Hers is a lonely, plaintive voice crying out for salvation, or relief. Iris Dement's music is the sound of the disenfranchised, lost souls disconnected from society but still struggling to maintain their dignity and sense of purpose. Although they exist in the now, her characters have a dust bowl/depression era aura about them. There's a hot wind following them, hell-hounding them to an uncertain future.
You could call her a protest singer. The term's been out of style for decades, once applied to prickly folkie upstarts like Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie who spoke out against the government. Dement took care of that with '96's "Wasteland of the Free."
"We kill for oil, then we throw a party when we win/Some guy refuses to fight, and we call that the sin/but he's standing up for what he believes in/and that seems pretty damned American to me/and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free."
But that's not the whole picture. Dement doesn't just comment on governmental abuse, where, as she says in "Wasteland," "the poor are treated like enemies." Child abuse, affairs of the heart and everyday people trying to survive grinding poverty also make appearances in her music.
In recent years, the singer/pianist has communicated only through her music. It's difficult to find an interview not at least a decade old. She didn't respond to requests for a current one. But she's not been out of the public eye. She has appeared on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, on the PBS Concert Series DVD Concerts at W. 54th in 2001, doing five songs with John Prine, and tours several times a month. She appeared in the 2001 movie Songcatcher, playing the character Rose Gentry, and on the soundtrack, Music From and Inspired by the Motion Picture Songcatcher with Deana Carter, Gillian Welch, Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris.
Although she's unwilling to speak for herself, John Prine's guitarist, Jason Wilber, who often opens for Dement and accompanies her on guitar, was willing to share his impressions of her.
"She has such a powerful gigantic, natural voice," the guitarist says. "And when you're in the same room with her, and she's singing, it's like hearing someone playing a beautiful Stradivarius violin -- she just has a golden voice."
Wilber was booked to play with Dement for the show originally scheduled for the Neighborhood Theatre Nov. 3, but will not be along on this one, joining her later in January for three shows. "She plays the kind of music I play, and I'm very familiar with her music, so it's easy to step in and play with her," he says.
Even someone as close to Dement as Wilber has trouble categorizing her music. Dement has said she was influenced by the Carter Family, Bob Dylan and Loretta Lynn. Wilber says it's a mix of country, gospel and folk, but a simple description eludes him. Americana is the current buzzword, but even that one is too broad for Wilber. "They need those words in order to work with radio and press and marketers and stuff -- because if you say they play country/folk/gospel mixture, that's hard for people -- they don't know what to do with that. But if you say Americana, they know, 'Oh, OK it goes over there.'"
The guitarist hears a strong gospel influence in her work. "She plays church songs, songs that she learned, I assume, as a girl in church. I think an awful lot of her music comes out of that same kind of sound." Dement has done an all gospel album, 2004's Lifeline, her last release, featuring traditional hymns including "Near the Cross" and "Blessed Assurance" as well as an original, "He Reached Down." Wilbur's not implying that all her songs are about God but observes that the melodies and the chord progressions in those church songs are the way her songs sound as well.
If he had to come up with one phrase to describe her, Wilber says it would be passionate and uncompromising. "There are people who are great performers technically. But they don't necessarily have the depth to what they're doing. But Iris not only has that fantastic voice, but also there's an emotion and a depth of passion behind it."
Dement's passion also applies to her mundane, offstage work as well. Asked what she did to relax in a 1997 interview, the singer said she liked cleaning the house. After being out on the road, mopping the floor was as good as it gets. When he can stop laughing, Wilber acknowledges the wisdom of her statement. "When what you do for a living is so out of the ordinary, there's a lot to be said for just doing something simple," he says, chuckling. "It's very much like one of the quotes you might read in a Buddhist tale."
Whether adopting the persona of Zen housewife, preaching the gospel or raising up her fellow man, Iris Dement is a tireless worker, smoothing out the bumps in the path of everyday life with her poetic soul and magnificent voice.
Iris Dement plays the Neighborhood Theatre Friday, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. Main Stage Tickets $22 Advance / $25 Day of Show.