Music, faith, and questioning everything: Iris DeMent's calling

Iris DeMent

Old-timey. Open-hearted. Filled with the Spirit. These are a few of the ways you could describe the singing voice of the Grammy-nominated musician Iris DeMent — if you are so inclined. You’ll have to do it yourself, because she won’t.

“I can’t. I never have and I never will. I don’t listen to my own voice, my own records. I leave the room if I walk in and they’re playing,” she says.

DeMent, 58, grew up in Arkansas and southern California, the youngest of 14 children in a family that was devoted to the Pentecostal Church and to singing. Her old-timey street cred is as real (and unforced) as her gentle drawl. Her speaking voice sounds like a combination of her Arkansas roots and her current home in rural southeastern Iowa, where she lives with her husband, the musician Greg Brown. Although DeMent left the church as a teenager, the language of faith infuses her music as well as the way she talks about the practice of creating it. DeMent wrote her first song when she was 25: “Our Town,” which appears on her 1992 debut album, Infamous Angel. It’s a moment that she has referred to as a calling.

“Once I started writing, I knew that’s what I was supposed to do with my life,” she says. “From that point on, I knew I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that.” She uses terms like calling because that is how she learned to explain things. “I sing because I believe in the music.”

If such a thing were possible, then maybe DeMent’s music believes in God, even if she’s not positive that she does. She plays guitar and piano, and at first blush, most of her songs would sound perfectly appropriate emanating from the chancel of a church. With lyrics set to gospel rhythms and hymn-like structures, DeMent often questions the existence of God, the afterlife, and the nature of power. In conversation, she is no-nonsense and somewhat resistant to discussing exactly how religion and spirituality present themselves in her music. Or just how she makes her singing voice signal a kind of dedication to honesty.

“These things aren’t mathematical. It’s not like I sit down with a piece of paper and size this up. It’s just something that I do. If you get to the heart of a thing — and the thing could be yourself — what comes out is … I don’t know how to put this. I just try to get to the heart of myself and what matters to me, and what I feel matters in the world. And then I open my mouth and try to let that come out through my voice.”

DeMent plays on Friday, Dec. 13, at the St. Francis Auditorium at the New Mexico Museum of Art, with guest Ana Egge, a Brooklyn-based folk singer-songwriter.

DeMent’s second album, My Life (1994) earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. She dedicated My Life to her father, who died two years before it was released. On one of the tracks, “Childhood Memories,” DeMent recalls an important family tradition.

Playing church around the old piano stand,

You were quite a preacher and oh, we sang so

grand.

I remember every night what we would say and

do:

“If you’ve forgiven me, then I’ve forgiven you.”

DeMent pays homage to her mother in “Mama’s Opry,” on Infamous Angel. Flora Mae DeMent died in 2011, at age 93. The devoutly religious woman sang at home and in church — but in her youth, she harbored a secret dream to someday perform at the Grand Ole Opry. DeMent learned to sing and play gospel music at her knee.

And we sang Sweet Rose of Sharon, Abide With Me

’til I ride The Gospel Ship to Heaven’s Jubilee

And In That Great Triumphant Morning my soul will be free

And My Burdens Will Be Lifted when my savior’s face I see…

Oh, nothing on this earth is half as dear to me

As the sound of my Mama’s Opry

DeMent has played with numerous legends of country and Americana music, including John Prine, Steve Earle, Ralph Stanley, and Emmylou Harris. She appeared as the character Rose Gentry, singing the old English folk ballad “Pretty Saro,” in the movie Songcatcher (2000). The narrative drama, loosely based on the work of Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp, stars Janet McTeer as a musicologist researching and collecting Appalachian folk music. DeMent’s version of the 19th-century hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is featured on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ 2010 adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit.

DeMent can wield God’s love as a knife when it suits her, which she does in her cover of “God May Forgive You (But I Won’t),” Rosie Flores’ 1987 song about a cheating husband. At least one outraged internet writer calls it one of the most evil songs ever written and refers to DeMent as a “shameful” singer/songwriter who “embraces the feminist agenda.” (“God May Forgive You” was actually written by two men, Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock. DeMent released it as a B-side on the 1992 single “Our Town.”)

Sometimes DeMent goes for an old-fashioned folky protest ethos, such as in the rollicking “Wasteland of the Free” from her 1996 album The Way I Should. Though it’s more than two decades old, the song could have been written yesterday.

We got little kids with guns fighting inner city wars

So what do we do, we put these little kids behind

prison doors

And we call ourselves the advanced civilization

That sounds like crap to me

And it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

Her most recent album is 2015’s The Trackless Woods, for which she set to music poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). Akhmatova wrote in the shadow of Stalinism and is considered one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century. DeMent hadn’t read Akhmatova’s work previously, and when she came across it, her connection was immediate. “My husband and I were just talking about this last night and kind of remembering how all that happened,” she says. “I’m just kind of open to the idea that things can float around and they can be these forms of communication. I read one of her poems and was told to set it to music. I said I didn’t know how, and whoever was talking to me said, ‘I’ll help you.’ It felt like a Spirit movement. I accept it as such.”

DeMent doesn’t affiliate herself with an organized religion, but she says that she is nothing without the Spirit, which comes with a capital “S” every time she says it. She believes it runs through all of us. “I believe in what always was, is, and always will be. It’s all I have. It’s why I sing. Music is a way that I can serve people, and I believe in service. And you know, it’s what was available to me to make myself useful in the world. What else is there?” ◀

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