Country Standard Time: Iris DeMent in concert

DeMent finds vision in voice and song
Side Door Club, St. Louis, April 16
By Roy Kasten

St. LOUIS – When Iris DeMent walked on stage at the sold-out Side Door, sporting a burgundy dress and an abalone-glinting Martin, she smiled, plugged in and without further word strummed “Let the Mystery Be,” a statement of personal philosophy and the perfect introduction to her music.

“Boy, you’re all sure a surprise,” she said when she’d finished. Her mood was buoyant and with each song she seemed more and more comfortable with the packed house 250 people, attending her first St. Louis show in years.

After her second song, she warmly received a bouquet of roses, exclaiming, “Ouch! Ouch!” when she grabbed a thorn, but gently laid them beneath her mike stand. Later, someone offered irises and she said, “If anyone wonders why I became a singer, it’s one way to get your flowers.”

DeMent’s voice somehow combines a childlike wonder and a rusty Ozark twang, both in Maybelle Carter’s legacy, and absolutely fresh.

And she is always a joy to watch: this evening she winked, grimaced, squinted, and smiled as though mustering ingenuity for her curving, quavering notes, or as a wry counterpoint to the piercing sincerity of her lyrics.

During the 90-minute show, DeMent played four new songs: “Quality Time” (a hilarious commentary on family values), “Happy With You” (a love song co-written with Merle Haggard), “Wasteland of the Free,” (a topical song a la Phil Ochs) and “The Way I Should,” a lovely ballad.

She introduced “Quality Time” with a long story about being invited to Earl Scruggs house for dinner, but not having directions, she used her $4.95 “Nashville Map of the Stars” and arrived on time.

The new topical material showed surprising courage and not just for its themes; these songs turn hard left from the introspection and spirituality of her first two records “Infamous Angel” and “My Life.” She seems to be moving from the kingdom in the sky to the kingdom on earth.

The show combined mournful spirituals, hard-earned confessions, sweet and funny charmers, country standards and new political material. She paced her set confidently and elegantly, never letting the mood get too sad or too quirky.

On this evening, she illustrated the power of the lone voice and guitar, the way it can hold an audience in intimate rapture and open hearts. She once revealed that her father was fond of a special Biblical passage: “Man looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart.”

DeMent has found that very same vision in her voice and songs.

The opener, a new St. Louis band, Cheyenne Social Club, played appealing folk country. The band consists of Mary Alice Wood, Chris Grabau, and E.J. Fitch on guitar, John Horton on lap steel, Mike Brennan on fiddle, and Teash Hinkebein singing harmony vocals. Because they have four fine singers, they perform as a revue, trading originals spanning tough, concise narrative to catchy rural pop like their opener “Spinning Song.” But the finest moment in their hour-long set was an Alice Gerrard tune “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn,” sung with graceful acuity by Hinkebein.

DeMent Set List

Let the Mystery Be
These Hills
Calling For Me
Mama’s Opry
Sweet Forgiveness
Quality Time
Happy with You
Hotter than Mojave
You’ve Done Nothing Wrong
God May Forgive You
Wasteland of the Free
Easy’s Gettin’ Harder
Sweet is the Melody
No Time to Cry
Shores of Jordan
I Still Miss Someone
The Way I Should
Our Town

My Life
Keep on the Sunnyside (sing-a-long)

Jeffrey B. Remz, Editor & Publisher