Posted on Fri, Oct. 25, 2002


Iris DeMent sings her songs for benefits and the Grand Ole Opry
The Kansas City Star

Her last record, “The Way I Should,” is 6-years-old, yet some of its more strident songs are more relevant today than they were the day the album was released.

Iris DeMent is hardly a protest singer per se. Whether she’s singing on “A Prairie Home Companion” or at the Grand Ole Opry, most of her songs still address personal politics — like home, love, family and marriage.

But lately she’s been lending her voice to various causes and agendas. Earlier this year she performed her manifesto “Wasteland of the Free” at the Uptown Theater before writer/gadfly Michael Moore’s book-signing/speech.

Saturday night, DeMent will perform at Unity Temple on the Plaza at a benefit for Friends of Community Radio, a group fighting changes at KKFI-FM, Kansas City’s community radio station. Singer/songwriter Greg Brown also performs. (DeMent recorded a cut on “Driftless,” a collection of Brown songs performed by women.)

Monday, from her home in Kansas City, DeMent talked about the benefit, the need for dissent in these patriotic times and the Grand Ole Opry, where she recently performed for the first time.

How did you get involved in the Friends of Community Radio benefit?

I’d been hearing about the problems (at KKFI) for a couple of years now. I had pretty much decided to stay out of it — until one day I turn on the radio and “Democracy Now” was gone. That was really my waking-up point. I think it’s such an important show. It’s inconceivable that anyone could justify pulling it off the air. At that point, I decided to learn more about what was going on.

I’m doing the benefit because I feel so strongly that every town should have a strong community radio station that allows the people living in it to be heard. This (station) is the only one we have.

You have also performed at a few rallies or speeches with Ralph Nader and writer Michael Moore, who’s a big fan of yours. How did you get involved with his book tour?

I met him about two years ago in Michigan. I was playing an outdoor show in some small town. Shortly after I walked off stage someone said, “Michael Moore is here; he’d like to meet you.” Sure enough he was. That was the first word I’d gotten that he was a fan of my music. I knew all about him through his movies.

The first show we did together was here in Kansas City. We did another one later in Tampa: “People Have the Power” it was called. Ralph Nader was there. So was Patti Smith. It was a pretty big deal. I performed “Wasteland of the Free” again. It seemed appropriate.

When you sang that here, it really stoked the crowd, as if people were relieved to hear a voice of dissent. Is it still like that?

Oh, very much so. I’ve been playing that song more lately. I think a lot of people still feel uncomfortable, like they’re betraying something when they speak their minds. But there are a whole lot of us who don’t feel that way, and they become very vocal when I do that song.

Have you gotten any backlash over this?

No, none really.

I understand you’ve been in Alaska and, just this past weekend, in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry. Had you performed there before?

No, I played at the Opry for the first time. It was a great time. The program was devoted to the “Circle III’ album, so it was an hour of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the guests on that record. I did my song, “Mama’s Opry,” which really fit the place.

I performed with Randy Scruggs and Vince Gill. It was very cool. Then I had to turn around and do it a second time. The Opry goes on and on. I have a lot of respect for the old-timers. It’s a long shift. You do two shows, even when there aren’t actual shows on the air. There’s stuff going on all the time, like from 6 to midnight. I was there from 3 in the afternoon till — late. It was a lot of fun, though. So much great music.

And before that you were in Alaska. Your first time there?

I was there the weekend before last. I did three shows: in Anchorage, Homer and Fairbanks. I’d been there about three years ago in winter when it’s dark about 22 hours of the day. I didn’t see a whole lot this time, but it was much sunnier and prettier.

That’s a long way for three shows. What are the crowds like up there?

Not much different from down here except the people look a little rougher. It’s a harder life up there.

What’s the show going to be like Saturday?

Greg Brown will perform first, I’ll perform second, then if we can get it together he and I may do a thing or two at the end.

Will you play anything new?

Yes, I’ll play a couple of new songs.