Singers celebrate the human voice. Their lyrics are words. But animated by voice those words are subsumed into sounds.…In most songs the drama or tension results from the fact that the singer moves between word (sense) and note (song). At one moment the song simply “says” something. At another moment the voice stretches out the words — the heart cannot contain! — and the voice moves toward pure sound. Words take flight.
– Richard Rodriguez, Hunger Of Memory
All sorts of things can keep artists from creating their art. There are likely as many obstacles that can come between songwriters and new songs, indeed, as there are songwriters and songs. And it’s all the more difficult to discuss because each artist doesn’t experience the silencing of creativity in precisely the same way every time it occurs.
Iris DeMent didn’t write any new songs, or at least any she was happy with, for close to a decade. In the first half of the 1990s, DeMent released three albums containing 28 original songs that earned her a reputation as one of the best songwriters of her generation. And her singing, which seemed to evoke all the living that mere words can never quite convey, had similarly earned DeMent a spot among the elite vocalists of her time.
Even amidst the dry years, DeMent never stopped singing. But her “writer’s block,” as it’s been termed, became a matter of particular frustration to the members of her audience. One fan would mention that DeMent had sung marvelously in concert, and another would immediately inquire, “Yes, but did she have any new songs?”
During the years of writer’s block, she divorced. She endured both lengthy and brief periods of depression. At times she toured more than she prefers, which left her with too little of what Lucinda Williams once called “cool quiet and time to think.” She dealt with hate mail and death threats over her expression of political beliefs. She fell in love and remarried. Now, finally, at age 43, she has a new album of gospel standards, Lifeline (due out November 9 on Flariella Records). And she’s writing some new songs.
When people have asked DeMent over the years why it’s taken her so long to put out a new record — and she says she’s been asked this many, many times — her pat response has been something like, “I haven’t put a record out in eight years because I haven’t written twelve songs that I want to make a record of.” As pat answers go, that’s a fine one.
But the real answers to where Iris DeMent has been all these years, and where she is today, well, that’s a long story. And it starts in church.
Iris Luella DeMent was born January 5, 1961, the youngest of fourteen children in Paragold, Arkansas, a tiny town located just beneath the Missouri boot heel. On January 8, she attended her first church service. “My mom always prided herself on getting her kids to church the first Sunday after they were born,” DeMent says.
Indeed, both in Arkansas, where Iris’ father, Patrick, did factory work at Emerson Electric, and in California, where he moved the family in 1964 after an attempt to unionize the plant failed, the DeMents’ life centered on the church. In Buena Park, California, where Iris mostly grew up, this meant that in addition to attending several fervent Pentecostal services each week, members of her family often went door to door or performed in public in an effort to win souls to Christ.
“I remember being like six years old,” DeMent says, “standing on the corner, shaking my tambourine, and some kid would go by on his bike. I’d think, boy, you and I are worlds apart.”
Music was a central part of the family’s worship, fostering fellowship among the church members on Wednesdays and Sundays and girding the spirits of congregants at home during the rest of the week. All of the DeMents — eight children remained at home as Iris grew up — sang in church, and did so with abundant strenuousness and joy, as is the Pentecostal way.
Many in the family played the piano at home; Iris’ father had played the fiddle, too, when he was a young man in Arkansas but put it away when he committed himself to Christ. Some of them occasionally even performed on record: Billed as the DeMent Sisters, a trio of Iris’ older siblings provided backing vocals once for a local gospel recording session, while another sister was in a gospel group that recorded “I Don’t Want To Get Used To This World”. “That’s how I first heard [that song], when I was just about 10, I guess,” DeMent says. Lifeline includes her own version of it, backed by little more than lap steel licks and the strum of her own acoustic guitar.
In fact, excluding one DeMent original, the songs on Lifeline are all ones Iris sang in church as a girl or ones she learned from old hymn books her mother had brought with the family from Arkansas.
Take “The Old Gospel Ship”, for example. “I grew up hearing that song all of the time,” DeMent says. “But the first time I really remember it was when this lady came to our church to sing. Well, she was probably only about 16, but to me she was a lady. I was maybe 7. Her name was Sharon Scroggins, and she sang one Sunday morning and was just really, really good. She had this great big beehive hairdo. And she was cross-eyed. And looking back I can see how I should’ve gone, ‘Oh, this is weird.’ But I was just so taken with her; I wanted to be her. I thought it was wonderful that her eyes were crossed.