Iris DeMent is belting out a protest song called “Wasteland Of The Free” to a packed house in Lawrence, Kansas, and even though the song is downright radical in a way that’s hardly heard in this country anymore, the response is decidedly enthusiastic. The focus of that enthusiasm, however, seems to bounce all over the hall like a hot potato.
One section down front goes nuts over “We’ve got politicians runnin’ races on corporate cash/Now don’t tell me they don’t turn around and kiss them people’s ass.” A group upstairs voices vigorous agreement to “We got C.E.O.’s makin’ 200 times the workers’ pay/But they’ll fight like hell against raisin’ the minimum wage.” Over at stage left, some folks whoop it up at the line “Let’s blame our troubles on the weak ones/Sounds like some kinda Hitler remedy.” It seems the song has a view to rally almost everyone.
On the other hand, there’s also something to piss a lot of people off. When she sings “We kill for oil and throw a party when we win/Some guy refuses to fight and we call that the sin,” the room is all but stunned into silence.
DeMent stands out there at the center of these shifting reactions, all by her lonesome. As always, she’s just a little ol’ country gal in a print dress, strumming her acoustic guitar and flat singing her heart out. The difference is that now she’s speaking her piece, too. Loud and clear.
Several months after that April show, DeMent spoke with me by phone from her home in Gladstone, Missouri, an older working-class community just north of Kansas City where she lives with her husband and manager, Elmer McCall. “You know, there’s a couple of songs I almost took off the new record,” DeMent reveals between loads of laundry. “I realized ‘Wasteland Of The Free’ could get me killed — and I ain’t ready to go yet. People aren’t used to hearing things like that [the 'We kill for oil' line] in public.…I had to ask myself if I was up for hate mail.…But you know, I think the odd thing is that a lot of people have thought those words. So I guess the main reason I had to put it on there is because that’s around-the-kitchen-table talk, and if I have the courage to say it around the kitchen table, and I don’t have the courage to say it out in public, then I’m not as much of a person as I like to think of myself as being.”
“Courage” is a word DeMent uses over and over when she talks about her third album, The Way I Should — and for good reason. Besides criticizing giddy reactions to the Gulf War, DeMent uses the disc to confront everything from yuppie parents who value “nice big cars” more than they do their own kids to the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the specifics of her own faith. “Letter To Mom”, about a woman who feels compelled to tell her mother about the sexual abuse she experienced as child — “[She's] not wanting to be cruel…[she's] just been walking ’round with secrets now too long” — is another controversial song that DeMent felt she had to have the guts to record. “I know some people are really going to be offended by that song, but I left it on there because some people are helped by it,” she says. “I know that from the letters I’ve gotten from people who’ve heard me sing it at shows.”
Still, she was also concerned about the reaction of one particular listener. “It sounds like a letter to my mom — and even though I do that a lot in my songs, I’ve never done it with a subject like this,” she said. “And I was actually concerned for my mother that it might bother her, that people would think that this was something I experienced as a kid. And I didn’t.…But I felt like if I don’t have the courage — when I think of what those people went through who have experienced that, and the courage it takes to face life and deal with that — if I don’t have the courage to even just identify with it in a song, then that’s a pretty terrible thing. So if it helps somebody, even if it makes my mother uncomfortable, or me, I’ve got to go through with it.”
Although Iris DeMent spent most of her formative years growing up in California, she was born, in 1961, in Paragould, Arkansas, a small town just to the west of the Missouri bootheel, and it’s in that edge-of-the-Ozarks land that she found her voice. Her mom and dad were church-going working people who made their own gospel music — dad played fiddle, mom sang — but they eventually came down out of the hills, as so many of their generation did, to find decent jobs in the fields and factories of southern California.
Appropriately, DeMent’s first two albums pay sweet homage to these influences. The final two cuts on her debut, 1992′s Infamous Angel, are “Mama’s Opry”, about her mother’s dream of singing on the Grand Ole Opry stage, and “Higher Ground”, a country gospel number that features the fine old-timey vocals of none other than Flora Mae DeMent herself. 1994′s My Life, in addition to including a cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom And Dad’s Waltz”, contains an exquisitely painful number called “No Time To Cry” about the death of her father. Produced by friend Jim Rooney, both albums have a spare, country gospel feel, with arrangements that use nothing more than twangy fiddle and guitar, bass and piano, and DeMent’s plaintive, old-school vocals — part Kitty Wells, part Sarah Carter.
And part Loretta too. The first record DeMent remembers ever hearing was one of her mom’s Loretta Lynn albums. “I loved that record,” she recalled. “It’s the first album I memorized from front to back.…A number of the songs [Lynn] wrote, but it was all gospel hymns. I don’t know the name of it, I think it was just like Loretta Lynn Sings Gospel Hymns. She’s got long red hair on the cover and a yellow lacy dress. That’s probably why I liked the album so much as a kid. She looked really, really pretty on there.”
The sound and message of that old-time gospel music has stayed with DeMent into adulthood, making inestimable contributions not only to her singing but to her writing. Though some listeners may hear the religious content in many of her songs and automatically assume she’s some sort of homespun Ned Flanders with a guitar, her religious beliefs are far more complex. DeMent songs such as “Let The Mystery Be”, “The Shores Of Jordan” and “Keep Me God” are always questioning and often ambivalent, even as they testify to great faith.
Like many people raised up in churches, DeMent eventually took herself out of the church, but, at least artistically, she has never been able to take the church out of herself. And she wouldn’t want to. “Even though I don’t go to those churches anymore, I don’t think I can ever separate myself musically from those churches,” she says. “I was three days old when I went to my first church service, and the churches we went to had a lot of really great music — really soulful, sincere singing.
“That’s pretty much what I was submerged in most of my life, even though today I’m not a Christian.…From what I remember from church, being a Christian means that you believe that people have to believe that Jesus is the only way to get to a better place. For a long time I did call myself a Christian, even though I didn’t go to a church. But then I realized that that belief is really at the crux of Christianity — that the foundation of Christianity is to make everybody become like them, because if they don’t become like them, they are doomed to burn in hell forever and ever and ever. That’s basically what Christianity is all about. I simply do not believe that, and I can’t believe that, and as hard as it is for me to say, I’m not a Christian.”