Feature: Iris DeMent

February 1997
by Craig Harris

Acoustic folk and country music are merged through the songs of Iris DeMent. In the past, critics have compared the petite, blonde songstress to The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Loretta Lynn.

With her third album, The Way I Should, DeMent adds electric instruments and rock and pop influences to create a more modern sound. A factor in DeMent’s evolution has been her growing interest in the music of Merle Haggard, whom she met shortly after recording a track for a tribute for the multi-artist album, Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard.

“I don’t think Merle really triggered the direction, but there were a couple of songs that subconsciously showed his influence,” DeMent said by telephone. “I was influenced by the fact that he had come out with some overtly political type of songs. I had a little more courage to come out with the songs than I would have otherwise.”

Haggard’s greatest impact is felt on the uptempo song “This Kind Of Happy,” which he co-wrote with DeMent. “It’s a song that I had for a couple of years before I met Merle,” DeMent said. “I have a lot of songs like it — songs that I can’t finish. I like them enough that, from time to time, I keep going back and trying to see if I can find the missing piece. That was one of those songs.”

DeMent and Haggard completed the song in a single session. “Merle was playing a show in Des Moines, a couple of hours from where I live, ” DeMent said. “My husband Elmer and I went up there to see the show. That evening, sitting on the bus, Merle asked me if I had any songs he’d never heard, so I played that one for him in hopes that he could help me finish. Sure enough, he did. He wrote the chorus right then and there.”

DeMent received additional help on the album from a very impressive line-up of what she calls in her liner notes “talented and sometimes legendary people,” including Mark Knopfler, Lonnie Mack, Bekka Bramlett and Billy Burnette.

One of her greatest thrills came when banjo great Earl Scruggs added his distinctive licks. “From the time I was a kid, I always knew his name,” she said. “My parents were big fans of Flatt and Scruggs. It was thrilling to actually meet him and to sit in a room and watch him play his banjo. That was the highlight of the whole record. He’s one of the nicest, warmest men I’ve probably ever met.”

Another memorable collaboration came when Delbert McClinton added his deep vocals and harmonica playing to a bluesy duet, “Trouble.” “That was the last song that we recorded for the album,” DeMent recalled. “I wasn’t planning on putting it on the record. It was kind of a loose, let’s-have-a-good-time kind of song. That’s why the instrumental at the end goes on and on. No one was thinking of it being on the record. It was a song that I had just written a few weeks earlier with my husband. It was just so out of character for me. Later, when we decided to keep the song and started thinking of things we might do with it, Delbert’s name came up. It seemed to be in his style.”

Much of the credit for the album’s hard-edged sound is due to the input of producer Randy Scruggs. “I spent a long time thinking about who I was going to work with,” DeMent said. “That’s not an easy thing for me. I’ve always gone on intuition. When I met Jim Rooney, who produced my first two records, I felt right with him. I felt comfortable. I chose Randy for the same reason. It felt right. I felt that he understood my music. He cared about it and he had his own vision as well.”

The most dramatic change signaled by the album is the abundance of politically-slanted material. While DeMent’s previous albums, Infamous Angel and My Life, were marked by songs about family and the glories of simple country living, songs on The Way I Should, including “Quality Time,” “Wasteland Of The Free” and “A Wall In Washington,” reflect a more worldly view. “I don’t know why this record is the way it is anymore than I know why the first songs that I wrote were the way they were, but I am aware that, with some of the songs, I wanted to branch out melodically,” DeMent said. “I was trying to do things I hadn’t done in the past. I want to keep growing.”

DeMent’s performance on the album represents a more-confident approach to the recording studio than her debut album. “I had never made a record before,” she remembered. “I’d heard that you keep singing a song over and over, but I wasn’t doing that. They were just rolling the tapes and I was singing the songs. When we finished, I thought I would go back and re-sing everything. If I had put my foot down, I could have done that, but I think that in the end it had a much more live, real quality.”

DeMent aimed for that same spontaneous environment with the recording of The Way I Should. “There wasn’t a whole lot of overdubbing,” she said. “To me, music shouldn’t be about perfection. A lot of times, the realness is in the mistakes. It’s something I don’t want to lose track of.”

