Iris Dement - All that living will allow
Singers celebrate the human voice. Their lyrics are words. But animated by voice those words are subsumed into sounds....In most songs the drama or tension results from the fact that the singer moves between word (sense) and note (song). At one moment the song simply "says" something. At another moment the voice stretches out the words -- the heart cannot contain! -- and the voice moves toward pure sound. Words take flight.
-- Richard Rodriguez, Hunger Of Memory
All sorts of things can keep artists from creating their art. There are likely as many obstacles that can come between songwriters and new songs, indeed, as there are songwriters and songs. And it's all the more difficult to discuss because each artist doesn't experience the silencing of creativity in precisely the same way every time it occurs.
Iris DeMent didn't write any new songs, or at least any she was happy with, for close to a decade. In the first half of the 1990s, DeMent released three albums containing 28 original songs that earned her a reputation as one of the best songwriters of her generation. And her singing, which seemed to evoke all the living that mere words can never quite convey, had similarly earned DeMent a spot among the elite vocalists of her time.
Even amidst the dry years, DeMent never stopped singing. But her "writer's block," as it's been termed, became a matter of particular frustration to the members of her audience. One fan would mention that DeMent had sung marvelously in concert, and another would immediately inquire, "Yes, but did she have any new songs?"
During the years of writer's block, she divorced. She endured both lengthy and brief periods of depression. At times she toured more than she prefers, which left her with too little of what Lucinda Williams once called "cool quiet and time to think." She dealt with hate mail and death threats over her expression of political beliefs. She fell in love and remarried. Now, finally, at age 43, she has a new album of gospel standards, Lifeline (due out November 9 on Flariella Records). And she's writing some new songs.
When people have asked DeMent over the years why it's taken her so long to put out a new record -- and she says she's been asked this many, many times -- her pat response has been something like, "I haven't put a record out in eight years because I haven't written twelve songs that I want to make a record of." As pat answers go, that's a fine one.
But the real answers to where Iris DeMent has been all these years, and where she is today, well, that's a long story. And it starts in church.
Iris Luella DeMent was born January 5, 1961, the youngest of fourteen children in Paragold, Arkansas, a tiny town located just beneath the Missouri boot heel. On January 8, she attended her first church service. "My mom always prided herself on getting her kids to church the first Sunday after they were born," DeMent says.
Indeed, both in Arkansas, where Iris' father, Patrick, did factory work at Emerson Electric, and in California, where he moved the family in 1964 after an attempt to unionize the plant failed, the DeMents' life centered on the church. In Buena Park, California, where Iris mostly grew up, this meant that in addition to attending several fervent Pentecostal services each week, members of her family often went door to door or performed in public in an effort to win souls to Christ.
"I remember being like six years old," DeMent says, "standing on the corner, shaking my tambourine, and some kid would go by on his bike. I'd think, boy, you and I are worlds apart."
Music was a central part of the family's worship, fostering fellowship among the church members on Wednesdays and Sundays and girding the spirits of congregants at home during the rest of the week. All of the DeMents -- eight children remained at home as Iris grew up -- sang in church, and did so with abundant strenuousness and joy, as is the Pentecostal way.
Many in the family played the piano at home; Iris' father had played the fiddle, too, when he was a young man in Arkansas but put it away when he committed himself to Christ. Some of them occasionally even performed on record: Billed as the DeMent Sisters, a trio of Iris' older siblings provided backing vocals once for a local gospel recording session, while another sister was in a gospel group that recorded "I Don't Want To Get Used To This World". "That's how I first heard [that song], when I was just about 10, I guess," DeMent says. Lifeline includes her own version of it, backed by little more than lap steel licks and the strum of her own acoustic guitar.
In fact, excluding one DeMent original, the songs on Lifeline are all ones Iris sang in church as a girl or ones she learned from old hymn books her mother had brought with the family from Arkansas.
Take "The Old Gospel Ship", for example. "I grew up hearing that song all of the time," DeMent says. "But the first time I really remember it was when this lady came to our church to sing. Well, she was probably only about 16, but to me she was a lady. I was maybe 7. Her name was Sharon Scroggins, and she sang one Sunday morning and was just really, really good. She had this great big beehive hairdo. And she was cross-eyed. And looking back I can see how I should've gone, 'Oh, this is weird.' But I was just so taken with her; I wanted to be her. I thought it was wonderful that her eyes were crossed.
