Alden Graves | Graves Registry: An evening with Iris Dement


"Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from.

Everybody's worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done.

But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me.

I think I'll just let the mystery be." – Iris Dement

I tired to come up with some high points in the year 2015 to counter the rather bleak future it portends if a fair segment of the American population doesn't regain its sanity by next November. To do that, I concluded that it was probably best to completely leave politics aside. Utilizing contemporary politics as a compass for finding high points is like trying to find a spot with a panoramic view in Death Valley.

I thought I would just recall one night in the past year that was especially memorable for me personally.

I didn't particularly want to go and see the singer/songwriter Iris Dement at The Egg in Albany, N.Y. Not because I haven't always loved her unique voice and the homespun wisdom that she imparts in her songs. (Just think of all the misery and death that mankind might have been spared if we had only heeded the simple message inherent in the lyrics of "Let the Mystery Be" quoted above.) It wouldn't have mattered much who was playing at The Egg, I would have had my usual reasons for not going. Among the most popular: I have to work that day, so I'll be tired; I don't like to drive at night; I don't like to drive in cities day or night; I don't like crowds.

I also remembered the last time my wife and I went to a concert. It was years and years ago, but my declaration that "we are too old for this expletive deleted" still rings in my mind as if it was yesterday. Jackson Browne was playing at Tanglewood. It must have been back in the "Running On Empty" era and the place was packed with a particularly rowdy crowd of the slightly scary variety.

I have never understood why people pay exorbitant amounts of money to hear someone sing and then shout and scream through the entire performance. It was so much in evidence that evening that Mr. Browne abruptly stopped singing and asked, "What the expletive deleted is going on out there?" and threatened to leave if things didn't calm down. I never liked Jackson Brown quite so much as at that moment.

I didn't envision Ms. Dement attracting a raucous crowd, a friend offered to drive, and The Egg is not one of those mammoth venues that can accommodate the entire populations of smaller nations. Many of my standard reasons for demurring were thus decimated.

Iris is a difficult artist to categorize. Her music is often infused with a plaintive social consciousness (her first song, "Our Town," lamented the decline of the small towns that once had been the backbone of America) and frequently draw upon her own experiences growing up as the youngest of 14 children in a working class family. Her mother, whom she credits as being the greatest influence on her singing, dreamed of performing at the Grand Old Opry, but the responsibilities inherent with raising 14 kids prevailed over any aspirations toward stardom. Flora Mae had to settle for singing while she hung clothes in the backyard. Iris was listening.

Flora Mae Dement finally did achieve her small moment of stardom on her daughter's first album, "Infamous Angel," released in 1992. Iris sang backup to her mother's crystalline rendition of the venerable gospel song, "Higher Ground."

There is an obvious similarity between Iris and Dolly Parton, the fourth in a family of 12 children, who also drew upon her hardscrabble early life to write enduring songs such as "Coat of Many Colors" and "My Tennessee Mountain Home." But while Dolly has traditionally relied on slightly self-deprecating flash and glamour ("You would be surprised how expensive it is to look this cheap."), Iris might be termed a bare-bones entertainer: piano, guitar, and a dress that might have come off a rack at Penny's.

Dolly has become a cottage industry, a global phenomenon, but one gets the sense listening to Iris that she nourishes her spirit from a much more personal interaction with an audience. She began by dedicating her show to Tammy Wynette, telling us that she doubted that anything she sang could match Wynette's "Apartment No. 9." My affection for Ms. Wynette is limitless, but, as the evening progressed, I realized how much Iris had underestimated her own gift. If it had been necessary for me to drive through the blackest night in the biggest city and sit in a stadium to listen to her, it would all have been worth it.

— Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist.


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