Iris DeMent is an American classic. The beauty, passion, and raw honesty of her music are an emotional cache of immense power, and the full character of her voice adds a piercing reality to everything she sings.
Born the youngest of fourteen children in Arkansas, DeMent moved to California with her family at age three, after the family farm failed. Her father and mother were both musical, and DeMent was also influenced by the folk, country, and rock n roll she heard on the radio. At age seventeen, she quit high school, received her GED, and went to work at K-Mart. This was the start of a string of unfulfilling jobs, but it was also those years and the time spent questioning herself that led her, at age twenty-five, to embrace her childhood dream: to write songs and sing em for people.
DeMent wrote her first song while living in Topeka, Kansas, and after a two-year layover in Kansas City, Missouri, she headed to Nashville. Two years later, she signed a recording contract with Rounder Records and returned to Kansas City, where she still lives today. Her first album, Infamous Angel, which was released in 1992, brought her industry attention. Its evocative song Our Town became the perfect closer to the final episode of the television show Northern Exposure. Let the Mystery Be, also from Infamous Angel, was featured in the motion picture Little Buddha.
DeMents second album, My Life, released in 1994, garnered her a Grammy nomination, as did 1996s The Way I Should, an album that expanded the scope of her reflection and concern.
Crossing over to acting, DeMent played the character Rose Gentry in the film Songcatcher, which starred Janet McTeer and Aidan Quinn. The films cast received a special jury prize for outstanding ensemble performance at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
Recently, DeMent recorded four duets with John Prine on his latest release, In Spite of Ourselves, which features Prine with his favorite women singers (DeMent is certainly in good company with Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, and Connie Smith). The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Mark Binelli of Rolling Stone lauded DeMents performance, considering it among the highlights of the album. Billy Bob Thorntons film Daddy & Them features Prine and DeMents title track as the end-title theme.
Iris DeMents first album in eight years, Lifeline, delivers a soulful collection of heartfelt country-gospel that lifts the weight right off your shoulders. “These songs are a spiritual thing for me,” she says about the album, they are “ this link I have to where I come from and to my mom and dad and to the people who came before them.” With the exception of the brand-new original, “He Reached Down,” the songs on Lifeline are gospel classics; a tribute to the music she grew up with in the Missouri River delta town, Paragould, Arkansas.
With all the press and acclaim, DeMent keeps her feet firmly on the ground, giving the greatest insight to what her music and her life are about. As she told journalist Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: I used to be able to hear a lot of things when I was growing up. I could actually turn on the radio and hear Woody Guthrie and a lot of different music that seems to have disappeared now. So much of the music now sounds like a commercial. Its not somebodys soul. Its like somebody is trying to sell me something. There are exceptions, but not many.
DeMent is one of those exceptions. She not only bares her soul, but shares it not to shock or exploit or sell, but to make a connection, to reach and teach and talk and sing… heart to heart. She faces her deepest fears, her greatest losses, the bottomless hurt and anger, the joy and wonderimparting to others the uncommon courage to do the same.
All Photos by Pieta Brown