"She was scheduled to sing again that night, so I spent the afternoon getting my hair up in a beehive: I borrowed a wig from one of my sisters. Normally I'd sit next to my girl friends at church, but this night I sat up front by myself so I could focus on her. And I sat there and, I kid you not, I crossed my eyes. And she started singing 'The Old Gospel Ship'. I'll never forget it. It was one of those things where you first go, 'Oh, I know this song.' But I didn't know the song. She knew that song. She could really sing."
So could DeMent's mother, who Iris lists right alongside the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash as among her primary musical influences. Indeed, Flora Mae DeMent inspired one of DeMent's most popular songs, the Infamous Angel cut "Mama's Opry". Iris' mother also provided lead vocals to that 1992 album's closing track, the gospel standard "Higher Ground".
"I was lucky like that; I grew up around a lot of really great singers," DeMent says. "My mom, of course, but there was just a lot of real voices in our church too. People just opened up and sang. I took it for granted then, but I don't hear that a lot anymore. There was such a freedom in the way we sang in our church growing up."
Even so, DeMent eventually began to question what she'd learned there. She was not the first young person, of course, to reach a place where freedom was the last thing her church represented to her. Given that she had been born into a particular spiritual tradition, as opposed to having an intensely emotional and life-altering epiphany ("I never had that 'Born Again' moment; it was just the environment I grew up in"), it is perhaps unsurprising that DeMent would at some point begin to examine critically the familiar faith of youth. For Iris, this religious questioning began when she was 16. Or, as she puts it, "That's when everything went crazy."
"Crazy in a good way," she adds quickly. "I started reflecting on my beliefs and seeing which ones held up next to my own experience. And when I was able to look at a belief and realize it wasn't true for me anymore, I tossed it. And I had to leave the church because of that. I mean, I left the church in my heart and in my thinking; there was this period when I was there physically but I was not there. A year or two after that I quit going altogether. But even then, the songs still held up for me, they never let me down. I still loved those songs, and I still sang them."
She especially turned to the old songs when she was feeling troubled, a strategy she'd learned well from her mother. Flora Mae had always sung gospel songs to help her ease her confusion, or heal a hurt, or give her hope. Her mother sang, DeMent told an interviewer in 1998, in order "to get herself out of a sad miserable place."
Today, nearly a quarter-century after Iris DeMent left the faith of her parents, those same gospel songs she learned at home and at church are what she most likely turns to when the sky seems dark and she feels in need of a light to guide her. As she professes in "God Walks These Dark Hills", the new album's closing performance: "God...walks through the cold dark night, the shadows of midnight...to show me the way."
"I'm just an ordinary person," she says, "one who was raised to have a conscience -- and to check in on it every once in a while and to react out of that place. The old gospel songs help me do that. They still help me do that."
The irony is that DeMent's conscience, the roots of her raising, have led her to conclusions in stark contrast to what those raising her might have wished.
Her voice became a little teary, as she went on to say that she would feel like a hypocrite, singing as if everything was right with the world...she went on to say that the tickets would all be refunded, and that if anyone had trouble at all getting their money back, they should contact her directly through her website. She thanked everyone for coming, said 'Goodnight,' and walked off the stage. At this point, some audience members, myself included, stood up and applauded.
-- post to a discussion group at irisdement.com
On March 21, 2003, the day the United States began its peremptory war against Iraq, Iris DeMent was scheduled to play a show at the Barrymore Theater in Madison, Wisconsin. As showtime neared, DeMent sat in her dressing room, struggling to reach a decision. Finally, after the opening act had performed, she took the stage and told the 600 people in attendance that, given the day's events, she had decided not to sing.
"It would be trivializing the fact that my tax dollars are causing great suffering, and sending a message that might makes right," DeMent told the audience according to one press account.
As she explains now, "When I cancelled that show in Madison, I didn't plan to make some big political statement; I was following my own conscience and how I felt. I just didn't feel right singing that night." On DeMent's website, responses to the singer's small protest against the war were overwhelmingly positive. Even those few in disagreement with her decision seemed to appreciate that she was acting out of deep-rooted personal beliefs. And that might have been the end of the episode, too, except...
