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."
Although DeMent began playing the piano in her youth, she claims not to have written a song until she was 25, when she was living with a boyfriend in Topeka, Kansas. In the years that followed, she skipped from Kansas City to Nashville and back again, and the tunes flowed. By the time she was signed to Philo, a subsidiary of Rounder Records, DeMent had already racked up some impressive admirers: John Prine wrote an amusing tribute to DeMent for Angel's back cover, and Emmylou Harris, Hal Ketchum and Jerry Douglas contributed to the platter itself. The titles of the album's tracks--"Hotter Than Mojave in My Heart," "50 Miles of Elbow Room," "When Love Was Young," "These Hills"--offer hints of the uniquely American radiance of the music contained therein, but nothing can top the experience of actually hearing it. Ditties such as "Mama's Opry" are so sweet and real and righteous that it's hard to believe they date from the tail end of a century in which skepticism has become not the exception but the rule.
The strong response to Infamous Angel drew the attention of Warner Bros., perhaps the most major of the major record labels. DeMent was certainly interested in reaching a larger audience, but not at the expense of her autonomy. "In my first conversation with them, I told them that I didn't want to go with them if I couldn't continue doing everything I was doing on Rounder," she recalls. "And they told me they would let me be. Of course, they could have changed their mind after I signed, and I would have been screwed. But luckily, they haven't. They heard the two records I've made with them when they were finished."
The first of these offerings, My Life (produced by Jim Rooney, who did the honors on Infamous Angel), shared much in common with DeMent's debut. In addition to brilliantly rendered covers of "Troublesome Waters" (co-written by Maybelle Carter) and the Lefty Frizzell favorite "Mom & Dad's Waltz," DeMent delivered compositions that are achingly candid and perceptive. At times, the subject matter she chose to explore was a bit too obvious: Witness the self-explanatory "Childhood Memories." But her lack of pretense and singular eloquence made even her most sentimental conceits seem like the wisdom of the ages. Her expertise at delivering the poetry of the people peaks on "The Shores of Jordan," in which DeMent sings, "I looked up into heaven, I thought I'd solve life's mysteries/I observed the constellations for a clue to my destiny/But the rhyme of life confounds me, things will be as things will be/So I'll just dance the shores of Jordan till the angels carry me."
The Way I Should is not completely barren of such moments--far from it. "When My Mornin' Comes Around," "The Way I Should," "Keep My God" and "This Kind of Happy" (co-written with one of DeMent's heroes, Merle Haggard) glow with a rare beauty that manages to burn through Scruggs's too-glossy production. "Trouble," a lighthearted duet with Delbert McClinton, also works, albeit in a much more superficial way. But "There's a Wall in Washington" falters due to the familiarity of its topic, and "Wasteland of the Free" comes across as a Dylanesque screed against society's ills whose specificity is at odds with DeMent's talents; the preachiness of lines like "We got politicians runnin' races on corporate cash/Now don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them people's ass" ensures that even listeners who share her opinions may find her presentation of them tiresome. But according to DeMent, it's been the individuals with opposing views who've been the least receptive.
"I've gotten some mail, and some people have confronted me about that song," she confirms. "Some people have actually crushed the CD and sent it back to me in an envelope. And they've never explained in detail their point of view. But that's okay. When I wrote that song, I didn't have any expectations that everyone would agree with me. Who knows--I may not agree with some of my songs some day. But I did feel it was important to stand up and talk about how I think and feel."
Still, it's "Letter to Mom," the moving but clear-eyed story of a woman disclosing that she'd been raped by her mother's boyfriend when she was only ten, that DeMent sees as the biggest stretch on Way. "I tried for a long time to write a song on that subject," she reveals, "and I realized one day that the problem was that I wasn't willing to make myself that person--that I wasn't willing to step into their shoes. I kept writing in the third person, which I rarely do, because when I'm doing that, I can't get ahold of that person; the writing experience becomes a bit cold. But when I realized that if I was going to write about that, I would have to live it emotionally, the song came really quickly. Singing it in front of people isn't easy, though. Of every song I've written, that's the one I always have to brace myself for, maybe because the words are so blunt that I don't have anywhere to hide."
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DeMent puts herself through this kind of torment because her art matters to her. Having a few more consumers pick up her LPs would be nice, but what she cares about more than financial remuneration or critical respect is communication as pure and as simple as the numbers she heard in the churches of her youth.
"Those songs weren't written to get played on the radio or to make a lot of money," she says in a passionate tone far removed from the one that visits her while discussing record companies or her latest batch of reviews. "They were just really sincere, and even though they may have been in a religious context I don't agree with now, I realized early on that their purpose was to give people something to grab on to. It wasn't a conscious thing for me, but I learned from the time that I was little that music could be this refuge--this place you can go that can help you survive.
"Sometimes I write about subjects that are sort of emotionally difficult--songs that force me to go through things that maybe I'd just as soon not. But the alternative to me is cardboard--things that mean nothing and penetrate no one. So I feel that if I'm going to do music, what else is there?"
Iris DeMent and the Troublemakers. 7 p.m. Friday, February 21, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $14-$15, 830-