The singer and songwriter, 62, takes her time between releases, making sure she has something to say in her music. She has found inspiration once again.
Iris DeMent said she realized, “I could succumb to making records that aren’t like who I am and what I was put here to do, or I could pull back and protect my calling.”Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times
By Stephen Deusner
Published Feb. 21, 2023
While writing songs for her seventh album, “Workin’ on a World,” Iris DeMent recalled a vivid memory from her childhood, when she was first struck by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was the late 1960s, not long before his assassination, and she was 5 or 6 years old. Her very large family — she has 15 siblings — had just moved from Paragould, Ark., out to California. “There were a gazillion people living in our house,” she said from her home in Iowa City. “The TV was playing, and I heard this booming voice. This was back when TVs were on the floor, so when I turned, I was suddenly eye to eye with Dr. King.”
Even as a child, she understood something important was happening. “I remember looking around our living room and thinking, ‘I hope the grown-ups are listening to this man.’”
DeMent name-checks Dr. King on “How Long,” a gospel song from “Workin’ on a World,” about the arc of the moral universe taking a long, long time to bend toward justice. On new tracks that sound like old hymns on the album, which is scheduled to be released on Feb. 24, she sings about the people she considers her heroes: Dr. King, of course, but also John Lewis, Mahalia Jackson and the Chicks. “It dawned on me that a lot of what I’ve done with my songs is, I’ve tried to get what I think needs to be heard out to the grown-ups,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be of use in that way.”
DeMent, 62, has been making herself useful for 30 years now. Her philosophical 1992 debut, “Infamous Angel,” which opened with an inquiry into the afterlife and closed with her mother singing “Higher Ground,” showcased her high, keening voice, the kind you’d hear from a church pew rather than the radio. Her lyrics sounded like down-home poetry, plain-spoken in their wisdom, and her music drew from many different styles — country, bluegrass, old-time folk, older-time church music — without falling squarely into any one genre or market.
“There’s love and there’s hate. There’s good and there’s evil. Which side are you on? Figure it all out now and go.”Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times
Very quickly, she found herself celebrated by some of her heroes, including Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and John Prine (who even wrote liner notes for “Infamous Angel”). Just as quickly she found herself overwhelmed by the demands of the music industry. After two follow-up albums — the melancholy “My Life” in 1994 and the scowling “The Way I Should” in 1996 — she very purposefully slowed her schedule down. “I realized that it wasn’t working for me,” she said. “I could succumb to making records that aren’t like who I am and what I was put here to do, or I could pull back and protect my calling.”
DeMent learned to take her time, typically pausing for roughly eight years between releases. It makes for a small but weighty catalog: In this century she’s made four albums, only two of which included original songs. “Lifeline,” from 2004, was a collection of old Pentecostal hymns, and for “The Trackless Woods,” from 2015, she set to music poems by the writer Anna Akhmatova — a project inspired by her Russian-born adopted daughter. (That year, her 1992 track “Let the Mystery Be” was used as the Season 2 theme for “The Leftovers.”)
During that downtime she occasionally tours, and she’s always writing, always singing around the house and playing music with her husband, the folk musician Greg Brown. And she often wonders if she’ll never release another album, if no more songs will demand to be set loose in the world.
“I don’t think it’s because I have a high standard, but I do have a certain standard,” she explained matter-of-factly, as though that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. “It takes me a long time to get 10 or 12 songs that I have faith in. I don’t always know if I’ll make another record, because I don’t know if I’ll find those 10 or 12 songs.”
For the new album, DeMent tried something that hadn’t clicked before: co-writing. “I’ve never really written with people,” she said. “John Prine and I tried to write a song together, and we have some great stories to tell but no songs. If I can’t write a song with John, then who can I write a song with? It just wasn’t my thing.” But she had better luck with her stepdaughter, Pieta Brown, a distinguished singer-songwriter in her own right. Together they penned the family remembrance “I Won’t Ask You Why” via text. “I sent her a melody and a title asking, ‘Hey, do you feel anything from this?’” DeMent said. “And about one in the morning, she sent me all the things she was feeling. Six verses in all.”