"Some right-wing radio show picked up on it," she says, "and people who didn't know me or my music at all were writing very threatening things to me. They didn't know me from a hole in the wall, but I'd been named as one of the new 'enemies' on some extremist show and that's all it took." Hundreds of angry e-mails began pouring in to her website. Many of them attacked her character, intelligence, and patriotism; others damned her to burn in hell; some included death threats.
It wasn't the first time DeMent found herself embroiled in a minor controversy. In 1997, a Florida state senator, Republican John Grant, heard "Wasteland Of The Free", a track from DeMent's third album, The Way I Should, on Tampa public radio station WMNF (88.5 FM). Grant was enraged by the song's content; The Tampa Tribune said the senator was especially angered by the couplet, "We got politicians runnin' races on corporate cash/Now don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them people's ass."
Grant proceeded to lead a successful effort to eliminate the station's primary source of funding, $103,000 worth, from the state budget. In response, WMNF listeners helped the station raise more than $120,000 in an emergency fund drive. In 1999, DeMent performed at a benefit concert for the station. The station's state funding recently has been restored.
Much of DeMent's audience responded to "Wasteland Of The Free" enthusiastically. But not all her fans were appreciative of lines such as, "They say they are Christ's disciples but they don't look like Jesus to me," or, "We kill for oil then we throw a party when we win." For example, one fan, upon hearing the song, posted to a discussion group on DeMent's website that, "I came away disheartened by what I had thought was a remarkably talented person. In music, yes. In thought, character and loyalty -- NO."
"I knew the song would stir up controversy and that people might want to respond; that's why I recorded it," DeMent says today. "But I guess I was a little ignorant as to how much of the response would be directed not at the song but at me personally."
The questioning of her character and of her devotion to her country in the wake of the "Wasteland" controversy was, for DeMent, a learning experience about the costs of speaking one's mind, of how easily an entreaty for America to honor its ideals can be angrily mistaken as an attack on America.
Still, she was unprepared for the reaction her Madison protest would inspire. "I'm telling you, I got mail, vicious mail, like I could've never fathomed. And I'm not some giant entertainer here. By a lot of standards I'm barely on the map. It was very frightening to me, it was very intimidating, and it shook me up in a big way. Anybody who thinks you can be the brunt of this sort of hatred and not be affected by it is kidding themselves.
"The whole vibe of this country right now is nowhere near what it was in '96 [when "Wasteland" was released]. What happened then was, yes, I got some hate mail. But mostly it was people who disagreed with me, who stated their case, and I can't complain about that; that's the way it should be.
"But this was a whole different thing," she continues, pausing to make sure she's getting the words right. "It was like...murderous, almost. The place that it came from, I mean. It really made my head spin. It gave me a whole different view of the world we're in these days.
"It would never occur to me to try to crush another human being, to hate them so much you wished them dead. [Those letters] were attacks mostly, I felt, not on my opinions but on my soul. What's so prevalent today -- you're evil, you're the enemy -- that's a spiritual assault.
"It's not just that you're discouraged from being different, with people looking at you cockeyed. Now, it's like you're aligned with the enemy. That's a big leap, and we can't give in to it. I mean, to me, it's not anything at all like the Democratic Party that's at stake. It's our spirit that is at stake."
DeMent is diligently protective of her privacy, and of her sense of what constitutes a good quality of life, too. ("It's true I don't work near as hard as you tell me I'm supposed to," she sang on the title track to The Way I Should. "But I live just the way I want to, and that's the way I should.") That's one reason why, but for a brief stint in Nashville before the release of her debut album, she has continued to live in Kansas City, Missouri, well away from country music's business and celebrity capital. It's also why she stopped giving interviews at all, for a time, in the wake of the hostile reaction to her Madison decision.
"That whole attack reminded me very much of my experience growing up in the church. And there were a lot of good things in the church, and I feel the good things are expressed in these songs [on Lifeline], the way I sing and feel them. But there was also a very repressive side to that experience. You know, don't speak your mind; don't question anything; go along with the rules. The book's already been written; don't go challenging it.
