February 1, 2009
I’ve written before about my fondness for Iris Dement, and was planning to discuss her song, “No Time To Cry.” But rather than discuss my personal connection again, I thought it would be more interesting to explore how the song has shifted as it’s been covered by other artists.
One would think that such a personal song would be difficult to cover. Dement’s original recording is nakedly confessional. But the death of a parent and the difficulties that follow are universal experiences, so much so that it is two male artists who have since made the song their own.
Merle Haggard was an early champion of Iris Dement. Back in the mid-nineties, there was a major label tribute album to Merle called Mama’s Hungry Eyes, but when Hag was asked his favorite cut, he chose one off of a lesser-known independent label tribute album called Tulare Dust. His pick was Dement’s reading of his classic hit, “Big City.”
Haggard then recorded “No Time to Cry” for his 1996 album. His reading of the song is weathered and resigned. Whereas Dement sounds like she’s choking back tears that she has no time to let flow, Haggard sounds like the hard act of living has long dried up all of his tears. He’s not indifferent – the grief is still palpable - but he sounds nostalgic for when tears could help relieve some of the pain. It’s just as powerful a performance as Dement’s, even though it creates a completely different kind of empathy for the narrator.
Joe Nichols covered the song for his album Revelation, and it’s clear that he learned it from the Haggard album. His vocal performance is a near carbon copy of Haggard’s, with the emphases in the same places and the same lyrical change from Dement’s original. Whereas Dement sang “I’ve got no time to cry,” both Haggard and Nichols “ain’t got no time to cry.” The Nichols version is the least effective of the three, though there is a quiet power to his understated performance. His interpretation just isn’t original enough to be as distinctive as Dement’s and Haggard’s.
What do you think of these three versions of “No Time to Cry”? Can you recommend a track that’s been recorded well by more than one artist?