A native of Paragould, Arkansas, DeMent was born on January 5, 1961 and was the last of 14 children born to Patric and Flora Mae DeMent. Although her family had been farmers for several generations, the family farm had failed and been sold by the time she was born. At the age of three, DeMent and her family relocated to Buena Park, California, a small community about an hour from Los Angeles. “We lived in a housing tract,” she said. “We didn’t have a city or a section of tall buildings, but it was heavily populated with houses lined up against each other, which was very unlike where my family came from.”

However, the rural atmosphere of Arkansas continued to be felt throughout DeMent’s childhood. “My mom was in her late 40s and my dad was 56 when we moved to California,” she said. “They were pretty much who they were. They were determined to continue being who they were. They worked really hard to keep everything in the home the way it had been before. They took us to churches that were full of a lot of Arkansas and Oklahoma transplants. The minister was from the same town that we were from. I felt like I got a good dose of both worlds. ”

Music was a thread that bound all the members of DeMent’s family. Her father played country fiddle, while her mother — who sang lead on the gospel-tinged tune “Higher Ground” on Infamous Angel — dreamed of singing at the Grand Ole Opry. “There was constant music in the house,” DeMent recalled. “Everybody in my family was involved in music in some way. All of my sisters sang and played piano and some played the guitar too. My brother, who lived at home, played guitar and wrote songs. It was his dream to be a country singer. My first recollections are the piano banging all the time, records playing, my mother singing and my brother walking around the house with a guitar slung over his shoulders.”

For a while, DeMent’s older sisters sang in a trio, The DeMent Sisters. “My sister Faith played the accordion and wrote some of the songs that they did,” she remembered. “They formed this group when they were in junior high and high school. They started out singing just for the church, [then] they got matching dresses and started going out and singing at Marine bases. There was a country, Christian singer that had them sing some backup for him on two of his records. They weren’t famous or anything, but considering that they were kids, they had pretty much developed their sound and were doing their own songs and traveling around a little bit singing them.”

DeMent’s earliest musical influence came from the gospel music that she heard at church and at home. “It’s the one form of music that was consistently in my world from the beginning,” she said. “I still sing those songs. I don’t think I could separate what I do from that type of music, even on this record, even though it’s plugged-in and has certain rock influences on some songs. Lyrically and in terms of what I try to do musically, there’s no separating me from that. I still aim with my music for the response that those church songs evoked in my family and myself and the people around me.”

DeMent’s musical vision was shaped further by the songs of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall. “People seem to have a hard time defining what I do,” she said. “When I first started, people called it folk music and others called it bluegrass. I’ve heard ‘country,’ and now I’m hearing ‘rock’ with this record. It’s all of those influences involved in what I’ve become. It seems like a natural thing.”

Although she played piano and sang as naturally as bouncing a ball in the street, DeMent’s shyness prevented her from performing outside of her home. “I didn’t see myself musically” she said. “I left the church and dropped out of school when I was seventeen, but I didn’t pursue it. I had other jobs and did non-musical things. I’d come home at night and play the piano, singing for myself.”

DeMent continued to treat music as a secret until she was 25. “I suddenly realized that I had become pretty unhappy, and that I wasn’t enjoying any of these other things that I was trying to do,” she said. “I made a conscious decision to stop running from the thing that I loved and just do it. Even if nobody liked it, even if it got me nowhere, even if everybody laughed at my songs, I was going to write them and I was going to go out to sing them.”

DeMent’s decision was initially sparked by a creative writing class that she took at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. “That class did a lot to stimulate me creatively, and had a lot to do with why I went into writing songs,” she recalled. “The teacher was really good. She didn’t dwell on your structure or your misspellings, even though she would point that out. But if you had a good creative idea, she would get really excited. She seemed to truly enjoy that when a student would find things. I thrived on that.”

A few months after the class met for the last time, DeMent wrote her first song. “I sat down one day and decided that I wanted to write a song,” she said. “I decided to stop worrying about everybody else and what they would think about it and write for me. After one, you write songs forever. For some reason, that day, I managed to get a verse and chorus and another verse. It was just amazing. For somebody who could never write more than one line, I was in heaven. I just kept going from there.”