"And when I started getting the hate mail, it felt like the Pentecostal church of God all over again to me. And I think I reacted to it in the same way too. I remember when I finally came to that place as a teenager of speaking out and being honest about the fact that I didn't believe a lot of things I was brought up to believe, I went through a period of kind of hibernation. When you step out there on a limb and feel yourself rejected by the people you've leaned on your whole life, it takes some time to absorb all that, to collect yourself and to find your strength again."
Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by
So hard to make every note bend just right
-- "Sweet Is the Melody", Iris DeMent
Who can say exactly why new songs didn't arrive for DeMent during these last eight years like they had in the first half of the 1990s? Since the Warner Bros. release of The Way I Should in 1996, her time has been filled with all of the varied distractions, joyous and sorrowful alike, that any life provides.
Then again, who can be certain what an actual "reason" for writing or not writing might even be? Others songwriters, after all, have suffered or enjoyed similar life circumstances to DeMent and have ended up with more songs than they knew what to do with.
All DeMent can say with certainty is that for a long time, inspiration did not come calling upon her. It wasn't the first time, either.
"I didn't write a song till I was 25, and I guess I could call all those years writer's block," DeMent suggests. "I always wanted to write songs. I used to pray to write songs. When I was little, I'd sit at the piano and wait for a song to come, until my mom would tell me to go outside. I just knew it was supposed to happen."
On the other hand, DeMent's standard response when asked why she hasn't put out a record in so long -- "I haven't written twelve songs that I want to make a record of" -- doesn't identify the problem as writer's block so much as her own impossibly high standards. She's worked very hard at writing songs; she's written some songs; she just doesn't think they're good songs.
"I know people say, 'Oh, it's a craft,'" she continues. "And I know for some people that works. But I'm not one of them. I've tried that route. I've done that thing where you sit down every day and write. When I couldn't come up with anything, I'd sit there in my chair and move words around and whatever. And I'd get this...thing. But I didn't have any feeling for it, just nothing."
DeMent also has gone years where the problem wasn't merely unsatisfactory songs. The problem was that she was mired in depression, and there were no songs at all.
"I first had those feelings [of depression] when I was in fifth, sixth grade," DeMent remembers. "I didn't know what they were at the time, but I would just get very, very sad. I'd be walking to school and start crying. I didn't know what was going on. Times were different then; people didn't talk openly about that stuff. And so from then on, these dark periods would come up now and then. But as far as a long stretch of it, that was new to me.
"And I don't have manic periods, either. I wish I had manic periods," she adds, laughing. "But when I come out of depression, I'm so happy to be alive that I am more likely to write. When I feel well, I'm more likely to want to do something creatively with what I'd experienced when I wasn't. But I don't write when I'm depressed. I just feel paralyzed when I'm depressed."
DeMent can at times be her own harshest critic, a tendency that is only compounded by depression and one that, in any event, doesn't always foster the creative process. She has been plenty hard on herself, for example, when the songs didn't come as fast as she or others might have wished.
"There's been times over the last eight years when I've really felt a lot of turmoil over [not writing] -- where I've felt like a failure, like something's wrong with me," DeMent admits. "But I'm over that. I think I'm over that. It has its own time, its own reason, and I don't have much say about it, I truly don't. I've accepted that there is a clock that is my own and I don't have to make excuses for it. I'm actually even grateful for it. The way songs come to me, and don't come to me, is its own beautiful, funny, weird thing.
"What I mean is -- and maybe I'm letting myself off the hook here a little bit -- but I've kind of stepped away from the expectation that, 'Oh, you're a writer, so goddammit, sit down and write; you have to have a record every year or every two years.' I've tried to throw that idea away. That's a business world idea. It doesn't have anything to do with me as a human being and what I need and what's going on in my life and in this world. I feel free of that now. If I put out a record this year, that's great. If I don't, if I never do, I don't feel crippled by that anymore.
"At the same time, I feel in my heart and my soul that there are more songs that are going to pass through me. You can sense things in life. They don't always have bodies but you can feel them. And when my first song came to me when I was 25, it felt like a presence walked in the room and talked to me. It felt that real. I never had the Born Again experience, but I've had that. The most spiritual experience I've ever had was when I wrote my first song.
"And I still feel that presence. Even in years when I've gone without writing, I've continued to feel that presence. And that's what I mean when I say I still believe there are more songs to come through me.
