Check it out: Singer/Songwriters

Byron Spooner

Check out Iris DeMent’s new record Sing the Delta (2012). She so seldom releases a record—her last album of original songs came out in 1996—that this is one to treasure and appreciate.  Since then her sole output has been a CD of spirituals.  Sing the Delta is an even more personal testament to her faith than that album.

She’s in fine voice and plays a piano to accompany that voice in way that faintly reminds me of how Aretha’s gospel-based pianism underpinned her R & B back in the late ‘Sixties when she was at the top her game (Immerse yourself in This Girl’s in Love with You, Lady Soul, Aretha Now, etc., don’t just settle for the familiar hits.), constantly if not always consciously, reminding the listener of the music’s church roots.

As if to underscore the connection, DeMent’s song ‘If That Ain’t Love’ even references Aretha: I’m driving to the drugstore listening to my radio/And there she is talking to me, the beautiful queen of soul/I pull off on the shoulder, It’s just more than I can stand:/Aretha Franklin singing “Precious Lord Take My Hand.”  The presence of the piano, rather than the usual secular guitar, signals that you’re not being visited by just some other folkie, but by a committed musician who’s unafraid to be honest about herself and her faith, even if that stance is less hip than her audience might expect. In other words, if you’re looking for the bawdy country wench who upstaged all the other guests on John Prine’s duet fest In Spite of Ourselves (1999) you’re going to be disappointed. 

Although she sings in the heavy drawl of a deep Southerner, DeMent lives, with her husband and fellow singer/songwriter Greg Brown, in Iowa.  On the CD’s cover she is photographed looking quite plain—Iowan?—as if by Dorothea Lange, wearing a rough white dress and inhabiting an equally rough-looking, hundred-year-old house like a member of some ascetic Midwestern sect from the Lange era.  The songs sound about a hundred years old, too, in the same way the songs on Music from Big Pink or Love and Theft sound a hundred years old.  The opening song ‘Go Ahead and Go Home’ is about the peace and comfort death promises for the faithful. ‘Home,’ in this case, being where your mama ended up after her demise.  The redemptive theme goes on from there; ‘The Kingdom Has Already Come,’ ‘The Night I Learned How Not To Pray,’ etc. Even the songs that are not overtly religious have a wash of that ole-time across them with land, home, integrity and family the prevailing values.  These are songs you imagine you might run across in an old hymnal somewhere.  Her appeal is similar to Mavis Staples’; one can rely on the stolidity and universality of the values without having to buy into dogma.   This record is quieter than most gospel—and most country for that matter—and played with a calm, contemplative and beautiful self-assurance, again like Mavis Staples, that makes it palatable even to this heathen churl.  The point of these songs is to honor and celebrate a way of living and a way of life, proselytizing would ruin it.

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On the other hand John Hiatt is a sinner beyond redemption.  According to the songs on Mystic Pinball (2012), he’s had some troubles in his day, most of them, but by far not all of them, involving women.  He’s loved a lot of women, lost a lot of women.  He interested less in redemption, for them or himself, than he is in telling the stories of those troubles, which his songs do admirably well, switching among songs of love, lust, loss and depravity.  This is more or less right up my alley in a way Iris DeMent never will be.

In the depravity department, ‘Wood Chipper,’ is about a use for the title appliance very different from the one Iris DeMent and family are presumably putting theirs to out there in Iowa.  The song’s narrator has not only been murdered well before the song opens (a common conceit that goes back to Child and beyond) but completely obliterated along with the yard clippings to boot (which does not) yet he remains, quite extraordinarily, capable of relating the circumstances of his demise.  Hiatt delivers the story with tremendous relish in his strained, weaning-crow caw, triumphant and regretful simultaneously. You often want to suggest a glass of water or perhaps a cup of Throat Coat Tea for him.  Whereas, say,  Dylan’s cords are so shredded at this point that you can not only hear but practically count the polyps, Hiatt’s still have a little flex left in them.  He can still bellow and coo—and even do a fair Warren Zevon-style howl— but he somehow never sounds all together comfortable in his voice.  It is the limitations and strangeness of his voice that create an emotional distance from even his best material; it is an insufficient instrument for the effective delivery of his songs.

