In a just world, singer-songwriter Iris DeMent’s arresting country-folk hybrid would have attracted fame, fans and fortune of the magnitudes accumulated by the faux-folk Jewel or the conveniently-country Shania Twain. In this crummy old excuse for a world, however, DeMent has had to content herself with a wealth of respect from such American music titans as John Prine, Merle Haggard, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris — all of whom have swapped stages, microphones and songs with their heiress apparent.
So why does DeMent have to settle for the adulation of her peers (not to mention most music critics) while wan imitators of her ouvre score regular crossover hits with grossly inferior material? Probably because she has yet to loll about in lingerie on VH1 a la former piece of Sean Penn arm-candy Jewel and because she didn’t take the Shania Twain tack of marrying a monster big name producer who could afford to bankroll and back her until she broke big. And, sadly, despite all the talk about equality between the sexes in the music industry these days, the Jewel/Shania approaches still work a helluva lot better than taking the unassuming, Regular Jane model defined by DeMent.
But then that’s what makes DeMent so likeable: she’s very real, very rooted and very reluctant to cop a starlet trip or strike a pose. So instead of playing the fame game, DeMent has focused on doing the things that singer-songwriters are supposed to do: she sings and she writes songs. And she does those two things achingly, poignantly, magnificently well — both on record (all three of her discs are essential listening) and in concert, as proven by her performance at Schenectady’s Central Park Sunday afternoon.
“Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by, it’s so hard to make every note bend just right,” sang DeMent early in her set — although she then belied the sentiment as she poured out ninety minutes worth of perfect, timeless melodies, with every note bent just so. DeMent’s generous set covered all the essential elements of her creative canon, dipping and switching freely between 1992’s Infamous Angel (“Let the Mystery Be,” “Mama’s Opry” and “Our Town”), 1994’s My Life (“Easy’s Getting’ Harder Every Day,” “You’ve Done Nothing Wrong” and the aforementioned “Sweet is the Melody”) and 1996’s The Way I Should (“Walkin’ Home” and the record’s title track).
Those priceless tunes were framed simply by DeMent’s stark guitar and piano work, both of which fully emphasized and enhanced her has-to-be-heard-to-be-believed voice. While DeMent’s voice is not the most technically proficient one you’re ever likely to hear (it quakes, sighs, creaks and wheezes unpredictably like an settling old farm house), the personality, character and spirit it projects are incomparable, unimaginable, phenomenal. Mix John Prine’s rough edges, Midwestern twang and nasal inflection with Anna McGarrigle’s slurry delivery, odd pronunciations and hair-raising high end and you’ll begin to get the idea — but barely.