To hear Iris DeMent is to be moved. She sings so close to her emotions—and with such artistry—that her meanings can be understood even if the lyrics are soaked in Southern and Midwestern dialect. Her new albumSing the Delta evokes experience and wonder—life, death and very complicated faith. Its great achievement inspires this special CityArts series. Seven writers reflect on tracks from Sing the Delta, responding to DeMent’s art of struggle.
An Arkansas native, DeMent pays cultural homage like a good folkie, but she’s also in one-accord with the devotion that defined her family heritage. This album follows DeMent’s 2004 Lifeline, a hymnal of gospel favorites plus her remarkable original composition “He Reached Down,” which followed the discipline of old-timey gospel well enough to stand next to the Old Landmarks. Professing faith gives that song its despairing-and-yearning strength that empowers DeMent’s singing. Lifeline showcased “art songs” (a value rarely conferred upon sacred effort in this secular age) but it also expressed DeMent’s personal need to align love of family with life’s hard truths.
“This is what holds me together!“ said the gum-smacking waitress played by Southerner Diane Ladd in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore as she held a crucifix pendant made of safety pins. That’s the image I get when recalling DeMent’s “If That Ain’t Love,” her “Daddy worked at the Movieland Wax Musuem” song that describes her personal world–a life enclosed by her working-class father’s daily prayers and the cultural example of Aretha Franklin singing “Precious Lord, take my hand.” Every incident told on this album happens within those perimeters, each song testifying how DeMent is held together.
Sing the Delta continues that deep authenticity with even finer musicality. It embarrasses just about everything surrounding it at this moment in pop culture. So few songs, movies, TV shows and books are about anything people actually, commonly feel that DeMent’s honesty reveals how trivial most pop culture has become. Her fidelity to religious tradition—and her conflicts—create a tough new personal gospel.
On the gently, devastatingly sung family saga “Out of the Fire” (Sing the Delta’s closing track,), DeMent muses on matters large and small: “Does one matter more, does one matter less/ Who of us can say?” This nostalgic reverie, with remembered details as all-encompassing as Scripture, goes through your soul like no other track. Both humbling and soul-satisfying, it’s Communion. DeMent’s bold admission of spiritual struggle wins back the consciousness so horribly deceived in our increasingly godless era of quotidian blasphemies and dark agnosticism. Sing the Delta finds true courage and true poetry. This earthly life is defined in terms DeMent takes from her troubled, gospel-informed meditation on the next life. Seeking answers, she makes singing synonymous with praying.
Critic Gregory Solman first introduced me to DeMent back when her 2003 song “Let the Mystery Be” appeared on the soundtrack of Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, confirming her talent and ecumenical depth. Sing the Delta extends the philosophy expressed in “Let the Mystery Be” but with the subsequent wisdom of age.
DeMent grappled with political uncertainties on The Way I Should (1996– and received her best reviews as critics claimed her for the political moment. On Sing the Delta (blessedly not about Hurricane Katrina but a symbolic tributary and site of cultural confluence), DeMent refuses to limit her feelings to social trendiness. A wag on YouTube who complained “I wish Iris loved Jesus as much as she loved singing songs about Jesus” missed the point. Sing the Delta shows inescapable devotion to the way of the Lord. It’s so deeply bred within her (a lifeline) that even when she pays homage to Aretha Franklin (“The Kingdom Has Already Come,” “If That Ain’t Love”), the musical and emotional fervor transcend mere deference. Because DeMent’s art is genuine, she dares the non-believers to stay that way.
“Go On Ahead and Go Home”
An uplifting lament fashioned as a gospel number, “Go On Ahead and Go Home” makes for a lovely American addition to the crossing-over genre that flows from Hank Williams’ “Going Home,” a river of song wide enough to engulf Roy Orbison’s “Coming Home,” Van Morrison’s “Carrickfergus” and Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” to cite one unlikely confluence.
With a characteristic sincerity and the right measure of sobriety, DeMent implores a soul, “Go let your mama see you smile,” brightly conflating the family ancestry awaiting the boy’s arrival and the mother “standing in the sun” (a reference to Mary being clothed by the sun in the Book of the Apocalypse), both of whom comfort the soul whose “work’s been done by a long, long mile.”
DeMent styles the number with Pentecostal piano, a Hammond B-3 organ held for a final chorus swell, and guitar with a touch of reverb (in contrast to the plaintive pedal-steel whine of the “Before the Colors Fade,” sort of her version of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”). Here the mellifluous sliding comes between the personal/spiritual, the natural/eternal—the vernal Southern imagery of cotton fields, blue hydrangeas, mare’s stall and baptismal healing-waters (“By the river so still, where sorrows come to heal/And wrongs are made right”)—making it an ideal prelude to her stirring child’s resigning of faith to fate in “The Night I Learned Not to Pray.” Classic form, invigorating metaphor.
