Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Way She Had To

By Chris Herrington

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  As a country-folk singer who has converted the essentials of a vanishing white, rural Southern culture into a uniquely personal musical style (and one with a pronounced social dimension at that), Iris Dement is nothing less than the rightful heir to Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. Like Cash, she was born in Arkansas. Like Haggard, she was raised in California. And like both, her cultural origins have bred an independent streak and class consciousness at odds with the prevailing Nashville winds.

There are two other elements to Dement’s music that she shares with Cash and nary another soul in all of Music City: a foundation in gospel music and a phenomenal, immediately recognizable voice.

Gospel music haunts all of Dement’s recordings – it is her sonic and melodic architecture. But her struggle with the belief system of her parents’ old-time religion has been a consistent theme in her work since the first track of her first album. On “Let the Mystery Be,” from 1991’s Infamous Angel, Dement sang, “Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory/And I ain’t sayin’ it ain’t a fact/But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to purgatory/And I don’t like the sound of that.”

“It didn’t disappear [after the family moved to California],” Dement says of her parents’ rural Arkansas attitudes. “It intensified. The world we were stepping into was threatening to my parents, so they withdrew into that culture.”

For Dement, it was like living in her own little Arkansas in the heart of sunny, 1960s California. The gospel music she was weaned on there has been elemental to her own musical development, but the doctrine that went with it was another thing entirely.

“I’m working from what I know, and I was submerged in those sounds,” Dement says. “But when I was about 16, I left the church and was trying to figure out things for myself. I was doing away with the idea of things being sinful. I kept the things [about that religion and culture] that felt true to me and discarded the things that didn’t.”

Infamous Angel was a record for Dement’s mother, who dreamed of singing at the Opry and never got the chance. It ended with the double punch of “Mama’s Opry” and “Higher Ground” – the former Dement’s tribute to her mother and her music, the latter a traditional song featuring vocals by none other than the then-74-year-old Flora Mae Dement.

Her second album, 1994’s wonderful, devastating My Life, was dedicated to her deceased father, who put his fiddle away as a young man because, for him, it represented sin and was incompatible with the responsibilities of shepherding a family. The centerpiece of the album was “No Time to Cry,” a song about the death of her father that Merle Haggard later recorded and that is likely the best song Iris Dement will ever write.

But her most recent album, 1996’s The Way I Should, was for her. More than ever before, The Way I Should found Dement questioning every assumption her beloved rural Arkansas, fundamentalist parents instilled in her, and, more subtly, resisting the genteel expectations of a folk audience that embraced her. The record also unveiled a newfound political bent almost shocking in its directness. The topical songs on The Way I Should – songs about the Vietnam memorial, child abuse, and parental neglect yuppie-style – are the ones you notice first. They jump out because they’re such a departure from the personal/spiritual traditionalism we’ve come to expect from Dement.

But the ones that sneak up on you – the invocation “When My Morning Comes Around”, the sweet election-season kiss-off “I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight,” and, most of all, the hymns to independence and mystery “The Way I Should” and “Keep Me God” – are the ones that stay with you.

The centerpiece of The Way I Should is “Wasteland of the Free,” a litany of sociopolitical complaints that could have come across as silly and didactic, but which Dement transforms into a musical moment that is honestly cleansing. The song’s polemics – from “We got CEOs makin’ 200 times the workers’ pay, but they’ll fight like hell against raisin’ the minimum wage” to “We kill for oil and throw a party when we win” – are the kind of specific political indictments rare in any popular music today, much less country music. Not surprisingly, it can be a frightening song to play in front of a live audience, with no guarantee as to how people will react when unexpectedly confronted with those ideas.

“When the audience is wealthier, to be honest, the reaction is not particularly favorable,” Dement says, “But [in most cases] a certain percentage of the crowd seems to feel this great relief, like the cork’s popping off.”

When, in the song’s opening verse, she spits out, concerning the religious right, “but they don’t look like Jesus to me” the conviction is tangible and delicious. The tone is striking because Dement, even in her most chill-to-the-bone personal songs, has always been relatively reserved and elegant. So when she follows the graceful “and we call ourselves the advanced ci-vi-li-za-tion” with an indignant spit of “but that sounds like crap to me,” we are jarred both by the emancipatory vulgarity of the language and by the tone of disgust in her voice. Dement sounds like she’s been wanting to sing those kinds of words for a long time.

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