Ain't that Americana: Iris DeMent at the AstraMarch 19, 2019
By SCOTT SAALMAN
I’ve enjoyed a few stadium shakers in my time, most notably Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band and U2, each show nothing short of a rock and roll religious experience. The Boss. Bono. Amen.
But it’s the anti-arena acts on the smaller stages that consistently stir my song soul the most, usually artists of the Americana ilk, singer-songwriters who might lack household name status but whose careers are widely-acclaimed by both professional peers and music critics alike.
Americana is a melting pot of music genres — folk, gospel, country, roots rock, bluegrass — that blessedly evades the chlorinated chart-topping music mediocrity of the current mainstream and leads us down the streamlets and cricks into deeper and wilder musical waters where the most human of song-writers dwell and the heartbeat of humanity most reveals itself.
Here are a couple of female Americana artists whose shows have stirred my soul. If they aren’t on your radar yet, I hope I can help change that.
A favorite music memory of mine happened at the 2,300-seat Ryman Auditorium at the end of a Gillian Welch show when she and partner David Rawlings returned for a final encore, requesting the lights and sound be killed while they covered the country classic, “Long Black Veil.”
Welch, always hypnotic to watch and listen to, stood at the front edge of the darkened stage, a skirted-and-booted specter in the hallowed historic hall, and softly delivered her “hills and hollers” voice, conjuring up the spirits of Cash and Hank and Patsy as we breathlessly stood from our pews, felt our arm hairs standing straight, and leaned our goose-bumped bodies forward to better hear and see our unplugged, unlit, daring, darling duo.
Half the audience had exited during the earlier encores to beat the downtown Nashville post-concert traffic, making this final encore experience even more intimate.
See Welch when you can. In the meantime, as a primer, listen to her “Time (The Revelator)” album; “I’ll Fly Away” and “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” from the “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack; and “Look At Miss Ohio.”
Gillian Welch. Me oh my oh!
No matter what day I listen to this Arkansas angel’s song voice, it always feels like a Sunday. Hearing an Iris DeMent song find its way to the top of my playlist is something akin to divine intervention.
I saw Iris solo a few years ago at the 600-seat Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington, where she graced the ivories of a baby grand, her unique voice nothing short of sweet honey in the rock.
She sang heavenly — the gravitas of her performance nailing me to my balcony seat without protest as if a willing rider on a rapturous gravity storm — and she was funny as hell with the audience in between songs.
Iris’ high-lonesome sound reminds me of female country music greats from the 1960s, with a heaping helping of gospel goodness sprinkled in for good measure. Her songs are sonorous comfort food, Sunday dinners for the ears. Merle Haggard called her “the best singer I’ve ever heard.”
Though the college-town theater was nearly sold out, Iris still made the show seem like an intimate living room experience.
Speaking of intimate shows, in the early 1990s, I once watched Tori Amos play her new Bosendorfer for the first time in an empty, dark West Baden piano factory. Her manager Arthur, a piano company employee, and I were held spellbound on a Saturday morning while the soon-to-be superstar with the otherworldly red hair straddled the piano bench, froze her hands over the keyboard for a few serious silent seconds, like a medium conjuring the piano’s spirit, awaiting a portal, permission to play. Soon live Tori Amos songs echoed within the factory walls, a girl and her new piano now as one on a factory floor, global greatness just ahead, a musical moment that still haunts me.
But back to Iris. After Bloomington, I couldn’t wait for an opportunity to see her perform again. Iris will be at our beloved Astra Theatre this Friday. I won’t even have to leave town to see her.
My buddy Troy texted me from Kansas when learning about Iris’ Astra gig: “Wow! Super jealous about the Iris show in Jasper. She’s awesome.” This from a guy who also loves The Who, Springsteen The Clash, Elvis Costello, Metallica and Jimmy Buffett.
When it was announced a few years ago that the historic Astra Theatre was to be renovated, reopened and revived from its mothballed state, I immediately became excited about the top-notch, national acts that could possibly grace the Jim and Pat Thyen Performance Stage. Iris exemplifies this, a great feather in the Astra’s cap. Go to www.thenextact.org for tickets.
In the meantime, listen to her duets with John Prine on his “In Spite of Ourselves” and “For Better, Or Worse” albums, which feature Iris in a lineup with the likes of Amanda Shires, Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Melba Montgomery and Connie Smith, to name a few. Iris gets more duets with Prine than the others, which in itself should tell you a lot. Also, check out her powerful 2012 “Sing The Delta” album on Amazon, my favorite.
Consider today’s column my attempt to provide you a random act of music kindness. You can thank me after the Iris show.
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