque folk to an all-out rock ‘n’ roll anthem of what America needs to heal, to change.
It’s the connection between healing and change that ties the new album together thematically. Heard in isolation, the piano-driven “I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight” simply sounds like a woman demanding the truth from a departing lover. But after making the pilgrimage to the Vietnam War Memorial and taking a tour of the “Wasteland Of The Free”, and after the prayer for peace that opens the record, “I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight” delivers a more significant message: The way to heal pain and to work for change is to toss out the rose-colored glasses and look ghosts straight in the eye.
“‘The Wall In Washington’ is trying to get people to ask questions,” DeMent explains. “First of all, to actually talk about the pain and the huge loss, which often takes a back seat. And then to try to get the next generation to reflect and ask, ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘Cause if you don’t do that, then how are you going to make a good decision when your time comes? And the whole idea of ‘Wasteland’ is: Here’s what I see as a problem; now let’s fix it.
“I hope with this album that it will just cause people to think and to talk. I don’t really care if they agree with what I say, but I think it’s really important for people not to forget how important it is just to think, and to look at the other guy’s side.”
The album’s closer, “Trouble”, has DeMent trading vocals with Delbert McClinton in a bluesy, juke-joint workout (“Ain’t that old-timey,” Iris declares as the music fades) that predicts the offended reaction some will have to her new record. “They’re building prisons for people like you and me,” she sings with a newfound roughness that only adds to the lonesome and sweet quality her voice has always possessed.
Then she lets fly with a shouted “Yeaaaah!” It sounds like a healing that’s been a long time coming, as if she knows what troubles lay ahead but won’t let that keep her from speaking her piece. Like the conscientious objector in “Wasteland Of The Free”, she’s just standin’ up for what she believes in. She’s singing her heart out. Loud and clear.