Still, despite recording that and other songs in multiple Nashville sessions with the producers Jim Rooney (who worked on her debut) and Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris), DeMent didn’t think she had enough faithful songs for an album. Brown finally coaxed DeMent into taking the next steps. “I just asked her if I could listen to those first sessions,” she said in a phone interview. “It was winter, and I spent hours driving around the tundra of Iowa listening to these songs. It seemed like she was communicating something massive and important that everybody should hear. So I called her and texted her, ‘You have a record!’”
“Workin’ on a World” is an album about DeMent’s ongoing quest to find her place, about passing the wisdom of the generation that came before her to the one that follows. On the title track she declares, “I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged to be workin’ on a world I may never see.”
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that song saved my life,” DeMent said. “Seeing my country embrace what it embraced in 2016 made me wonder truly and utterly how I was going to live. I don’t say that lightly. I just couldn’t comprehend it. But that song steadied me. I was singing it at home at the piano long before I recorded it. I would get up in the morning and sing it to get myself going, to get clarity. It was comforting in the way that even painful truths can carry comfort.”
The album is full of what might be called marching songs, which are meant to inspire listeners, to show them the hard road ahead and to spur them along — or, as she put it, “to fortify you in your fight against evil.” That idea is rooted deep in DeMent’s experience growing up in church, and it has inspired all of her albums to some extent, but especially the politically agitated “The Way I Should” and “Lifeline,” a collection of old hymns.
“That’s what I like about my Pentecostal upbringing,” DeMent said. “I’ve left most of it behind, but our songs were painting that picture of hell, the fiery furnace that awaited us, all the bad stuff coming down the line. So picture it. Get a really good vivid image. Then figure out what you’re going to do.
“Some things aren’t that complicated,” she continued. “There’s love and there’s hate. There’s good and there’s evil. Which side are you on? Figure it all out now and go.”
Folk veteran Iris DeMent shows us the ‘World’ she’s been workin’ on ~ NPR
“I really believe that I have been given an ability to deliver my songs,” says the folk and country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. “Not everybody’s going to get them, but there’s people that get them – and they need them.” For over 30 years Dement has been one of the most distinctive and spiritually searching voices in roots music, work that has netted her a couple of Grammy nominations, though never quite making her a household name. Her newest album, Workin’ on a World, is out today.
DeMent, born in Arkansas and the youngest of 14 kids, says she mostly grew up in the church, where she learned to ask a lot of questions about their faith by watching her mom – a questioning nature that shows up in her songs all the way back to her 1992 debut, Infamous Angel.
“Everybody is wondering what, and where they all came from / everybody is worried about where they’re all gonna go when the whole thing’s done,” she sings on “Let the Mystery Be,” “but no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me / I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”
DeMent is as authentic as they come, says country music historian and Hall-of-Famer Marty Stuart. “You can listen to most artists and tell who inspired them or where they tipped off from,” he says. “There are very few artists that are so original that that is almost nonexistent. What I hear, when I hear Iris, is just a total original.”
Stuart produced a song that’s been an introduction for many to DeMent’s work, a quirky duet from the late ’90s that she sang with her longtime collaborator, the late, legendary John Prine. DeMent remembers when Prine faxed her the lyrics to the now-famed song, “In Spite of Ourselves.”
“I saw the words and … I came out of the Pentecostal church and I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I mean, like, my heart started racing. I can’t do this.”
Here’s what Iris wound up singing:
“He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays, I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies / He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done / drinks his beer like it’s oxygen / He’s my baby and I’m his honey / I’m never gonna let him go…”
DeMent says, with a smile, that – not atypical for a clutch of Prine lyrics – “of course, everybody loved it.”
Prine died after contracting COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, joining a growing group of figures in DeMent’s life that are no longer physically here but who still show up in the music.
“John was so present when he was here. Like a few other people I know … my mom [is] in that category … they were so here,” DeMent says. “I don’t want to be all spooky about it, but I feel like I carry him and that’s just a wonderful feeling.”
You can hear those presences guiding her within the songs of Workin’ on a World, all written at home, in Iowa City – the title track, which begins the record, was penned right after the 2016 election.
