Iris DeMent,
An interview by Jen Kopf
(June 1996)

If you can sit on your porch as daylight dims, and smell air freshly cleared by a rain shower....

If you can watch neighborhood children zigzag after fireflies, and think of the days when that chase was enough to occupy you for hours....

If you're feeling a little melancholy, maybe a bit lonely for something or someone you can't quite name....

If you've propped your feet on the porch rail and turned on an old battered radio, then the voice singing from that radio should be Iris DeMent's.

"Yeah, I kind of like that picture myself," said DeMent from her Missouri home. "I used to think, 'Oh, I'll just take the guitar and go sit on the porch. This is the perfect atmosphere.' But I've never written anything there. I write songs in the bedroom, staring out the window. If I sit and stare out the window long enough, the song will come."

The songs waited a while to come to DeMent, who only began concentrating on her gift when she hit her mid-20s.

Since then, she's released two albums, Infamous Angel in 1992 and 1994's My Life, and brought a sweet, traditional voice to country music.

"Until I was about 25, I never felt the songs would be as good as everyone else's," said DeMent. "I was trying to be what I thought I was supposed to be, instead of what I really was. Eventually I just got tired of living that way, and figured 'I don't care.' And the words and the music seemed to just come to me."

DeMent has won raves from some of music's most revered traditionalists, like Merle Haggard, and some of its most respected wordsmiths, like John Prine and Nanci Griffith. She's still resolutely modest -- "I don't think of myself as a great guitar player, actually," she said. "I'm certainly not a great piano player."

But her basic acoustic G, C and D chords have been more than enough to accompany lyrics that ache and long and celebrate:

"I had a garden but my flowers died / There ain't much livin' here inside," she sings in "Easy's Gettin' Harder Every Day."

"Lately I don't know what I'm holdin' on to / Wish I could run away to Couer D'Alene / Take nothin' with me, not even my name / 'Cause easy's gettin' harder every day."

In "My Life," the occasional futility of living gets condensed into two verses. But, she sings in the chorus, "I gave joy to my mother / I made my lover smile / And I can give comfort to my friends when they're hurting / I can make it seem better for awhile."

DeMent has an affinity for the country music that's closer to the small towns of the South than it is to the bright lights of Nashville. She covers two of country's legends, Maybelle Carter and Lefty Frizzell, on My Life.

And it's the songwriting, DeMent said, the process "that I need to do," that's most rewarding.

"Something would be missing without the opportunity to perform, but that's always secondary."

DeMent was born in Arkansas, the youngest of 14 children. A photo of her family in the liner notes of My Life shows two grownups engulfed by children -- all standing proudly behind the family's gleaming new stove.

"I hadn't even come along yet," DeMent laughed. "There were still five more of us 'in the oven' when that picture was taken. I love it."

The family patriarch, Patric Shaw DeMent, had a love of music that was channeled into the church by the time Iris came along. A fiddler, "when he got saved, he put the fiddle away," young Iris was told.

"He heard me singing in church when I was growing up, and music was a natural part of our family that way," DeMent says now. "But did he ever hear me perform like I do now? No -- by that time, he was ill. Except I don't really mind that, isn't that strange? I guess I just feel like he was there all that time. He was never overt about it, but in his own, quiet way, music was strongly encouraged."

Her third album will be released in August. It includes two songs DeMent co-wrote with her husband, and one she wrote with Haggard. Haggard was, she said, "one of those people who's intimidating to meet when you only know them in their greatness, when you only know someone by something extraordinary they do."

She toured with his band for two weeks last year, "an opportunity to observe," and finally "started to breathe a little easier" toward the end of the tour.

"I just played the piano, and practiced quite a bit to get the chords," she said with a laugh. "Then they let me get up there with them, and we just kept the piano volume down real low."

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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