“Before the Colors Fade”
The lyric “The angles of your sweet old face”–memories of a loved one passed–grabs hold to specifics of daily living and DeMent’s sensitive singing provides phenomenal awareness, i.e., feeling. This song is all about awareness–and thanksgiving. DeMent doesn’t replace Christianity with animism but applies Gospel celebration to the facts of transient life. As in “If That Ain’t Love,“ she exhibits a person passionately surviving on the varied teachings and basic religious precepts of faith–what the non-religious would call humanism. Her desperation (“Colors” translates grieving into acceptance) is yet full of grace and compassion. Her ambivalent art details ways of seeing and feeling that strict secularism would replace with faithlessness. This song produces righteous tears. –Phyllis Workman
“The Kingdom Has Already Come”
On “The Kingdom Has Already Come,” Iris DeMent applies the song title’s Christian truth to life’s ambiguities and America’s struggles.
In the liner notes of Sing the Delta, DeMent tells of a transformative period in her life that provides context for “TKHAC”:
There’s this church in Kansas City I took to frequenting when I lived there. An inner-city church, filled with folks mostly of African-American descent. They took me in and got me through a dark stretch of time.
DeMent’s “dark stretch” means questioning the very faith that provides the community (church) and ritual (prayer) that sustains her. In “TKHAC,” DeMent describes the experience of the Kansas City church as giving her the strength “to pull back the curtain old fears had drawn.” She returns to this image on “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven” (“If you pull back the curtain, little diamonds will appear”). Going beyond divisions (“fears”)—the illusory “curtain”—DeMent recognizes “the Kingdom” in shared humanity.
Doubting Iris finds evidence of the validity of Christian ritual in secular locations. Watching from her stifling hotel in “TKHAC,” she sees the Kansas City children cooling off in the spray of a fire hydrant: “baptizing their bodies right there in the street.” Similarly, in “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” DeMent releases pent-up pain—by praying, essentially—telling a photo of her brother about how his death caused her to lose faith in prayer. DeMent’s sensitivity is also the essence of her doubt: her moral outrage at the hardships suffered by innocents.
Such stories also attest to human perseverance—which a tree personifies for her in the chorus of “TKHAC” (“It sings when the wind blows”). DeMent’s musings on nature represent her interior emotions. On “Mornin’ Glory,” DeMent takes respite from the stress of the mundane in her “garden of dreams”—the sublime in nature conveying a primal longing for a paradise that lies beyond the “curtain.” Consequently, her reflections on natural phenomena constitute social-spiritual insight.
As the personal-political dynamic of “TKHAC” demonstrates, Sing the Delta expresses the full range of DeMent’s sensibility (from desolation to faith) as well as the universality of those experiences. The album begins with the death of death (“Go on Ahead and Go Home”) and ends with “a fate worse than death” (“Out of the Fire”—a career pinnacle). These twin realities of post-Christian consciousness engender the radical compassion expressed on “TKHAC”: “If this will be loved and that will be hated / The soul is left to struggle segregated.”
“The Night I Learned How Not to Pray”
The first blush is deceptive. You imagine her standing in the doorway of a rural wooden farmhouse, her wiry hair turned white. When she speaks, you hear a surprising earthy strength.
Your first listen is deceptive. Her melody line upbeat, catchy, bright. The most singable tune in a collection built around prayer. Once, twice through humming against the words. So, listen first to the voice.
DeMent. Her voice flows together with that unique combination of fragility and feet-on-the-ground strength that I’ve always heard in Southern women of stature. I’ve heard it from my grandmother, a woman who ran a small farm alone through the late Depression, raising nine kids on the side. And I’ve also placed it with my mother, whether encouraging perseverance or trembling in fear at life’s inevitable tragedies. The way she explained the mutation of her child born in the wake of thalidomide.
Here in song is the complete harmony of what it’s like to be a person every day, the potential for tragedy at a moment’s notice. In small, common details available to us all. The TV time of day, the color of a brother’s hair. And then that turning away from the revival tent, that turning away … with a song titled “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.” Laying down a family tragedy, laying down faith …
So what turns the happy melody, the frame where a sister talks to her departed brother in such an honest vein? Could it be—like DeMent’s voice simultaneously balancing fragility and strength—that not to pray is not the absence of prayer, but the understanding that prayer is not a discussion with God, but the living’s open conversation with the departed … and with oneself? No small wonder the tune, the tenor is upbeat.
“Livin’ on the Inside”
All 12 tracks of Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta can crack your heart open right inside you; few albums achieve this wholeness and integrity. Her throaty, strong twang can do anything it wants, but DeMent bends and shapes her vocals to serve only the powerful, irresistible emotion of her deceptively simple lyrics, and the dream cast of musicians assembled for this album match her grace, surrounding each song with wonderfully inventive and discrete arrangements.
