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Perhaps the event that most influenced Iris DeMent's professional trajectory occurred before she was born. See, her father had been a fiddler--and a good one, too. Iris, the youngest of 14 children born to Patric and Flora Mae DeMent of the cotton-farming community of Paragould, Arkansas, pestered her siblings to tell her why her dad had given up the fiddle. After all, just about all the DeMent clan played an instrument. What happened to Dad?
Finally, she was told: "When he got saved, he put the fiddle away."
"That knowledge did have a profound influence on me," the 33-year-old DeMent says during a phone conversation from her Kansas City, Missouri, home. "It wasn't until I was 7 or 8 that I became curious enough to ask him about it, but I remember considering with no small amount of wonder how something so powerful and important as music could be displaced by something even more powerful."
The story of father and fiddle, written by DeMent, occupies four full pages in the liner notes of her second Warner Bros. release, My Life. The gentle reverie concludes with her father lying on his bed, just months before his death in summer 1992, ". . . thrusting his arm in the air and, with his hand open, his eyes looking upward and in a tone similar to the one you'd use to tell somebody to get off your property, he'd say, 'Goin' to Glory!'" It's a story simply told.
Such is the tenor of My Life and DeMent's first offering, Infamous Angel: songs delivered with little ornamentation in a tangy style reminiscent of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's. In just a few short years, DeMent has gone from singing alone in her living room to opening for the likes of country hipsters John Prine, Nanci Griffith and Mary-Chapin Carpenter. Her route to recording success, however, was circuitous.
While the family moved often when Iris was growing up, a constant in the household was gospel music. Mother Flora Mae constantly sang around the house and in church. In fact, Flora Mae DeMent sings a fine, quavering, committed-to-Jesus lead on "Higher Ground" on Infamous Angel. The older DeMent sisters formed the regionally successful gospel-singing, accordion-accompanied DeMent Sisters, nurtured and directed by their proud papa. And Iris played the piano, at home and in church, all the while wrestling with the import of the lyrics, which spoke of the river Jordan, of the sweet by-and-by.
When the time came to find her own way, Iris DeMent left Arkansas and traveled some. She lit in Kansas City. There she stayed, played music in her living room and considered her life and faith. She was in her mid-20s before she taught herself to play the guitar and embarked on her professional journey. Her music, though richly influenced by her gospel-filled youth, is primarily secular in nature. There remains, however, the need to explain.
"Religious people wouldn't call me religious," she says, "but I do believe in a higher power. Just because I don't adhere to the precise beliefs of my father doesn't mean I'm without spirituality. Still, a lot of my dad trickled down to me. Even if I wanted to--and I don't--I can't separate those things."
Perhaps her tenets are best mirrored in the testimony of Infamous Angel's "Let the Mystery Be":
Some say they're goin' to a place called Glory
And I ain't sayin' it ain't a fact
But I've heard that I'm on the road to purgatory
And I don't like the sound of that
I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
But I choose to let the mystery be
Iris DeMent is born again, all right. Her savior is her music.
"When I was 25," she says, "I wrote my first song. That's when I got the calling. The song was 'Our Town,' [Infamous Angel] and it caused a revelation within me: This is what I was here to do. I fell in love with my music. I suddenly came out of my shell and knew it was okay to do this--it was acceptable to please myself without having to worry about pleasing others."
After gathering reverent followers in the coffee houses and juke joints of K.C., DeMent hauled her calling to Nashville. There, she worked the circuit, playing "wherever they would have me." Eventually, small-label Rounder inked her, and Infamous Angel was begat. The album was resurrected under Warner Bros. and producer Jim Rooney in 1992, garnering DeMent a wider congregation. Prior to enlisting DeMent, however, Rooney sought the opinion of John Prine, the veteran folkbilly singer and songwriter whose audience, Rooney knew, might appreciate DeMent. Not only did Prine approve of the tracks to Infamous Angel, he enthusiastically agreed to pen the liner notes for the CD. Iris DeMent didn't meet Prine until well after the album's rerelease.
"I was amazed he'd do that without even knowing what I was like personally," DeMent says. "I don't know as if I could put my own reputation on the line like that."
With two complete works in the bins, DeMent survived her immersion into Music City politics. Her quirky music won't find its way on Nashville-directed contemporary country radio anytime soon. She really doesn't want to talk about Nashville, she says at first.
"Well," she begins reluctantly, "Nashville is pretty and green." Then: "Some of [the music] I like and some I don't. I'd have to say what they play on country radio today I like less of. They had a formula that worked and sold a lot of records. So why change? Now it sounds mostly homogenized and predictable. Board meetings and committees seem to be determining what gets played. The music really takes a back seat."
DeMent despairs particularly about Nashville's disdain of "old country" stalwarts.
"Along with gospel music, I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard," she says. "They have effectively been forced out of the business. It pains me to hear about the battles between young and old. It's part of the reason I choose to remain in Kansas City--I'm uncomfortable with those politics."
While the Garths and Rebas behind the Pine Curtain may not appreciate DeMent, she has earned the praise of the old guard--and those waltzing around country's periphery who continue to experiment with sound and lyric.
"It may have taken longer than most, but I decided I had to trust myself in what I was doing," says Iris DeMent. "I've found that faith.