Fifty miles of elbow room
The movie Tender Mercies is about as evocative a movie about a place (in this case, Texas) as has yet been made; not so much for the acting or story (both of which are excellent), but for the cinematography--particularly the shots in which the sky vaults over the characters' heads, reducing them to real-life insignificance but thereby making their struggles and dreams even more heroic by comparison. Iris DeMent sings the aural equivalent of those shots, her voice as pure as mountain water and recalling classic vocalists like Mother Maybelle Carter and Rose Maddox, laden with an accent so sharply and undilutedly country that you might be tempted to call it "hick." Resist that urge; there is nothing unschooled or unsophisticated in the way DeMent's tone moves effortlessly from sad experience to innocent delight.
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It's so resonant that when she stands on stage with only her guitar, the sounds of Dobro and fiddle that graced her two albums (1992's Infamous Angel and 1994's My Life) are present just by implication. DeMent is a rare thing, a folk artist who is thoroughly modern yet utterly true to her roots, still keeping that special resonance and connection with the everyday that long ago evaded more ambitious (or commercial) talents.
In his book Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Scottish writer and poet Duncan McLean goes searching across Texas for the essence of the music he loves so much, visiting the people and places he'd previously experienced only in books. While driving through West Texas, he listens to DeMent's albums, and he describes her music as well as anybody: "It was small town music...I reckoned that was a good thing for music to be. She didn't write her songs, or sing them, like anybody in Nashville or New York had told her to do it that way. She just wrote and sung exactly how she wanted to: focused in closely on the details of everyday life, full of thwarted ambitions, great dreams being slowly whittled away, small but valuable consolations fiercely held on to: My life, it's half way traveled/And I have not found my way out of this night/My life, it's tangled in wishes/And so many things that just never turned out right/But I gave joy to my mother/I made my lover smile/And I can give comfort to my friends when they're hurting/I can make it seem better for a while."
Iris DeMent plays Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams Monday, February 24; Duncan McLean's book will be published in the United Kingdom this year and--if it sells well enough there--could be released later in America.