Eye of the Storm

In a cynical world, Iris DeMent struggles to maintain her virtue.

Iris DeMent sounds a bit weary. Her first two albums, 1992's Infamous Angel and 1994's My Life, earned almost universal acclaim from critics across the country, but her latest disc, last year's The Way I Should, has been greeted with far less enthusiasm. Most journalists liked parts of it, but their positive comments were linked with terms no performer enjoys hearing--words like "compromise" and "calculation." In comparison with her previous efforts, which are bracingly spare and raw, Way is much more heavily produced (by Nashville veteran Randy Scruggs) and features the contributions of overused session men (such as Chuck Leavell) and guest appearances by the likes of Dire Straits's Mark Knopfler. In other words, the recording smacks of record-company fiddling of the sort that tends to disappoint current fans while failing to win over the unconvinced masses.

How does DeMent answer these charges? With barely disguised exasperation. "I've been saying this a lot, and a lot of people don't seem to want to believe me," she says. "But the record company had nothing to do with it. I made the decisions. And if I'd decided to make the changes I've made to sound more commercial, I certainly wouldn't have written half the songs that are on the record--because they're anything but commercial. I just knew I wanted to try something different. I had enjoyed making my other two records, but I felt like you come to times in your life when you need to go someplace else."

DeMent's points are well taken. Although Way sports a contemporary-country polish that its predecessors lacked, it won't be mistaken for anything by Shania Twain. Her voice remains a marvel--as unhewn and twangy as anything this side of Jimmie Rodgers--and her best songs play off the timelessness of her style; their deeply personal takes on love and loss sound as if they could have been written generations ago, yet they're as contemporary as the works of today's finest tunesmiths. "Let the Mystery Be," the lead track on Infamous Angel, is so honest and gorgeous that you can't imagine any way that DeMent's music could be improved--which has everything to do with the negative reactions directed at her latest recording. But while DeMent is in some sense a throwback to an earlier, better period of country music, she's also a living, breathing artist who's eager to stretch into new and intriguing regions of creativity. She wants to take chances, and if some of her experiments fail, that's all right with her. But what DeMent didn't expect was that her risk-taking would lead to her motives being questioned. For her, that's been the hardest part of the past year--convincing doubters that her integrity remains intact. "To me, music is supposed to be a life raft," she declares. "It's something that can rescue you or help you through life. I haven't veered from that in my own music. And I never will."

The straightforward, no-frills manner of speech DeMent prefers seems perfectly in keeping with her upbringing, which suggests a tale from the Dust Bowl days. She was born in the tiny Arkansas town of Paragould, where her parents (and their parents before them) were farmers. But tough times ultimately made it impossible for the elder DeMents to make a living from the land, and Iris's father got a job in a factory to make ends meet. A failed strike pretty much put an end to that career, however, and the family ultimately followed the route of thousands of their Depression-era precursors and headed west to California. They arrived in Long Beach in 1964, when DeMent was three, and stayed in Southern California until she was in her teens. But whereas her schoolmates were entranced by the sounds of rock and roll, DeMent was more heavily influenced by the gospel music her parents played around the house. These inspirational sounds continue to inform DeMent's work to such an overt degree that it comes as something of a shock to discover that she stopped seeing herself as a Christian when she was a high-schooler.

"I haven't gone out of my way, especially in my family, to make a big deal out of that, but I have lived my life in a way that I think makes it obvious," she remarks. "I continue to sing a lot of religious songs that I grew up with because I continue to love them. They're comforting to me, and I can see in the ones I choose to sing the element of truthfulness that's in them. That's why I cling to them even now.

"There are a lot of principles of Christianity that I feel I've made my own, and I don't have any desire to move away from them. But I read the Bible enough growing up to know that Christianity teaches that if you don't believe in Jesus Christ as the one Lord and Savior, you do not go to heaven. And for me, there's no getting around that. That's what it says, and you can't ignore it. And I feel that I can't have anything to do with a faith that teaches that three-quarters of the people in the world are going to fry forever and ever. I just can't do it."

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