Mystic Pinball was recorded with an able band providing loud, Stones-y, if somewhat workmanlike, rock ‘n’ roll.  This makes for a record that is, at best, good.  Bring the Family (1990), his most popular record, featured a crack all-star band comprised of Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass, and Jim Keltner on drums.  He would be wise to consider that fact if he’s interested in reaching a larger audience in the future.  Without a band of that caliber and a more compelling voice to do a little of the heavy lifting, he is forced to rely on the strength of his songs alone to move the sofa, the fridge and the sideboard, which is asking the writing to go perhaps a credenza too far.  His songs have always been, and still are, best heard when covered by others—Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Milsap, the Neville Brothers, Suzy Bogguss have all done good, listenable version’s of Hiatt songs over the years—rather than on recordings under his own name.  Perhaps some of these songs will meet the same happy fate.

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Guy Clark is a Texas singer/guitarist/songwriter who has labored in relative obscurity since his first record came out in 1975, nearly forty years ago.  Well-known to acolytes of the Progressive Country movement (which later morphed into the Outlaw Country Movement) Clark’s renown as a songwriter is wide and deep among his contemporaries.  Most of the hits came from covers by other artists so it seems especially appropriate that This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark (2011) a collection of thirty-three of his songs is sung by thirty different artists.  All the musicians appearing here are known associates or admirers of Clark.  It is a virtual who’s who of alternative country music: John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Ron Sexsmith, Rosanne Cash, James McMurtry, et. al.  All acquit themselves quite ably, rendering Clark’s finely thought out stories and tall tales lovingly, exhibiting the faith each of them has in the power of a good song.  Occasionally a special song and a special artist cross paths and something extraordinary is created, a phenomenon that occurs with a pleasing frequency on this collection.  I’m thinking of Terri Hendrix singing the weirdly beautiful, poetic ‘The Dark,’ filled with childlike delight and adult reflection; a sexy Rosie Flores swinging ‘Baby Took a Limo to Memphis’ sounding like Maria Muldaur at her most kittenish; Radney Foster with a delicate, painful ‘LA Freeway;’ John Townes Van Zandt sounding just enough like his old man to bring tears, doing ‘Let Him Roll;’ Kris Kristofferson, whom I always end up liking more than I expect to, reciting rather singing, ‘Hemingway’s Whiskey’ and sounding a bit like the old boy himself down to the pointless macho pomposity of it all; and Steve Earle’s masterful voice-and-guitar-only version of ‘The Last Gunfighter Ballad,’ which captures the song’s deeply ironic humor and the deadly, dust-in-the-throat seriousness of it all, all within a range of about a half an octave.  There are lots and lots of compilations like this out there, I know, but this one I haven’t gotten bored with yet.  Which is saying something, given my attention span…

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Gen-u-wine country hardass and presumptive heir to Waylon Jennings’ King of the Outlaws crown Jamey Johnson’s new CD, Living for a Song (2012), is a tribute to legendary Nashville songwriter Hank Cochran.  Guesting on the record are such country music graybeards as Ray Price and Bobby Bare; aging rockers Elvis Costello and Leon Russell; a variety of high-toned country stars—Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, Ronnie Dunn and Lee Ann Womack—plus the usual outlaw and outlaw-wannabe suspects Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill and George Strait. (Calling any of these well-ensconced country-music millionaires outlaws at this point should be an embarrassment all around.  These guys are to outlaws as a gang of nine-year-olds ringing doorbells and running are to Bonnie and Clyde.  Anyway…) It’s all duets all the time here and pretty damned predictable duets at that.  Once you get past the first two cuts—‘Make the World Go Away’ originally a enormous hit for Eddie Arnold, and “I Fall to Pieces’ likewise for Patsy Cline—the recognition factor tails off pretty rapidly, especially if you’re not a ravening fan of Fifties and Sixties country pop.  The singing falls off fairly precipitously, too, as the CD progresses.  The utterly timeless Merle Haggard drags one or two more gems out of himself, but for the most part the guests are dialing it in, trying to raise some sand but not quite getting the level of bonhomie up where they want it.  It’s a surprisingly shoddy set of performances especially given the potential everyone in Nashville thinks Johnson has.  In fact, the best song on the CD is Johnson’s solo version of ‘She’ll Be Back’ where he really gets to show off how sensitive he can be with that big baritone of his. Stick with That Lonesome Song (2008) and Guitar Song (2010) to appreciate where his reputation comes from and where his potential lies.

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