When you reflect back on many of the country music greats, they were people who seemed to be birthed right out of the country itself. Their very molecules come from the same earth that the coal dust and the pine needles and the hardwood smoke that imbibe and permeate their songs did. Iris Dement is one of those artists, a genuine product of America’s rural textures, and a country music great despite the 16-year hiatus between albums of original material maybe causing a momentarily lapse in memory of her brilliance.
Iris Dement is an incarnation of the nexus between the traditional rural American upbringing, and modern American skepticism. Born in Paragould, Arkansas as the 14th child of her father and 8th of her mother, she was brought up in a Pentecostal household full of gospel music. Just as important, the family moved to Los Angeles when Iris was 3, setting the table for a life full of contrasting ideologies and varying influences. This strange crux where a young, impressionable girl brought up to see the line between right and wrong, but raised in a world built to blur those lines, is like the little warm Fox den in a rain storm where Iris’s music goes to nestle.
Sing The Delta speaks to that internal war still smoldering inside Iris, where the principles and ideals embodied in religious doctrine are still very much alive in her being, yet the idea of devoting to an entity that science has no answer for, and whose name is used to enact untold destruction, are very much at war. She might be the most religious/non-religious woman in country music. As she says in the song, “The Kingdom Has Already Come:”
Stopped into the church to pray. It was the middle of the day. And I don’t even know if I believe in God.
I laid my soul on the table. And I left that place believing I was able. To open the curtains my fears had drawn.
The next song on Sing The Delta is titled, “The Night I Learned How Not To Pray.”
Iris Dement’s singular contribution to country music is her genuinely-Southern, ethereal voice that she commands with an easy, effortless confidence. Put her right up there with the Loretta’s, and Emmylou’s, and Parton’s when it comes to the potency of her singing, and the demands for it to be put on albums as far ranging as Ralph Stanley’s Ridin’ That Midnight Train to Josh Turner’s Punching Bag. Her singing may have never been sweeter than what is displayed on Sing The Delta, with an approach to the music that allows it to shine, especially on the second track “Before The Colors Fade” where the lack of a true bridge or chorus allows Dement’s words and vocal accentuations to breathe and bloom.
The hardest thing for a singer / songwriter to do is to write to their vocal strengths. Iris Dement and Sing The Delta is a case study on how to execute this feat near flawlessly. She is a piano player first, and this brings a whole other layer of uniqueness to her approach to country music. She’s no Jerry Lee, “Pig” Robbins, or Earl Poole Ball, but to accompany her rising, angelic, Gospel-inspired voice with piano gives it that classic, neo-traditional church house feel without having to infuse it with excessive chorus or reverb.
Iris Dement’s voice, her songs, her style, it is all there ripe for being regaled long-term in the halls of country music greatness. It’s her moderate output, and possibly her politics that were evident especially on her 3rd album, 1996’s The Way I Should, that keep her name far from the tip of our tongues when talking about our generation’s greatest country singers. In Sing The Delta, Iris strikes a great balance of expressing her ideologies and doubt, while not allowing them to get in the way of some sincere storytelling and simple, honest song craft.
To a contingent of the orthodox country crowd, Iris Dement will probably continue to be considered a more folky, leftist, prototypical Steve Erle-esque “alt-country” protest singer. But that prejudice will keep them from one of our generations greatest female voices, and some of its best songs; all of which are in full evidence on Sing The Delta.
Two guns up!
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