This week’s Free Ride* muses on the lyrics of Iris Dement, who turned fifty this week. I am glad to have recently reconnected with her music, which I haven’t listened to much for the past several years. Her version of Leaning on the Everlasting Arms in the Coen brothers True Grit movie put her back on my radar screen and reminded me just how powerful her voice is, growing out of the same Woody Guthrie-Jimmie Rodgers-Carter Family roots that influenced Emmylou and Nancy and Alison. One thing I find really interesting about her is the way her music has struck such a deep chord with cranky old Merle Haggard. He is quoted as saying in one mid-90s interview, she is one of the greatest singers I have ever heard in my life. . . She’s a new artist and she can’t get played because she’s too good. She’s got too much to say; her songs mean too much. They make too much sense. He said that after hearing Iris, he felt there was some hope for country music after all! Dement repaid the compliment by participating in the songwriters Tribute Album to Merle Haggard, covering his hit, Big City. It’s standard Haggard fare, lamenting the hard luck plight of the country man slaving away to make ends meet in the concrete jungle of the city, ready to be turned loose and set free somewhere in the middle of Montana.
The Dement – Haggard mutual admiration society shows us just how far Merle has come in his understanding of what it means to live in the land of the free. It was back in 1970 that he recorded the famous response to folkies protesting the war in Vietnam: I read about some squirrely guy who claims he just don’t believe in fightin’. And I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on bein’ free. They love our milk and honey, but they preach about some other way of livin’. When they’re runnin’ down my country, hoss, they’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.
And then, some 25 years later, you have Haggard’s hope for the salvation of country music, Iris Dement, walking on what used to be his fighting side by singing a scathing protest of life in America in her song, Wasteland of the Free. Her version of that “squirrely guy” is this:
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
She pulls no punches in her protest, lambasting everything from corporate greed and low wages and exported jobs to gang violence and the prison system and miseducation of the young. She starts out dealing blows to the unholy alliance of church and state -
We got preachers dealing in politics and diamond mines and their speech is growing increasingly unkind. They say they are Christ’s disciples but they don’t look like Jesus to me , and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free.
When asked about the song, Dement admitted that she doesn’t have all the answers, but she goes on to say, if my songs make people think more deeply and figure out solutions that I’m not able to, then this is what it’s for. If people get upset and it forces them to stop and think, then the song has done the job. She sure has people like Merle Haggard thinking and reconsidering what the responsibilities of freedom are, what are its promises and its perils, and how protest can be one of the deepest expressions of patriotism in a free country. I’m glad the Coen brothers decided to use her voice for the movie. As far as I’m concerned, Iris Dement has some true grit.
*Free Ride is a Saturday blog that takes a different song each week and muses on the lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.