Updated: Friday, Jan. 23, 1998 at 23:50 CST


Singer Iris DeMent treads the path less  traveled

By Michael D. Clark
Knight Ridder Newspapers

Don’t count on seeing country-folkie Iris DeMent in big hair and waist-hugging denim on a glamour-shot CD cover.

Truth is, DeMent is a bit of an anachronism in a country world dominated by the deep lungs of LeAnn Rimes and the deep curves of Shania Twain. Soft-spoken and subtle, yet always with a point of view and a hint of suspicion, DeMent fits somewhere between the blue-collar upbringing of Loretta Lynn and the Greenwich Village coffeehouse cool of Bob Dylan.

“It’s really sad that so many performers have to have looks to be successful,” said DeMent from a hotel phone in Vancouver, Canada. “I’m really private. I don’t even like my own mother to take pictures of me.”

DeMent has maintained fierce creative control over her recording career. Since she started working for Warner Bros. Records five years ago, she has seldom chosen the well-trod path. Even her current tour is in support not of a new album but of an earlier release, `The Way I Should.’ And she’s playing small venues. New songs? She still enjoys playing the old ones. She’s never been a chart-topper, and while there’s some pressure — both self-imposed and from her record label — to embrace fame, it has been more important to her to make music without compromise.

“It really helps the record company to sell records if you can find a place on the radio,” she said, laughing at the simplicity of the logic. “It used to frustrate, that my songs didn’t do better. But after trying to find a niche for so long, I just really don’t care anymore.”

It’s not so much that DeMent’s music isn’t radio-friendly as it is that programmers don’t seem to know exactly where she should be played. Her back-roads voice and Nashville instrumentation are mostly “country,” but pop-sounding ballads like `When My Morning Comes Around’ would be cozy next to Jewel and Celine Dion on formats. So genre-specific radio shies away from her altogether.

“I can’t find a radio format that fits me,” she said, “and I’m not rich enough to buy one. I need to pay my bills, though. So I guess I just depend on those who come out to see me.”

Her background reflects her eclecticism. The youngest of 14 children, she was born in Paragould, Ark., but moved to Southern California while still young. Her parents kept the spirit of the South alive, and she listened to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and gospel music. Then in adolescence she found Dylan and Joni Mitchell, who helped her find her own minstrel-with-a-message style.

Now 37, she didn’t start writing her own songs until her mid-20s. She moved around between Kansas City and Nashville, playing open-mike sets at small clubs. Her recording debut came in 1992 with “infamous Angel,’ a spare, emotive album that Warners picked up and released a year later, followed in 1994 by `My Life.’

It’s `The Way I Should’ that really displays DeMent’s vision and control as a musician. Playing mostly piano and a little acoustic guitar, she surrounded herself in the studio with top session players — including fiddler Tammy Rogers, guitarist Randy Scruggs, drummer Harry Stinson and bassist Dave Pomeroy — to create an album of traditional country with a modern point of view.

One song on the album that shows particular strength is the anthem-like `There’s a Wall in Washington,’ a scathing attack on who’s to blame for the atrocities of war. It would sit nicely next to Bruce Springsteen’s `Born in the USA.’


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