“I got so down in trouble, I nearly lost my head / I started waking every morning filled with sadness, fear and dread,” she sings. “I sing that song and I get fortified,” DeMent says. “I feel like a part of this human family that’s been here a really long time and some number of us is going on, and I’ve got work to do.”
For Iris DeMent, Music Is The Calling That Forces Her Into The Spotlight
Fellow songwriter Ana Egge was excited when DeMent showed her these new songs last year. She says they speak to the influence DeMent has on musicians like her.
“I remember one time, she said, ‘Ana, do you think anybody ever asked Johnny Cash who Johnny Cash should be?’ ” Egge says. “She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ She said ‘Be who you are, figure that out, and keep figuring that out.’ “
DeMent says that, even at 62, she keeps figuring it out.
Iris DeMent’s New Album Is a Sustained Political Statement ~ The New yorker
“Workin’ on a World,” her first record of original material in more than a decade, calls on listeners to keep “building the beloved community.”
The singer-songwriter Iris DeMent’s first three albums arrived like clockwork, every two years, through the heart of the mid-nineteen-nineties. Each album featured bittersweet stories of blue-collar love, limits, and loss, sung in her bracing Arkansas twang. Since then, new DeMent albums have become more rare, and more precious. As the years between them stretched, DeMent told those who asked about the next album that she simply hadn’t written twelve songs she wanted to make a record out of. The explanation pointed to a perfectionist streak, and also to a hard-earned willingness to be patient with herself when inspiration stalled. It hinted, too, at the depression-fuelled writer’s block that DeMent, who is now sixty-two, has discussed frankly in interviews. Her new album, “Workin’ on a World,” is her first in eight years, her first of original material since 2012, and only her third album this century. It is also the loosest and most urgent recording of her career, and one of the most pointed and sustained political statements made by a musician working primarily in country.
Political stands are not new for DeMent. Some fans who first fell for bittersweet ballads such as “Mama’s Opry,” about her mother’s unrealized dreams of becoming a country singer, or the elegiac “Our Town” were startled, even angered, when she included the righteous progressive broadside “Wasteland of the Free” on “The Way I Should,” her 1996 album. (A representative couplet: “We kill for oil, then we throw a party when we win / Some guy refuses to fight, and we call that the sin.”) When a Republican state senator, John Grant, heard the song on a Tampa community-radio station, WMNF, he led a successful effort to eliminate the station’s funding from the state budget. DeMent did a benefit concert for the station; state funding was later restored.
On the new album, DeMent sings as an artist aware of the risks of speaking out yet determined to get to work, as in a rousing eight-minute litany of gratitude and complaint that begins, “I’m goin down to sing in Texas / Where anybody can carry a gun / But we will all be so much safer there / The biggest lie under the sun.” (The first line gives the song its title.) On a later verse, she points to another key influence on the new album: “It’s been way too long comin’,” she sings, “but I want to thank the Chicks.” Twenty years ago next month, days before the United States invaded Iraq, Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the country trio the Chicks, née the Dixie Chicks, told a London audience, “We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Maines’s offhand expression of dissent resulted in the effective blacklisting of the Chicks’ music on mainstream country-radio playlists, and in death threats for Maines and her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer.
Eleven days later, after the bombs had begun to fall, DeMent made a small protest of her own, declining to sing at a concert in Madison, Wisconsin. She told the crowd that performing that night would “trivialize the fact that my tax dollars are causing great suffering, and sending a message that might makes right.” DeMent was not as famous as the Chicks, but she also got death threats. “It gave me a whole different view of the world we’re in these days,” she told me, in 2004.
DeMent remains a traditionalist; her work is rooted in earlier sounds. Her distinctive voice will always boast the twang and drawl of the place where she was born, between the Mississippi River and the Ozark Mountains, and her church-born piano, plain but spirited, is the engine to nearly every song on the new album. But she has also emerged, somewhat unexpectedly, as an occasionally experimental artist. On her previous album, “The Trackless Woods,” from 2015, she set to music English translations of poems by the Russian modernist Anna Akhmatova. Two of DeMent’s new songs—“The Cherry Orchard,” inspired by the Chekhov play, and “I Won’t Ask You Why”—move so slowly and carefully it is as if she were discovering each word only a split second before voicing it. Beyond merely intimate, these songs feel private.
