Now this is a proper album. 12 songs. 60 minutes music. An unpretentious cover. A fold out sleeve. A lovely booklet of lyrics and a short essay by Iris DeMent, describing the background to the album. It’s not available on streaming services but Amazon are selling it for £3.98.
Iris DeMent has released six albums in thirty years. She has a distinctive voice and her musical style is rooted in folk, country and gospel: Americana, if you want to use that term. Some of her songs are spellbinding: “Let The Mystery Be”, “Our Town”, “Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day” and my favourite, “No Time To Cry”. She has also interpreted Merle Haggard’s “Big City” on a tribute disc, “Tulare Dust” and she sung a wonderful duet with John Prine called “In Spite Of Ourselves”.
One of the pictures on the inside sleeve is of two cypress trees which stand in the middle of the St. Francis River. One tree is in Missouri, where Iris DeMent’s father was from and the other tree is in Arkansas, the home state of her mother. In the sleevenotes, Iris DeMent explains that she sings for a lot of different reasons, “but one thing that’s always at the heart of it is my desire to honor the two people that brung me here.”
I’ve bought every Iris DeMent album when it has come out but haven’t really given “Sing The Delta” the time or attention it deserves. Until today, when I’ve discovered its beauty, power and deep, deep emotional core.
“The Night I Learned How Not To Pray” is a jolly tune, with a catchy chorus, telling the story of how the singer’s brother fell down some stairs to his death. While waiting for news from the hospital, she starts to pray but when she learns of his death she realises that “God does what he wants to anyway.” 41 years later, she takes her brother’s picture out of a box, hangs it on a wall and tells him “all about how I’d learned not to pray.” The song is not from Iris DeMent’s childhood but was written for a friend who had experienced the death of a brother. Although Iris DeMent sounds like a country or gospel singer, I can’t imagine that a song explaining the exact moment when someone lost their religion would endear her to a traditional audience of such music. As with every song that she has ever sung, Iris DeMent’s phrasing is wonderful. I would compare her to Bob Dylan – not everyone likes his voice or her voice, but there’s no debate to be had about what awesome singers they are.
Another song which knocks a hole in the religious beliefs of her childhood is “There’s A Whole Lot Of Heaven”. It sounds like a gospel song and the title indicates that the song may encourage formal worship but the key line is “I’ve been saved by the love of the people livin’ right here”. Her mother told her “You know, Iris, singing is praying and praying is singing. There ain’t no difference.“. Although Iris DeMent moved away from her Pentecostal upbringing, she has maintained her spirituality through singing. The video clip is from the brilliant and much missed BBC show, The Transatlantic Sessions, recorded in 2007.
Iris DeMent has never shied away from tackling big issues. On March 21st 2003, she cancelled a gig in Madison, Wisconsin because of the Iraq war. She came on stage and began to speak in a shaky voice. She explained that because of the pain, destruction, brutality, and suffering going on in the world, she was not able to sing. She explained that the bombing of Iraq had deeply affected her and promised that all tickets would be refunded. She said that to perform “would be trivializing the fact that my tax dollars are causing great suffering, and sending a message to the world that might is right.” And then there is “We Won’t Keep Quiet”.
The title track, “Sing The Delta” is a love song addressed to her terminally ill 93 year old mother, who had wanted to be a singer but gave up her dreams to raise 14 children. “The Delta lived in my mama’s voice and in her hands. It’s a language my spirit understands.” At nearly seven minutes long, it’s a tour-de-force of astonishing beauty.
“Before The Colors Fade” is a slow paced, haunting song and expresses her deep regret at the passing of a loved one. Her piano playing is accompanied by Al Perkins’ steel guitar. He was a child prodigy, playing in adult bands when he was nine years old. In the Seventies, he played in Shiloh (with Don Henley), The Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, as well as playing on “Torn And Frayed” from “Exile On Main Street”. In the Eighties, he played with Dolly Parton, he was a member of Emmylou Harris’ backing band, The Nash Ramblers and he played on Bob Dylan’s “Knocked Out Loaded”.
In March 2020, when the whole world seemed to be in isolation, Iris DeMent posted this wonderful performance of her playing a friend’s song which extolled the virtue of staying connected. The moment when she can barely continue towards the end is deeply affecting.
As with all the great songwriters, Iris DeMent lets the inspiration run through her without stopping to analyse the process. “It’s like something in the universe said I was supposed to write songs. So that’s what I do”. The song “Making My Way Back Home” “tumbled out” after reading a biography of Tammy Wynette. The song “became more about me. I felt like it was something I needed to share with Tammy. I felt like it was something I could give to her. It was like she was moving on from a not-particularly-kind world to something that felt more like her music. You see, I go to songs to make my internal world work better.”
The final song is “Out Of The Fire”, and it is nearly eight minutes long. My interpretation of this beautiful song is that memories of her childhood give her cause to reflect on her life and what it all means. In the first verse, Iris DeMent remembers how she used to sit in her grandfather’s truck with him driving while she was sat next to her mother. She wonders whether it’s possible to glean life’s meaning and purpose from reading poetry. “Does one matter more? Does one matter less? Who of us can say?” She comes across the place where a carnival has recently left town and the sense of loss causes her to think on her own life, the dark days when she didn’t think she could go on. In the final verse, she uses her strength to achieve a relative serenity. “But like the Phoenix that rose right out of the fire I came back too.”