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O.C. POP BEAT / MIKE BOEHM

Rustic, Sincere DeMent Tells All, Gives Her All

August 26, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Iris DeMent should be an easy name for music fans to remember: that's DeMent, as in the cream of this decade's new crop of folk-country singers.

Playing her first concert as a headliner in the county where she spent most of her childhood and adolescence, DeMent filled the Coach House with a voice that could tremble achingly, twang playfully, slide to a winsome high note, or power ahead with forthright determination.

The Arkansas-born, Missouri-based singer wore a long earth-toned dress and sounded as rustic as a dirt lane leading to a farmhouse. At times, her voice seemed to be coming off an old Victrola that was spinning a 78 rpm side of Stephen Foster hymns.

But, at 32, with just seven years as a performer and songwriter behind her, and only one album, the excellent "Infamous Angel," to her credit, DeMent was as controlled in her delivery and as confident in her bearing as the seasoned pros who have been giving her their endorsement--among them John Prine, Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris.

DeMent crammed her 90-minute solo concert with the stuff of deeply felt, fully experienced life. There were songs of birth and of death, of marital hell and of loving forgiveness, of hopes for a heavenly paradise and for an amorous fling with a Parisian pen pal.

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Not a song DeMent sang sounded as if it was written because it was somebody's job to churn it out, or because someone happened to have a clever lyrical idea at a moment when a guitar happened to be handy. That's the feeling you get too often while listening to artists who take deliberate aim at the country hit parade.

The odds are against DeMent scoring big hits, as they have been against Prine, Griffith and (of late) Harris, not to mention Alison Krauss, the most thrilling young folk-country arrival of the late-'80s. But DeMent writes songs that will find an audience and stick with the people who do hear them.

She sang eight songs from "Infamous Angel" (O.C. country stalwart Jann Browne came out of the wings to add duet and harmony vocals on the album's title song). She also sang eight new, unrecorded ones, all of them of such quality that they practically amount to an insurance policy against a sophomore recording slump.

DeMent ended her set (not counting an encore) with three extremely strong new songs; the first two told of great sorrows endured, and the last pointed to music as a source of comfort--that is, if it's crafted with enough honesty and feeling to provide real solace rather than manufactured sentiment.

"Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by / It's so hard to make every note bend just right," DeMent sang in the song's refrain, voicing an ideal that she had no trouble living up to.

DeMent paused before almost every song to give it a personal introductory touch befitting the personal themes she writes about. She was direct and open, charming without effort, as she told of her family life as the youngest of 14 children in a devout family that hailed from the Arkansas Bible Belt (DeMent greeted a cousin in the half-capacity audience but didn't mention that she had grown up mainly in Buena Park, where her father was a janitor and gardener at the Movieland Wax Museum).

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After singing a song called "Childhood Memories," she flicked away a tear that you could trust was real.

A few times, DeMent came close to overplaying the hick by flattening and stretching her phrasing ("just" could become "jest"), or by laying on the twang (as in her comic tale of the girl from Paris, Tenn., who falls for a pen pal from Paris, France). But you couldn't accuse her of Gomer Pyle-ing it on; she sounded too much like an authentic throwback to the Carter Family.

DeMent strummed forthrightly on her guitar, not daring a great deal instrumentally, but displaying enough command to enhance the melody of some slow songs with delicate finger-picking.

She did a good job of constructing her set with changing emotional shades. A couple of songs about fraying or broken relationships early in the set led into a mid-show stretch that dealt mainly with family ties that endure.

They included an innocently sexy and playful courtship song, "Hotter Than Mojave in My Heart"; a lullaby, "Precious Child," and a lovely song of grief, "After You've Gone."

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She saved some of the heaviest emotions for the end, when she introduced the best of her new songs. "Easy's Getting Harder Every Day" was an instant hit with the audience, a closely drawn sketch of a marriage that has lost its promise and connection, leaving the young mom who is its protagonist to confront a life that has turned into a dull grind.

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