Iris DeMent, Sing the Delta. As the world rushes on its way to the edge, wherever that edge may be, sometimes it has to be that everyone stops and listens to a different voice. A voice that comes from the earth, but also has no trouble living in the sky. A voice that sings songs that bring together the age-old questions of faith and fallibility, and how people can sometimes try as hard as they can to find the path but inevitably get lost somewhere along the way. A voice that might come from a different time, but one that really has no time attached to it at all. It is timeless.
That is the voice of Iris DeMent and the songs on her astonishing new album. It is obviously from another era, but through the magic of music is able to leap straight into the future, and that's because she is singing about eternity, whether it's a brother dying young or a mother dying old. Years dissolve into tears, and those tears become diamonds that turn into determination to get home, a home where love lives and everyone is able to forgive, starting with themselves. For doubters, the song titles say it all: "Go On Ahead and Go Home," "Before the Colors Fade," "The Kingdom Has Already Come," "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray," "Sing the Delta," "If That Ain't Love," "Livin' on the Inside," "Makin' My Way Back Home," "Mornin' Glory," "There's a Whole Lotta Heaven," "Mama was Always Tellin' Her Truth" and "Out of the Fire."
Producers Iris DeMent, Richard Bennett and secret weapon Bo Ramsey have fashioned a sound that starts where the Mississippi River begins at the Gulf of Mexico and moves up America as surely as the steam railroad engines once moved across the country. Where DeMent comes from, the place where Missouri and Arkansas merge, is as American as it gets, which means there is an unending horizon of possibilities. There are moments when music appears out of nowhere but soon becomes so much a part of us it's hard to imagine living without it. That's what Iris DeMent has given us with her new songs. They are spirituals from the soul, and come from the street and woods and rivers of our country, becoming a lighthouse for believers everywhere. Wonders never cease.
Denny Freeman, Diggin' on Dylan. How would 16 Bob Dylan songs sound as burning instrumentals, some played full-throttle and others taken at a more leisurely pace? Listen to Denny Freeman, who was Dylan's lead guitarist for five years, because that's exactly what this Texan does on a swinging new homegrown set. The songs range from "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to "Dignity," and are like an intriguing excursion through Dylanana that hasn't been done quite like this before.
For someone who made his mark with words, Bob Dylan's songs hold up without them. He was such a student of music history it's like he invented a blender that took all the melodies of folk, blues and rock music, threw them together and hit "mix." What came out sounded so original and riveting once he hit his stride in the mid-'60s that Dylan had created his own genre. It's been that way ever since. Denny Freeman digs this deeply, and approaches these songs as his own, in a way, and turns them into something brand new.
The way he does it, of course, is through the sheer force of his endlessly inventive and exciting guitar playing. On the Austin blues circuit of the '70s, Freeman led the charge as surely as Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan. He shared bands with both, and for those who followed the guitar slingers around as devoted fans it seemed like Denny Freeman was always one solo away from becoming famous. It's still that way, too, so the next time "Ballad of a Thin Man," "My Back Pages" or possibly "Queen Jane Approximately" calls, try these versions. The lyrics may be missing, but what takes their place is a music of the spheres as surely as the man from Hibbing, Minnesota intended. Let freedom ring.
Various Artists, Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester. Great songs last forever, and Jesee Winchester has written enough to fill a mountaintop. The Southern man's music can turn cold days warm and make dark nights not so daunting. When he got esophageal cancer in 2011 it didn't take long for Jimmy Buffett and Elvis Costello to start a tribute album dedicated to someone who may have quietly shared his soul for over 40 years, but share it he surely did. Winchester's 1970 album still stands as one of the strongest debuts ever, with songs like "Payday," "Biloxi," "Yankee Lady," "Brand New Tennessee Waltz" and "Black Dog" that sounded like they were sent down from heaven. It turns out the man was living in Canada as a conscientious objector to the draft, and had sent this musical postcard to those he'd left behind. Unreal.
These new versions of some of Jesse Winchester's signature songs are stupefying they're so good, all 11 of them. James Taylor kicks the affair off with "Payday," a perfect opening song to set the night on fire. Roseanne Cash then stops time on "Biloxi," one of the finest odes to homesickness ever penned. From there it's one highlight after another, whether it's the surprise of Allen Toussaint's "I Wave Bye Bye," Mac McAnally's heartbender "Defying Gravity," Lucinda Williams' "Mississippi You're On My Mind," where she sounds like she just woke up in a cotton field full of an overpowering love of the land, right down to Elvis Costello's "Quiet About It." The Englishman takes on what has always been a private letter to the Lord, wondering if there is a way out of this life so it doesn't end, but also laying a side wager that this really could be it.
Jesse Winchester has recovered from his cancer, and is again going from city to city playing these songs. It is an honorable life and has served him well. To see the light in his eyes when he pushes up the sweater sleeves and tunes the guitar, a trooper who knows what he does has infinite meaning for those he touches, is to know that music has always been one person's offering of hope and inspiration. Where it goes nobody knows, just like our spirits when kingdom comes, but there is no way he—or we—should ever be quiet about it.