DeMent spells out what matters most

By Roy Kasten

“What matters to me are the songs,” Iris DeMent explained in quiet conviction, during an interview one October Saturday from her home in Gladstone, Kansas.

Iris DeMent is entering her sixth year of recording, but she speaks with a gentle wisdom beyond experience. Her career has moved steadily upward, ever since John Prine first heard her songs and encouraged her to quit work at K-Mart and record “Infamous Angel” for Rounder Records. That record is a stunning debut, filled with faith in music and family and home, and a lyrical maturity that, as DeMent sings on the opening song, “lets the mystery be. “

In 1994, she released “My Life,” a 10-song spiritual autobiography, which gave the themes of her previous record short story-like details and astonishing, unprotected honesty.

With her new Warner Brothers Records release, “The Way I Should,” DeMent continues to declare her independence from catchy disposable country, the kind that rules radio and Nashville, engaging instead in political and satirical themes, and perky, acoustic swing, via Randy Scruggs production.

The record includes “This Kind of Happy,” which DeMent co-wrote with Merle Haggard and the closing “Trouble,” a duet with Delbert McClinton. Among the musicians on the disc are Paul Franklin, John Jennings, Tammy Rogers, Harry Stinson, Steuart Smith and Chuck Leavell.

CST: The new record combines a wide range of genres – blues, honky-tonk, rock. How did you develop the sound? What was your working relationship with Scruggs?
DeMent: Well at the start, we sat down together with all the players. I played the songs by myself, as I would at home, just piano and guitar. We talked a little bit, not a lot really, and then we played each song once, and most of the time we just said, “Yeah, that’s it.”
By the third or fourth time we rolled the tape and recorded. You know Randy was in the room with us the whole time; he was a part of the band. Everything just came together. There wasn’t a lot of thinking and conversing about the sound. I wanted to be open minded about it, and just wanted to bring a good group of players together. That’s what we did.
In the beginning, Randy suggested players for me to okay , and I didn’t know half of them. I’ve never been in a band, you know. Eventually I just said, “Randy, if you feel good about them, bring ’em in. If it doesn’t feel right, we’ll change the plan. “

CST: How did you first meet Randy Scruggs?
DeMent: I knew of Randy through the second “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” record. I had heard that one before the first, although he plays on both. I had just moved to Nashville, and I hadn’t made my first record yet. I saw him in the video of the making of “Circle,” and he seemed like a nice guy, someone I’d like to know, and it stuck in my mind. I knew his work and liked it, and he ended up liking my work, and one thing led to another.
For me it’s important to find a producer and musician you respect, someone you feel comfortable with and someone who also respects your work.

CST: Does this record reflect your musical influences and interests growing up?
DeMent: I heard all kinds of music growing up. I always gravitated towards songs where I could hear the words. And that’s why I love country music. To me the instrumentation isn’t as important as voices and words. My main thing has always been the writing and the voice.

CST: Sometimes there’s a strong contrast between a song’s theme and the arrangements. “Letter to Mom” is a story of abuse and confession. But the music is buoyant and spontaneous, almost a Bakersfield sound. How did you decide on matching arrangements with songs?
DeMent: That song is a hard story, but the character feels pretty strong and alive. She’s someone who stands up and says what’s happened to her, and she has to be strong. It’s funny how quickly that song came to me. When I finished writing it, I asked myself, “Why is this an up tempo song?” It just was. This person isn’t soft-spoken and it’s not a depressing song. So the tempo fit.

CST: Your previous work often had social reflections, but the new record is more explicit about politics. How did you come to this more direct approach?BR DeMent: I don’t how I come to write anything. “Wall in Washington” is political, but it’s also the only song on the new one that’s older than my second record. It’s even older than my first record. I just never knew how to do that song before. I never had enough confidence to record it. But it always stuck with me.
When I write songs, I’m always exploring what I’m thinking about and what’s striking me at the time. And recently I’ve been thinking about what’s going on in this country.
The songs are still about me. The first two albums were about me and the world inside my four walls. But “The Way I Should” is about me and the world outside these four walls. The record might be even more personal than the other ones. It’s a scary record, really. I feel pretty vulnerable about it. Some of the things I say have the potential to make people mad, to say the least. That’s pretty threatening.

CST: After three records has your songwriting process changed? Do you work from lines and images or are you more thematically oriented?
DeMent: It’s pretty much the same. It really hasn’t changed. I don’t live around songwriters, you know. Sure, I’ve met a lot writers in the last few years, but I only see them four or five times a year. My neighbors don’t play music and my husband’s family doesn’t play music, so I don’t have that around me. I still just sit in front of the window or take walks in the park and write. I still just figure out what I want to say, what really matters to take the time and effort, and how to say it.
I couldn’t live in a place like Nashville, a music community. I start paying too much attention to everybody else. It may work for other people, but it doesn’t work for me.

CST: The first song on the new CD, “When My Morning Comes Around,” is such a fiery statement of independence. There are lines like, “This town will burn to ash and cinder”- does that song come from an ambivalence about the past, a need for distance from your home?
DeMent: That song just came from a lot of pain. I was in a really bad place when I wrote it, one of those places where I thought dying would be better. I knew I needed to imagine something else, a really great place, where things are good. That song is just the pictures in my mind of that place. It was the first song I wrote for the record; I wasn’t sure I would include it.

CST: It’s interesting how that painful song starts the record and “Walkin’ Home” virtually closes it. You move from a painful past to sweeter memories. And it’s a nice statement of the need to stand alone and the desire for fellowship. Where does that theme come from?
DeMent: I don’t know how other people hear those songs, but you hit the nail on the head, I think. We know we have to be on our own. But at the same time you can’t get anywhere by yourself. It’s in my songs because it pops up in my everyday life. I’m always trying to find out what’s right for me, and also find some sense of security, to know I have a place where I feel safe.

Jeffrey B. Remz, Editor & Publisher