Okay, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Iris DeMent is the greatest country singer to come along in the last 15 years.
And I’m not alone. No less a trad-country sage than John Prine has called DeMent his favorite singer. Prine went public with his fandom when he tapped DeMent to join him for five songs on his 1999 duets album In Spite of Ourselves, and invited her to join him on stage for another five tunes for his acclaimed 2001 appearance on the PBS concert series Sessions on West 54th.
Some might argue that DeMent isn’t truly a “country” singer. She certainly doesn’t get airplay on country radio — a badge of honor, if you ask me — and it’s true that her retro-wonderful warble is also shot through with gospel, bluegrass and folk influences. But the aching, plaintive quality of DeMent’s voice conjures the high-country purity of the Carter Family and other seminal country artists of the 1920s and ’30s. And her songs contain more emotional honesty and plainspoken eloquence than the music of any country artist since … well, since Prine’s recordings of the 1970s.
DeMent comes by her hard-country leanings naturally. She was born in Arkansas, but when she was just 3 years old, her family moved to California after their farm failed. Her Pentecostal parents were steeped in the country, gospel and folk music of the South, so at times it seems that DeMent’s heart-rending vocals almost stem from ancestral memory. And her songs overflow with the yearning and hopefulness of the gospel hymns she heard and sang as a child.
“I definitely grew up around singers who would dig down and go as far down as you can, and let it all come out. My mother was one of those kinds of singers,” says DeMent during a recent phone interview from her home in Kansas City.
When DeMent’s 1992 debut, Infamous Angel hit the racks, her simple, unadorned melodies and natural voice were much-needed antidotes to the paint-by-numbers bilge being churned out by the Nashville majors. And they still are.
On Infamous Angel and her ’94 follow-up, My Life, DeMent’s musings on mortality, family, lost love and spiritual conflict were rendered on churchy piano, sighing dobros, melancholy fiddle and plucky mandolin. Those musical treatments were still prominent on DeMent’s 1996 release, The Way I Should, but she broadened her palette to include electric guitars and keyboards here and there — especially on the rousing and anthemic “Wasteland of the Free.” As scathing social critiques go, that song ranks right up there with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
That song sparked DeMent’s dust-up with the right wing. A Republican state senator in Florida had a temper tantrum over this bit of truth from “Wasteland”: “We got politicians runnin’ races on corporate cash/ Now don’t tell me they don’t turn around and kiss those people’s ass.” The pol succeeded in eliminating state funding for the public-radio that played the song — more than $100,000 worth.
DeMent again raised the ire of right-wing extremists when she chose not to perform a show on March 21, 2003 — her way of protesting the United States’ invasion of Iraq that began that very day. A conservative talk-radio host got wind of it and devoted much of his program to calling her names. As a result, her website was flooded with hundreds of e-mails from his listeners, calling her a terrorist and a traitor — along with messages wishing that she would burn in hell. All this just for expressing her opinion and standing up for her beliefs: She’d been “Dixie-Chicked.”
“At first, I was angry, then it just made my head spin, because I’m not a famous celebrity, so I wasn’t used to being in that spotlight,” says DeMent. But mostly, the incident “really shattered my picture of my country,” she says soberly. “That experience showed me how far this country has gotten from what I had been taught to believe about freedom and fairness. So I think it’s really important for people to get out there now and take a stand, and be strong, because now, under the current administration, the stakes are higher than ever.”
That experience is one reason DeMent has demurred from doing interviews the last couple of years. Another reason is that “writers always want to know why I haven’t put out a record of my own songs in 10 years, and I don’t really know the answer to that.” In ’04, DeMent released a stirring and heartfelt collection of traditional gospel tunes entitled Lifeline, but it has indeed now been a decade since the release of The Way I Should.
DeMent isn’t ready to concede she’s got “writer’s block,” but she does say: “I can remember being 6 or 8 years old, sitting at the piano for hours, waiting for songs to come, and I didn’t end up writing my first song until I was 25. So songs haven’t always come to me on my own clock, or when I wanted them to.”
DeMent has had some traumas and life changes since ’96 that would probably distract anyone from the creative process — she got divorced, which ignited a period of depression. Then she came out of it, married folk singer Greg Brown in 2002, and, in ’04, adopted a 5-year-old girl from Siberia.
“But I’ve gotten past the point where I don’t value myself or my worth in the world based on how much I have produced,” says DeMent with relief. “That was a big hurdle for me to get over, and I’m kind of amazed that I did. But when I feel like there is something that I need to communicate to someone else, and that music is the way to do that — that’s what gets me to write.
“And I still sit there at the piano, and wait for the songs to come to me, and I have written some, but not enough to put out a record I would be happy with,” says DeMent. “But I still feel very strongly that the music wants to come through me. I haven’t lost that desire.”
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom first interviewed Iris DeMent in 1995. He can be reached at KevinRansom@comcast.net.]
Iris DeMent performs at The Grey Eagle on Saturday, Nov. 4, at 8 p.m. Jason Wilber opens. $25. 232-5800.