"I hope to have a record [of new material] soon," she concludes. "But I've stopped expecting to. I don't know what will happen. I have written a few new songs. We'll see."
Nobody knows what it means to me
Nobody knows but my God and me
I've got that old time religion in my heart
And it's way down inside
-- "I've Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart"
Though it's been eight years since her last album, DeMent didn't just vanish from the face of the earth. Indeed, she has at times been quite busy. She contributed tracks to tribute albums honoring Iowa singer-songwriter Greg Brown (who she married in November 2002) and country legend Tom T. Hall. She recorded duets with Ralph Stanley, Steve Earle, Tom Russell, and old friend John Prine (who wrote the liner notes for Infamous Angel). She performed the folk song "Saro Jane" in the 2000 film Songcatcher and had a speaking part as well ("I just had one or two lines, but they were terrifying," she recalls). Her song "No Time To Cry" from 1994's My Life, recorded by Merle Haggard in 1996, has just been recorded again, by mainstream country singer Joe Nichols. And, of course, she's played concerts all over the country.
In other words, no matter what was else was happening in DeMent's life, she kept right on singing. And when her soul felt heaviest, the songs she was most likely to sing were the gospel songs she grew up with. As she writes in the liner notes to Lifeline: "A few years ago...the hard times came in for a long visit and about the only thing that helped was sitting at the piano and singing these songs to myself." Once, when especially troubled, she writes, DeMent called her mother, who immediately tossed her a "lifeline": "Iris! You gotta get to a pe-yan-a."
"I sit around and play old church songs a lot," Iris says. "For me, it's kind of like looking through a photo album. They take me back to the comforting aspects of my past.
"These songs are a spiritual thing for me, but not because they belong to a church or a book or anything. To me, they're like this link I have to where I come from, and to my mom and dad, and to the people who came before them. When I go through hard times, I still sit down and sing these songs; I feel like I'm going to make it when I sing these songs.
"How I've kept an important part of my past with me is that I've interpreted [those gospel songs] to suit who I am today," she concludes. "I can sing these songs even more wholeheartedly now than I did growing up. I don't believe in a magic Jesus; I did growing up, I don't anymore. But when I think of Jesus, I think of this person that came here and struggled through this life, and was killed in the end, but managed to muster up love and compassion for the world....I think of the human struggle and of someone who is a good example of how to make it through.
"So when I sing [in 'I've Got That Old Time Religion' on Lifeline] that 'I'm glad Jesus came/ Glory to his name,' I mean it."
Does anyone ever complain to her that the writers of the old gospel standards meant to underscore one message and one message only -- "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16) -- and that she's kidding herself if she interprets them in ways other than they were intended?
"Well sure," DeMent allows. "I have a family full of people who would tell me that. If I hadn't grown up with this music, then I probably wouldn't be singing these songs. But they are so meshed for me with the place I come from and the way I learned about...feeling.
"So much of what I learned about the world and myself and the people in my world came through these songs. And for me to separate myself to them would be really damaging to me. That may sound a little extreme, but I really feel that way. I can't walk away from something that is such a deep part of me."
"I mean, it's funny," she says later. "I say I'm not a Christian, but I'm not a Christian by what I think is the distorted definition that we all know today. But if I go to my definition, and the one I think might have been something closer to the original one, then in that sense I guess I am a Christian."
Indeed, the link between the Iris DeMent who wrote the political protest song "Wasteland Of The Free" and the Iris DeMent who hears in gospel songs not primarily a formula for eternal salvation but a model for how to live in the here and now -- "A new commandment I give unto you; that ye love one another" (John 13:34) -- can be found in "He Reached Down", the one original DeMent composition on Lifeline.
"That's the story of the Good Samaritan, where the man is beaten and robbed and everyone passes him by but the Samaritan, who cares for his wounds and takes him to an inn," she says. "To me [the Samaritan] is the Christian story. It's a story of love and compassion, of non-judgment, of doing for others."
"He Reached Down" is DeMent's attempt to write a gospel song that highlights what she finds most valuable in the New Testament. She aims to communicate this not only in the lyrics, but also in the way her voice conveys human yearnings of innumerable and universal variety, emotions and strivings that mere words are insufficient to contain, just as the inchoate moans of the victim left for dead inspired the Samaritan to stop and assist a stranger in need.
