On the Edge: Iris DeMent

photo by Pieta Brown

Iris DeMent went a virtual lifetime between albums, 16 years to be exact, but the wait produced one of the best-reviewed records of the past year, Sing the Delta. Among its many accolades, the album made NPR Music’s 50 Best Albums of 2012, where it was referred to as “the closest approximation of how the Delta itself might sing, if it had a human voice.” 

Several of the selections, including the title cut, invoke memories of the Arkansas Delta area, where Iris was born and generations of her family resided. Iris notes that those memories provided the blueprint for the 12 songs on the album, all of which she wrote. “I guess what keeps recurring in my music revolves around what I love the most—the people, the environment, the things that have shaped who I’ve become,” she says. “I keep revisiting them. It’s a growing, evolving picture for me. It’s hard for me to write about things that don’t move me emotionally.” 

The emotion runs deep in the album’s title track, which Iris, the last of 14 children, wrote about her mother. “That came about when my mom was beginning to fail,” Iris explains. “She was 93 and I could feel her slipping away. I just felt really lonesome. I began to think about her home and the part of the country she grew up in, the Arkansas Delta. That whole culture has woven its way into my life and that’s where that song came from.”

Other standouts include “Makin’ My Way Back Home” and “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” in which Iris recalls questioning her faith as an adult. “I wrote all the songs during a very fertile period,” she says. 

That productive time has resulted in Iris’ first album of original material since her acclaimed Grammy-nominated effort The Way I Should in 1996. She did record an album of gospel songs, Lifeline, in 2004, but it’s not as though her career remained inert. Iris kept an active touring schedule and continued to write songs during her time between albums.

“I’d write a song or two and go out and sing those,” Iris says. “But I didn’t see myself as a person who made records anymore. ‘Sing the Delta’ was the one where I thought that maybe I should rethink this and make a record again.” She’s glad she reconsidered. “I have to believe that this is something that people need, that it’s something that’s good,” she says earnestly.

“Whether it’s true or not is for other people to judge. But for the first time in years,” she adds with a slight laugh, “I feel like I really have something to offer.” 

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