To her staple of love-and-loss songwriting, Iris DeMent has added deeper musings on politics and social hypocrisy. She plays Tuesday in San Juan Capistrano

By John Roos, Special to the Times

Los Angeles Times Monday January 19, 1998
Orange County Edition
Calendar, Page 2
Singer-songwriter Iris DeMent understands the value of good old-fashioned storytelling. With her stirring, slice-of-life tales, she has gained the admiration of peers including Nanci Griffith, David Byrne, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe, all of whom have recorded her work.

DeMent’s portraits of love and loss tug on the heart, particularly the weeper `No Time to Cry,’ about a musician too immersed in her career to mourn the passing of her father. Other familiar themes on her most recent album, 1996’s “The Way I Should,” include family ties (`Walkin’ Home’) and romantic disappointments (`I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight’).

But DeMent, who will perform solo Tuesday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, also takes a big step into the sociopolitical realm. After limiting herself to introspective musings for so long, she says she wanted to take a crack at “new, bigger stories that needed to be told.”

“Really for the first time in my life, I started paying attention to more political issues,” DeMent said by phone from a recent tour stop in Juneau, Alaska, where the day’s temperature had climbed to 4. “The lies and manipulation all around us, by politicians, corporations and the media… were very upsetting to me. I didn’t want to dwell on them, but it was time to express my feelings about what’s going on around us.”

Her quavering, angelic soprano turns downright devilish during selections that range from angry attacks on our flawed social structure (`Wasteland of the Free’) and overachieving yuppies (`Quality Time’) to a first-person–but not autobiographical–account of sexual abuse (`Letter to Mom’).

DeMent says she didn’t have the gumption to tackle these heavier issues in the past. One of her longtime idols, Merle Haggard, ultimately inspired her to speak her mind.

“Merle’s music is so honest, and he’s taken a lot of risks lyrically that not everyone has,” said DeMent, 36, who co-wrote `This Kind of Happy’ with Haggard for her album, while he recorded her `No Time to Cry’ for his latest, “1996.” (Two years ago, she also played electric piano for Haggard for three weeks during his U.S. tour.)

DeMent also cites Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Griffith and Harris as key sources of inspiration. “As far as finding the courage, it just felt like the right thing to do. In the end, that’s where you get your strength, from your convictions.”

Another significant departure on “The Way I Should” is a varied, more aggressive sound. After doing two albums with the folk-oriented producer Jim Rooney, DeMent enlisted Randy Scruggs, son of banjo ace Earl Scruggs, to bring punch to the project. Also contributing were Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, guitarist Lonnie Mack and, in a duet with DeMent, singer Delbert McClinton.

“I definitely wanted to do something different, although I didn’t have a clear picture of exactly what,” DeMent explained. “When I finished writing the material, I felt pretty certain the songs didn’t belong in an acoustic setting. So Randy rounded up some of the best players to suit the sound we were after. They wound up working up a lot of the arrangements, so it turned into a real group effort.”

The youngest of 14 children, DeMent grew up in a Pentecostal family in Arkansas. After the factory where her father worked failed to unionize following a strike, the DeMents moved to Orange County. Her father worked briefly as a janitor at Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park.

At 16, DeMent faced a huge decision. Disillusioned with her church’s discouragement of independent thinking, she left the congregation.

“You basically had to turn off your brain,” she recalled.

DeMent attended Cypress High School for a year before dropping out, getting a general education degree and roaming from job to job and place to place. At 25, while living in Topeka, Kan., she penned her first song. Then, after several years in Kansas City, Mo., she headed to Nashville, where folk-based Rounder Records signed her.

It released her debut, “Infamous Angel,” in 1992. That album, which Warner Bros. re-released after signing DeMent one year later, includes the plaintive `Our Town,’ which fans of TV’s “Northern Exposure” may
recall. In the series finale in 1995, it wistfully carried the quirky program through its closing credits.

Living once again in Kansas City, this time with her husband and manager, Elmer McCall, and “several mangy mutts,” DeMent has just garnered her second Grammy nomination in the best contemporary folk category. (Her first was for 1994’s commercially disappointing but critically praised “My Life.”)

DeMent says she reacted with “tempered enthusiasm,” because, though she does appreciate the accolades, what matters to her most is internal satisfaction.

“Naturally, it feels good to have my music recognized,” she said. “At the same time, I almost block out that sort of thing.

“You have to believe in what you do, regardless of anyone else’s reaction. I think success is defined by the songs I write, by how I feel after they’re written. Did I get it right? Did I say what I wanted to say–and does it speak to people?”

Iris DeMent, Anne Egge and Mercy Miles perform Tuesday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrao, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $15-$17. (714) 496-8930.