"I actually go to church here in town, St. Mark's Union Church...a predominantly black church," she says. "It's the first place I've been able to find that kind of lively, soulful preaching style I grew up with and that also has a service that speaks to me, that is very free, very accepting of any religions. And of anybody's right not even to have a religion.
"There's a woman in our church, her name is Mother Bohannon. I think she's 85. And every now and then she'll launch into a song and I just come apart. She has a beautiful voice, but more than that, it's that she just brings up so much emotion and life from so deep down. It's a really wonderful thing."
When asked point blank what she's been up to since 1996, DeMent gives a quick-recap answer: "I got divorced, I bought a house, I remarried, I made some new friends and got back in close with old friends I'd lost touch with, I started working a lot less, eating a little better, resting a little more. I've been gardening. Basically just having more of a home life, something I didn't have much of for a while there."
A big part of this new life is her marriage to Greg Brown, a far more prolific songwriter than DeMent but one who grew up in a church environment not unlike his wife's.
"In 1992, at one of the first shows I ever did -- I mean, where I left town and went out to the east coast -- I was opening for Greg," she recalls. "I listened to him backstage and he says he went out in the audience and listened to me, but we didn't actually meet. And then we'd met a time or two at festivals through the years, that sort of thing, but we never spoke together for more than five minutes at a time. Then in July, before we married in November, we did a show together, in Saratoga. We talked a little while, and started seeing each in late September and got married in November."
"It was very snappy," she laughs. "Not like anything I've ever done before."
During the years when DeMent was waiting for songs that didn't come, her singing was proof of the poet John Milton's faith that "They also serve who only sit and wait." And, we might add, who "only" sing. Fans, critics, the music industry, and DeMent herself have all been disappointed when new songs didn't materialize, as if her singing wasn't enough of a gift on its own.
Much of that expectation can be written off to the perennial and tiresome bias which favors the second half of the "singer-songwriter" label more than the first. Maybe someday, we'll come to see that DeMent's singing has been her greatest gift all along.
Certainly she's singing better than she ever has, which is saying a great deal. Her singing has always possessed immediacy, and a built-in prettiness that demanded attention be paid. On Lifeline, however, she sacrifices that prettiness, the sweetness, when necessary for something harder, more complex, and beautiful.
For example, on "Near The Cross", one of several cuts on which DeMent is accompanied only by her own piano, she swallows vowels, stretches syllables, slurs her enunciation, moans, allows her normally soaring voice to speak in breathy, earthbound tones, and doesn't always keep perfect time or sing in perfect pitch. Yet every note is perfect.
"Near the cross I'll watch and wait...till the golden strand I reach, just beyond the river," she prays, playing the calming chords she's known practically all her life. It's not just the words of the song, but her singing of them, that reveals how weary she truly is, and, at the same time, how deeply at peace. In her rendering, the old hymn is invested with meanings that transcend the limitations of a religious doctrine. Sense gives way to sound, and human desires that are typically inchoate but felt intensely are fleetingly given a specific human voice.
Throughout Lifeline, her vocals sound as deeply felt, as in the moment, as messy and full of life as any singer you care to name. And that's enough. When Iris DeMent sings, no matter who gets the writer's credit, it is, as she says of fellow congregant Mother Bohannon, "a really wonderful thing."
"I'm older and I've gone through some things," she says by way of explaining the emotional depth of her latest recordings. "I didn't play shows really before my first record came out, so a lot of my focus was on how to hold it together. Keep strumming, stay on rhythm, what do you say to these people? And so it's only lately that I think I've been able to start relaxing and to just sing. I've noticed this around the house, and it's a different thing.
"When I hear Mother Bohannon sing at church, I listen to her and I get really excited. I think, oh God, no telling what I'll sound like when I'm 85. All that living. I'm getting excited about finding out, about learning to turn into sound everything that happens to me. I'm excited about getting at all those changes that are occurring inside me and somehow letting them out in my voice.
"What will I sound like when I've learned to let all that living come out in my voice? All that living!"
ND senior editor David Cantwell lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Eight years ago he wrote about Iris DeMent in ND #6.