Moving temporarily to Kansas City, DeMent began to hone her performing skills at open mics. “There’s definitely a link between what I was doing in the beginning and what I’m doing now,” she said. “I see myself in everything I’ve done, but I needed to write more songs and learn how to stand up and sing in front of people.”

Like many other budding singer-songwriters, DeMent moved to Nashville to build her musical career. “I wanted to make records of my songs,” she said. “I felt that Nashville was the most likely place where I would find a way to do that.” It wasn’t long before DeMent was attracting attention with her warm vocals and songwriting skills. One of the first artists to offer encouragement was folksinger and record producer Jim Rooney, who helped her to secure a record contract with the independent Rounder/Philo label and produced her first two albums.

Performances at the Newport Folk Festival helped to spread the word. “Whenever you play and there’s a lot of people there to hear you, that’s a good thing,” she said. “You stand a chance to gain a chunk of new fans. You hope that more than a few people leave wanting to go and buy your records. The Newport Folk Festival is pretty famous. When I told people that I’d played there, they tended to be impressed.”

DeMent’s expanded her audience when she sang backup on Emmylou Harris’ album Brand New Dance and Nanci Griffith’s Grammy Award- winning Other Voices, Other Rooms. “I haven’t done a lot of singing on other people’s records,” she said. “The only people I’ve sung with are people I’ve liked a lot. I don’t think I would enjoy doing it a lot. I just like to open my mouth and sing. When you sing backup, a lot of times you’ve got to spend time matching their style a little bit. Sometimes it becomes a little bit of a chore and it’s not as free as I like singing to be. I prefer singing lead. But as far as those projects, I did enjoy them and they were a lot of fun.”

When a tape of Infamous Angel was heard by Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Brothers Records, in 1993, the executive signed DeMent and reissued the album. DeMent’s subsequent albums have been released by Warner. “Creatively, it’s been the same [as it was with Rounder/Philo],” she said. “One of the reasons that I went to Warner Brothers was that I was hoping that the distribution would be better and it would be easier to sell my records.”

The increased budget provided by the major record label has strengthened DeMent’s ability to record quality albums. “There’s more money to work with when I’m making a record, that’s for sure,” she explained. “I like that. My first record, even though I was happy with how it came out, was a little bit of a strain. I had to get in there and sing the song once. If I screwed up, that was just pretty much too bad. The money was going to run out when the clock hit the next hour. I’m glad that I’m able to have a bigger budget. That makes me feel a little freer, creatively, in the studio.”

1993 was an important year for DeMent in other ways as well. Moving back to Kansas City, she married her long-time boyfriend Elmer McColl, who now serves as her road manager. “[Nashville] had become a little suffocating,” she said. “I found that, after the thrill wore off, I was little uncomfortable living in this environment where everybody was doing the same thing. I didn’t really enjoy that at all, but I felt that I needed to leave when I left. I learned a lot about the music business which I needed to know. I needed to understand how to publish a song and how to deal with all these facets that have nothing to do with writing or creating.”

Several of DeMent’s songs have been covered by other artists. Natalie Merchant performed several of her songs in concert and, joined by David Byrne, covered “Let The Mystery Be” on MTV’s Unplugged. Merle Haggard performed her song “No Time To Cry” on his album 1996. “The first song [of mine] I heard was Natalie and David Byrne and I liked it a lot,” she said. “I thought it sounded pretty cool. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard Merle doing anything that I didn’t approve of. So, naturally, when he did something of mine, it was a double treat. He did a really good job with the song. I liked it a lot.” Although she wrote in the liner notes of The Way I Should that “the thrill that came with the arrival of these eleven songs will be a memory, and I will have already spent several months killing time waiting for the next song,” DeMent has yet to find the inspiration needed to begin writing again. “I haven’t written anything since [I completed the album], which is actually what happened after my last record,” she said. “I went about a year before I wrote anything. Maybe that’s the way it will be for me. I sometimes have to breathe a lot before I get an inspiration for something, and I do rely a lot on inspiration.”

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