Perth-bound Iris DeMent sings to fend off America's evil king
When Iris DeMent helps her old friend John Prine bring in 2019 at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, she’ll be fulfilling a dream of her mother’s by proxy.
Flora Mae DeMent was always singing around the house and she passed on not just a love of singing but the feeling that singing was like praying to Iris and her sisters. She sang in the church, too, but her real wish was that, one day, she’d go off and be a singer at the “country music church” – the Opry.
Raising eight of her own children, alongside another six from her husband’s previous marriage, thwarted that ambition. But her singing inspired her youngest child, Iris to go on to touch a loyal audience, a good number of whom will be in the Perth for the Southern Fried festival later this month.
“I was submersed in music, growing up,” says Iris DeMent, who joins singer, songwriter and guitarist Rodney Crowell in a Southern Fried double bill. “As well as my mum singing, my dad played the fiddle and we didn’t think of this as entertainment. My parents used music to survive. They didn’t have money, so they couldn’t buy the other cushions that people lean on when times are hard. They leaned on music and that got us through.”
Country music legend Merle Haggard famously described DeMent as “a great singer, the best I’ve ever heard” before inviting her to join his band when she was starting out. While she found this flattering, DeMent says she might have had a different take on what constituted a great singer.
“I never thought for a second that I was the best singer Merle ever heard, although I’m glad he said it and took me into his world for a stretch of time,” she says. “For me the best singing is singing that’s heartfelt. I was surrounded by great singers, at home and in the church – the Pentecostal Church - which was my primary influence, and by that I don’t mean these singers were stars or flawless. They just made the people around them feel good. I’ve always thought of singing as a spiritual thing.”
The church’s influence extended to the kind of records that were allowed into the DeMent household. Johnny Cash, she says, got through the door because he’d sung gospel songs, which in turn made Folsom Prison Blues acceptable. Similarly with Loretta Lynn and Aretha Franklin, although she can’t quite work out how the hard living Merle Haggard made it onto the family’s record player.
One day young Iris found her sister Faye lying on the bed with a note book, singing to herself. The DeMent sisters were quite a turn around the area of Los Angeles where they’d moved from Arkansas (Iris sang with them from the age of five but was put off singing in public for a while after she forgot the words to a song onstage) and Iris found the idea of her sister writing songs deeply cool. She would always look on record labels to see who had written the songs she was listening to and decided that she, too, would become a songwriter.
This was more easily thought of than brought to fruition. She remembers her mum virtually dragging her off the piano stool as – not a few times - she tried to write a song before going off to school and almost made herself late in the process. These efforts didn’t amount to much and it would be quite some time – she was twenty-five – before the first complete Iris DeMent song, Our Town, arrived.
Her first album, Infamous Angel, was released six years later and although she’s often been one of the first call singers on projects such as recorded tributes to Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rogers and Tom T Hall or been invited to record with fellow singers including Prine, Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffiths, she hasn’t been prolific in terms of her own output. She jokes that in the time it took her to choose the font to be used on the cover on 2012’s Sing the Delta, her first album of original songs for sixteen years, her husband, singer-songwriter Greg Brown had written the ten songs that comprised his next record.
Part of the reason for the long wait between Sing the Delta and its predecessor, The Way I Should (her 2004 album, Lifeline featured her interpretations of traditional songs and songs her mother sang in times of stress) was that she and Brown were raising their adopted daughter. She was, she says, still turning up to work during this time, however.
“I write the same way now that I always have,” she says, adding that while she might not always produce, the act of trying is part of the work. “I sit in a private place, I get quiet, and I wait to hear what's there. Sometimes I'll just sit at the piano and sing and play for hours, which is also a kind of waiting. I always have a handful of books and writings nearby that I'll often revisit to see if an idea, a sentence, even a word might open a door. Once in a while all of this will lead to a song. But even if it doesn't, I'm always better off for the waiting.”
She needs peace and quiet to work, especially in the era of America’s current president, as what she sees and hears on the TV news has her fired up but not necessarily in a way that’s conducive to writing songs.
“Well, the "current affair" in my country, as you know, is that we have a common thug at the helm and our white evangelical "Christians" have crowned him King, “ she says. “Jesus is out; Trump's in. That's the truth of the matter. They've turned their backs on the defender of the least of these, in favour of the nastiest of these. How they rationalize this is beyond me. I grew up in the Pentecostal church and was taught to resist evil, and that's what I'm trying to do. My mum used to say that "singin' is prayin'" and I'm singing a lot more than usual these days.”
For her Perth concert she’ll choose songs that make her feel something, the ones, she says, “that make me wanna keep fighting the good fight.”
As someone who didn’t become a songwriter to make money and who believes that a song can be as valid whether it’s heard by five people or five million people, she’s learning now not to concern herself with what pleases audiences and whether she sings what are deemed to be the right songs.
“I've done shows when I've been so deep into the music I've walked off stage in a near euphoria, then gotten a letter from someone in the audience who was so disappointed they wanted their money back,” she says. “I pray every night that the Spirit will move through me. That's all I can do. The rest of it is out of my hands, where it belongs.”
Iris DeMent appears at Perth Concert Hall on Friday, July 27. Southern Fried runs from Thursday, July 26 to Sunday, July 29. Further information here
From The Herald, July 18, 2018
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