Iris DeMent, a perfectionist of spirit, comes to a musical crossroad

Iris DeMent // Photo by Pieta Brown

By Barry Gilbert
Special to Go! Magazine

ST. LOUIS – The saying “good things come to those who wait” epitomizes folk singer Iris DeMent as well as her fans. It took 16 years for DeMent to release her fourth studio CD, last year’s “Sing the Delta.” And that gap says volumes about DeMent and, as she put it, “my music career, if you want to call it that.”

DeMent, who performs with a full band Friday (Nov. 22, 2013) at the Sheldon Concert Hall, is a perfectionist of spirit. If her writing doesn’t move her, she won’t record it.

As the years passed after the release of “The Way I Should” in 1996, “I kept trying to write, but there was just no life to it,” DeMent says by phone from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. “And I didn’t feel like making a record that was just a bunch of songs that didn’t have life and spirit to them. … My secret fear is that I’m a lazy ass, but I don’t think that’s it, because I (put in the work).”

DeMent says she retreats to a work room in her home but doesn’t really play any music, choosing instead to “make myself available” to inspiration, “to hear things in my heart,” and then, when it happens, to “sit down and go to work on it.”

“I guess I’ve dropped the ball in some ways,” she says. “I don’t approach it like, ‘Hey, I have to write songs, because I’m a quote-unquote songwriter.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that. I kind of get down on myself because I haven’t done that. But I don’t know. That’s just not the way it’s gone for me, and when I’ve tried to do that it just becomes so … I start hating music, I start hating this stuff. So I just don’t do it.”

Respected by her peers, DeMent has worked with artists ranging from John Prine and Tom Russell to Emmylou Harris and Josh Turner. Her music has found its way into TV (“Northern Exposure”) and movies (the end credits of the “True Grit” remake).

DeMent, 52, went to college in Kansas City and lived in Missouri for 20 years. The youngest of 14 children, she was born in Paragould, Ark., near the Missouri line — in the Arkansas Delta of the CD’s title track. Her parents were farmers until the farm went bust, after which her father helped try to unionize the Emerson Electric plant in Paragould. When that effort failed, her dad moved the family to Southern California. DeMent was 3 years old.

Family and roots are the defining motifs of “Sing the Delta,” a celebration of real people facing life’s challenges. DeMent says she wasn’t sure she’d ever make another record until she wrote “Sing the Delta,” which showed her connections to other songs and bits of songs she already had — songs about death and faith and love. Her dad and mom, who were born in 1910 and 1918, respectively, play major roles in the songs.

“My mom and dad were from a time and from an area where you had to be strong if you were gonna survive,” DeMent says. “There weren’t a lot of cushions. They expected things to be tough. … They didn’t have some notion that they were supposed to die looking good. They were supposed to work really hard and use up all their resources and get out of here.”

DeMent’s father died in 1992. Her mom passed in August 2011, just a few months before DeMent began recording “Sing the Delta,” and her mother’s spirit hovers over the record. Her mother’s dream was “to go off and sing, and she never made it.”

“So I think about half of what I’ve done has probably been out of affection for her, my desire to help her have something that she wasn’t able to get for herself … my attempt to give my mom a gift,” DeMent says. “The other part of it is I just genuinely love the music I feel like I’m supposed to write and sing. But the two things have always been married, to me.

“And it’s a little odd now because she’s gone (and I feel like) that’s been completed. Whatever element she brought to my music, that impetus, it’s gone. I truly wonder. I can tell that whatever I write, wherever I go next, will be different. Which is fine, I’m ready for that.”

Iris DeMentWhen 8 p.m. Nov. 22, 2013 • Where Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Boulevard • How much $30-$35 • More info 314-533-9900; MetroTix.com

 This story was originally published at stltoday.com

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