But the thrust of “Workin’ on a World” couldn’t be more public. Often, the lyrics are closer to commonsense kitchen-table talk than to poetry. “We drown in ill will or we swallow the pill,” she sings. And elsewhere: “Life is no respecter of persons. Even little children’s hearts get torn to shreds.” On “The Sacred Now,” written with her stepdaughter, the singer-songwriter Pieta Brown—who is also one of the album’s producers—DeMent sings, “Those who stand to gain / Draw dividing lines / You’re over there with yours / I’m over here with minе.”
“The Sacred Now” is a first for DeMent’s catalogue: a straight-up pop-rock record. But, on that song and others, it’s DeMent’s singing that sounds newest of all. Her voice still recalls early heroes of hers such as Loretta Lynn and Sara Carter, and her phrasing will likely always evoke the wry but earnest tone of her late friend and mentor John Prine. But she has never sung so freely before. Early in her career, DeMent’s easeful vocals were often misapprehended as sweet rather than bittersweet, and innocent rather than worldly wise. Here, the better to underscore her themes, DeMent lets us hear that singing is hard work but worth it. She heaves up and into one syllable, collapses into the next. There is less enunciation than we’ve come to expect from her, but more innervation.
The most daring, unexpected vocal on the album comes on “Let Me Be Your Jesus,” which DeMent sings from the point of view of Donald Trump, or some similar despot, and which hits like Randy Newman’s slave-trader-voiced “Sail Away.” Her vocals sound sickeningly sweet, sibilant and unctuous—like a serpent’s, as it tempts the world.
Country music, even when defined broadly, has never been known for its radical politics. The genre typically avoids explicit political statements altogether, and many country songs take it for granted that the way things have always been is the way they should be, perpetually reinforcing all the traditional hierarchies in the process. DeMent’s album confronts these assumptions, usually with generosity rather than condemnation. In one deeply affecting verse in a song called “Nothin’ for the Dead,” DeMent sees a small boy dressed exactly like his father, crying on his mother’s lap. “From the cradle poured straight into the mold,” she muses. “It’s kinda sweet but kinda sad. / Don’t be fooled, there is no separating the good stuff from the bad.”
Back when she released “Wasteland of the Free,” DeMent’s dissenting voice was nearly solitary in country circles. So it came as a welcome jolt last year to see so many newer country and country-adjacent artists leaning in DeMent’s direction. Molly Tuttle, who just won the Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for “Crooked Tree,” put out a song called “Big Backyard,” a joyous, sing-along invitation to a party where everyone’s welcome. On his album “Peculiar, Missouri,” the queer indie-folk troubadour Willi Carlisle seemed to amen Tuttle’s inclusive call with his own “Your Heart’s a Big Tent.” Adeem the Artist, on their album “White Trash Revelry,” sang matter-of-factly about being nonbinary and growing up poor. Miko Marks and the Resurrectors showed their mastery of all manner of gospel-inflected roots rock on an album called “Feel Like Going Home,” which includes “Trouble,” a song that evokes the work that the civil-rights leader John Lewis liked to call “good trouble.”
One of DeMent’s new songs, “Warriors of Love,” also evokes Lewis, and other civil-rights workers, standing their ground, causing good trouble. “Look around and you’ll see people still building the beloved community,” she sings, adding, “people in a fix, willing to risk an early ride in the hearse.” DeMent has fashioned an album that not only speaks to this hard political moment but that challenges her listeners to put in the work to create a more loving world, together, no matter what comes. As she declares in the first verse of “Goin’ Down to Sing in Texas,” “Go ahead and shoot me if it floats your little boat / I’ll live by my conscience even if that’s all she wrote.” ♦
2 thoughts on “IRIS DEMENT IS WORRIED ABOUT THE WORLD. SO SHE MADE ANOTHER ALBUM ~ NYT”
Cool tune….very soulful riffs.
Iris is one of my very favorites..