Defiant diva

Raised a fire-and-brimstone Pentecostalist, edgy singer/songwriter Iris DeMent traces her fall from organized grace to a dispute over pantyhose.

“The minister said the rules were that I had to wear nylons or leave the church choir,” she remembers of the incident — which happened going-on two decades ago, when DeMent was only 16. “I knew there was no rule in the Bible about nylons, [so] that meant it was all right for the minister to think for himself, but it wasn’t all right for me to do the same. I left the church.”

DeMent possesses a soaring, country-laced wail that once moved Merle Haggard to gush, “I haven’t been able to get away from her. She’s the best singer I ever heard.” One can hardly help wanting to hear that croon raised skyward in an old-time gospel tune, just once.

DeMent now testifies that her involvement with fundamentalist religion left her with more than bitter memories. “It was good for me in some ways,” she notes. “The church [sometimes addresses] the things that make life fuller, richer, more bearable. If you can get through the nonsense, it can direct you toward your inner world.”

Her own inner world was clamoring for release in those early days; by her mid-20s, DeMent — a high-school dropout who was then working at K-Mart — realized that writing and singing her own songs was her only route to salvation.

“I didn’t so much decide to go my own way as accept what it was I was supposed to do,” she explains. “I don’t know what it’s like for other people, but there was a moment I knew. … It was almost as if [someone] or something stepped in my room and spoke to me. I wrote [a] song, ‘Our Town,’ when I was 25, and as soon as I did it, a voice told me that [songwriting] was what I was going to do. I don’t mean that my life became rosy after that, because it sure didn’t. But for me, it was a definite real moment, and the feeling never left me.”

What if DeMent hadn’t listened to that mysterious voice? “I’d probably be in a mental institution,” she answers. “[Songwriting] works something out for me. It [delivers] some kind of emotional peace. I count on getting some kind of peace or relief from it — it’s the only reason I write. If I didn’t have that payoff, I can think of 1,000 other jobs that I’d rather be doing.”

In 1992, DeMent recorded her first CD, Infamous Angel (Rounder Records), and a year later, she released My Life, after signing with Warner Brothers. On her latest disc, The Way I Should (Warner Brothers, 1996), she’s accompanied by the likes of Earl Scruggs, Delbert McClinton and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. On this most recent release, DeMent plows through a host of prickly topics — including child abuse, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and her caustic disillusionment with the rich-get-richer side of American culture — all in a glorious, high-wattage, honky-tonk voice that conjures up some hybrid of Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris.

DeMent’s lyrics are marked by straight talk, no bull. “We got CEOs makin’ 200 times the workers’ pay/But they’ll fight like hell against raising the minimum wage/And if you don’t like it, mister/They’ll ship your job to some Third World country ‘cross the sea/And it feels like I’m livin’ in the wasteland of the free,” she sings on The Way I Should’s “Wasteland of the Free,” before breaking into the song’s hypnotic chorus: “Living in the wasteland of the free/Where the poor have become the enemy/Let’s blame our troubles on the weak ones/Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy/Livin’ in the wasteland of the free.”

There’s a curl of defiance running through DeMent’s manner, both in and out of song — a soundless “so what?” to those who might raise their eyebrows at the propriety of her more angry and intimate material. DeMent admits that she struggles with self-censorship.

“I think about that always,” she offers. “I [write] about political issues that can be very sensitive to a lot of people, and I also write about subjects that deal with the very private aspects of people’s lives.

“Even when I write a very personal song about my world,” she adds, “I’m thinking, ‘Is this what people should be writing songs about?’ — even though I know the answer: I know that there’s no should or shouldn’t, no right or wrong.”

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