I have changed since last I heard Iris Dement live, sometime in the late ‘90s soon after the release of what, until now, was her last album of original songs. She was for me in that decade the premier artist of that conglomeration of bluegrass, gospel, country, acoustic protest, blues, and anthemic individualism that we generally refer to as folk. She has finally come out with a new CD, the release of which was celebrated last night with a generously lengthy concert at City Winery.
Dement was, as before, a singer of the most remarkable depth and agility, elevating the drawl of country and the amateur charm of the Sunday hymnist to the level of art; and she has as a composer and performer the most uncanny ability to reconstitute the styles and sensibilities of distant ages and forgotten byways. She is unpretentious to the point of ordinariness, foreign to glamour and even to stage make-up (so it looked), yet has great presence behind the microphone with her guitar or at the piano drawling to her signature fingerwork.
Nor is she unadventurous in her range of musical interests, as the title of her new work, Sing the Delta, reminds us. And yet, as I say, I have changed, and I found myself with reservations about folk as a genre that I did not have when I ate up her work more than a decade ago. She conveys, quite naturally, all that is beautiful and hopeful and affecting in the folk tradition, but I wondered if it wasn’t at the cost of concealing a provincialism and anti-intellectualism inherent to the style, and the social strata with which it is associated, whatever the predilections of the artist.
Such thoughts were easier to shrug off before the great push into the mainstream of the most retrograde elements of our culture became apparent. Perhaps it was because she stayed away from her more obviously political material (which was never her strength and seemed forced when she tried it on her 1996 album The Way I Should), and also from a more general social awareness. The songs I heard last night evoked simple human relations, nostalgia for older ways, and personal but communally disconnected struggles; her banter was entirely amiable and personal, without much broader comment on the world.
This was, to be fair, from the person that I heard years ago deliver the best single rendition of “This Land is Your Land” that I have ever heard. And truth to tell, she was extraordinary last night, and I will listen to her CD with pleasure. It’s just that I grew to love her work when certain illusions about life in the United States had yet to flee me.