Episode 517: Iris DeMent
Air Date: 11/02/2013
Iris DeMent says of that elusive inspirational spark, "I didn't know when or if I'd make another record. I gave up on trying to steer it or force it and decided to just make myself available in my heart and mind as much as I could and leave the rest up to fate."
Sixteen years after the last collection of DeMent songs, that time has come. Sing The Delta presents twelve self-penned compositions from an artist whose first three albums established her as one of the most beloved and respected writers and singers in American music.
DeMent, the last of 14 children, born in Arkansas and raised in Southern California, grew up immersed in gospel music and traditional country. She was somewhat of a late bloomer as an artist, writing her first song at age of 25. Her first release, Infamous Angel, initially issued on Rounder in 1992 before being picked up by Warner Bros., immediately established her as a promising and talented artist. Its 1994 follow-up, My Life, earned a Grammy nomination in the Contemporary Folk category. Her 1996 album The Way I Should addressed political as well as personal themes and earned a Grammy nomination, as well.
Along the way, several of DeMent's songs became cultural touchstones. "Let The Mystery Be" found its way to MTV Unplugged as a duet by David Byrne and Natalie Merchant. "Our Town" was played over the farewell scene in the series finale of Northern Exposure. Merle Haggard, who said of DeMent, "She's the best singer I've ever heard," invited her to sit in as his piano player touring with his legendary band The Strangers. He subsequently covered two of her songs "No Time To Cry" and the gospel-tinged "The Shores of Jordan."
DeMent remained active as an artist. She sang four duets with John Prine on In Spite of Ourselves and had a minor role in the motion picture Songcatcher as well as contributing a song to its soundtrack. She continued playing live shows and in 2004, she recorded an album of gospel songs, Lifeline, which included her rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." In 2010 the Coen Brothers chose that song for the closing credits when they remade the classic western "True Grit."
Still, DeMent never took for granted the arrival of an album's worth of new songs. "Songs would come along here and there and I'd go out and sing them for people, but for a long time I just didn't know what would become of any of them. Then last year, a door kinda opened up, and a handful of songs walked through and a few unfinished ones came together and I knew I had a record."
As with Lifeline, DeMent is releasing Sing The Delta on her own label, Flariella Records. It was recorded at Richard McLaurin's House of David studio in Nashville with co-producers Richard Bennett and Bo Ramsey, with a supporting cast that included Bryan Owings on drums, Dave Jacques on bass, Al Perkins on pedal steel and Reese Wynans on B3 organ, as well as horn players Jim Hoke and Steve Herman on a couple of numbers.
Of the time it took, DeMent says "Some of these songs I've had around awhile but I needed time to grow into them. I guess you could say I just wasn't ready to deliver them in the way that they deserved. I'm glad I waited. It's taught me to surrender…to trust the natural flow and order of things and not worry about it," DeMent says.
It's an instinct she's learned to trust ever since she first sat down to write her first couple of songs at age 25 and found "Our Town" spilling out onto the page. "It was like somebody walked right into that room and said, ‘There you have it, Iris' — I knew then and there that I had gotten my calling," she relates. "I had always been taught in church that God, or spirit, if you will, calls us to a life work. I got mine that day. Whether I write one song a year or ten, it doesn't matter. It's a ‘knowing' that I have that hasn't left me since that day. That's what I check in with and as long as that's there, the rest of it doesn't matter. The time it takes is just the time it takes."