SINGER-SONGWRITER BLAZED OWN QUIRKY PATH
Karla Peterson, Arts Writer
San Diego Union/Tribune
She has toured with Nanci Griffith, recorded with Emmylou Harris, and written sweet, sad songs that made John Prine weep into his pork chops. For an up-and-coming artist, singer-songwriter Iris DeMent has a surprising number of admirers in high places. But it took the granddaddy of them all to say the words this Arkansas original really needed to hear.
“When I met my first famous person, I thought, ‘OK, they’re going to give me some advice,’ and they didn’t. Then I met my second famous person and my third famous person, and I never got any advice,” said DeMent, who performs Monday at the Belly Up Tavern. “But I did read in a magazine once that when someone asked Johnny Cash what advice he would give young performers, he said, ‘Do it your way.’ I hope it wasn’t a misprint, because I really took it to heart.”
On her debut album, “Infamous Angel” (released last year on Philo/Rounder Records and just re-released on Warner Bros.), DeMent followed her own quirky path and ended up on a sunny musical peak, where her plainspoken country-folk tunes and silvery soprano have critics comparing DeMent to everyone from Harris and Griffith to Dolly Parton and Hank Williams.
It is a heady position for a newcomer, especially one who spent years convincing herself that she wasn’t cut out for the climb. But now that she’s there, DeMent is happy to say that the journey was worth every step, and the view is even better than she expected.
“I always wanted to write songs. I’ve wanted to do that ever since I can remember,” DeMent said from her San Francisco hotel room. “I spent a lot of years trying to write songs, mostly in junior high and high school, but I never got very far. As hard as I’d try, I could never get past two lines. I can still remember trying to write after high school, but I just wasn’t getting much of anything done.”
So the Arkansas-born, California-raised DeMent did a little of everything instead. After graduating from high school, she spent eight years in a holding pattern, dabbling in college, waiting tables, working in offices. She moved around a lot and tried to ignore the distance springing up between her and her lifelong dream.
Eventually, she ended up in Topeka, Kan., where a driving trip to Oklahoma led her to write her first complete song in years. It was called “Our Town,” and it was the start of something new and altogether wonderful.
“For a long time, I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I was very shy, and even when I sang in church, it was a hard thing for me to do. I also hadn’t started writing yet, so I didn’t have that to push me through the door.
“I can’t say what changed, exactly,” DeMent said, her soft voice curling up in a slight drawl. “It would be kind of a guessing game to pin it down. But for the most part, I got older and I got tired of doing things I didn’t want to do.”
After a few years of writing and teaching herself to play the guitar, DeMent moved to Kansas City and finally worked up the nerve to play at some “open mike” nights at local clubs. Then she moved to Nashville, where she eventually met veteran producer Jim Rooney and recorded “Infamous Angel” for Rounder.
With its ringing endorsement from Prine (whose liner notes tell a tall, but believable, story of listening to DeMent’s “Mama’s Opry” and crying into a frying pan full of pork chops), harmony vocals from Harris and Hal Ketchum, and sterling production from Rooney, “Infamous Angel” arrived on critics’ desks with the kind of championship pedigree that gets a newcomer noticed.
Fortunately, it also had songs worth remembering. From the matter-of-fact philosophizing of “Let the Mystery Be” (“Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory/And I ain’t sayin’ it ain’t a fact”), through the sassy wink of “Hotter Than Mojave in My Heart” and the hushed reverence of “Sweet Forgiveness,” DeMent writes about the mysteries of love and spirituality, family and friends, and darkness and redemption with an assured grace that never gives way to melodrama or gives in to trendiness.
With its homey tunes and serene vocals “Infamous Angel” is balm for whatever ails you, and Iris DeMent is an antidote to almost anything. After assorted side trips and detours, the 32-year-old singer has answered the true calling that was there all along, and as DeMent is beginning to realize, her discovery is a music lover’s salvation.
“Of all the things that have happened this year, I’m probably most excited by the mail I get. People write very long letters to me about how they feel about the music, what songs they enjoy and what the songs mean to them. I enjoy that more than anything. When I get discouraged, there are one or two letters that I’ll pull out and read, and that means a lot to me.
“I like the idea that my music can be a comfort to people. I do hope that’s the case.”
Iris DeMent, with John Katchur and Jewel Kilcher
9 p.m. Monday, the Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach. $6; 481-9022.