In past recordings she’s spoken to social and political issues, but DeMent is a quintessentially personal artist, a storyteller who easily conjures up in the listener vivid images, mostly set in misty Delta evenings with a full moon shining yellow streaks on dark moss and warm air heavy with remembered presences. “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” “Before the Colors Fade,” “Mornin’ Glory,” “Out of the Fire” and virtually every other song explore subjects ranging from DeMent’s religious doubts to past loves and losses and family.
All that introspection can weigh on any soul—sometimes a girl just wants to have fun—which is why the departure of “Livin’ on the Inside” draws the listener in even deeper. “Day and night I’ve been tryin’ to unravel myself,” she complains. She longs for easier times when “No one’s worried about nothin’, no one’s feelin’ sad.” And who can’t identify with DeMent’s plea—“I don’t want to know about nothin’ unless it’s somethin’ I’ve seen or done/ ’cause I’ve been livin’ on the inside too much”?
Lots of people listen to pop music while doing household chores, but I can think of very few memorable songs about domestic work. Iris DeMent’s “Mornin’ Glory” (from her new album Sing the Delta) is the most striking track to treat the subject since Kate Bush’s “Mrs. Bartolozzi” (2005).
The song’s conceit couldn’t be simpler: The narrator (call her Iris) delays starting the day’s work to spend “one minute more” appreciating the beauty of a “fuchsia in green” morning glory flower. Grace comes through indelibly in the lilting refrain: “Oh my day is just starting/Your day is done.”
The song would seem to be a reference to the Sermon on the Mount: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28-29)
Sing the Delta is Iris DeMent’s first album of original material in 16 years. She has played live solo shows for audiences throughout the U.S. (and occasionally overseas) in those years, while almost entirely avoiding the mortifying pop-star business of “brand building.”
Spared the endless labor required to maintain a narcissistic personality, Iris still faces the toil of housewifery: this woman’s work. But the morning glory flower tempts her imagination to stray. With its (ahem) “petals clenched tightly,” it’s a chaste dreamer that describes God’s glory with perfect purposelessness. It represents the humility that Iris’s integrity needs in order to arrive at inspiration.
Though one can easily imagine “Mornin’ Glory” becoming one of her often-covered songs (e.g., “Sweet Is the Melody,” “Our Town”), it is very much about Iris DeMent’s individual identity as an artist. She is not destined to be one of the lilies of the field who neither toil nor spin. Her fitful career is comprised of moments of inspiration, of extra minutes stolen from a life of struggle.
As Sing the Delta demonstrates, to become inspired is not a passive process but an effort of will and an exercise of one’s willingness to be, in DeMent’s words, “deep in the pain, strong in the love.”
“There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven in This River of Tears”
That piercingly honest voice that raises the hair on the back of your neck. A voice that bespeaks authenticity. Robert Johnson was a “real” bluesman, Dolly Parton is “real” country, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin “define” SOUL. Iris Dement sings with a voice that is both earthy and ethereal. It’s real and almost un-real.
It’s in the space between the otherworldliness of her voice and the “world” she sings of, that DeMent achieves the ineffable … the magic … she blurs the distinctions between the two worlds. Bringing you in to her autobiography—her faith—and making them seem as the most natural and desirable things in the world.
In “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” DeMent walks the space between her last gospel (alt gospel?) album and this more worldly/autobiographical one by “being saved by the love of the people living right here” in this river of tears. This isn’t Joni Mitchell’s “River” that you can “skate away” on. There’s no escape from “living right here”. DeMent doesn’t necessarily choose the “real” world over the heavenly one, but wants the ability to choose the world “that don’t want to be steered.”
She makes palatable the distance between this world and another ineffable one with the ease of her wonderfully sweet voice.
It’s the space in-between where DeMent finds the heaven in the river of tears. It’s the space between love and pain where DeMent lives and sings from.
“Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth”
This no-nonsense song is the album’s funniest track and ought to inspire regular performance on the Grand Ole Opry. It finds Iris identifying with her tart-tongued Mom. A child faces her worst fears and receives tough counsel. Leading into the closing track “Out of the Fire,” it is a defense of contradictions: impatience and love, skepticism and faith. These are balancing acts some women sustain better than some men, which is how Iris wins back the secular and spiritual faith that Bruce Springsteen horribly betrayed on Wrecking Ball where he sacrificed love and brotherhood for partisan politics. Iris refuses to deny her truth–the difficulties that can drive a woman to drink as well as pray–either through simplistic musical or political formulas. As this bouncy, hard-knocks song prepares us to bear the depths of “Out of the Fire,” Iris sources the album’s strength and beauty. –A.W.
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