Iris DeMent: Hillbilly angel not afraid to ask questions

By Lee Nichols

Special to The Progressive Populist

A little over four years ago, I was driving to work on a cold November morning, worried about deadlines. Christmas was coming soon, and music journalists are always expected to come up with those end-of-the-year "top ten" lists; I was supposed to turn one in to a national magazine the next day, and was still mulling over what should be ranked as my number one.

Then, like a bolt of divine lightning, a voice struck at me from my radio. It was the most amazing thing: A hillbilly voice, the likes of which haven't been heard since the Carter Family, but with the modern passion of an Emmylou Harris, and singing the most thoughtful, beautiful song about the mysteries of life, God, and the hereafter. In that one song, "Let the Mystery Be," I had my answer. Her name was Iris DeMent; I got the record the next day, and had my number one.

My love affair with the voice and songs of Iris DeMent has proven to be a long-term relationship, probably because it's never gotten stale. That first album, Infamous Angel (on Philo Records) was a sweet celebration of life -- a joyous romp through love, home, and family, and with a sly wink that hinted that she wasn't as innocent as that pure voice might indicate. But her next one, My Life (on Warner Bros. Records), came shortly after the death of her father, and DeMent showed herself to be the true artist -- she switched courses and delved into painful themes of loss, exploring it with sublime grace.

With the recent release of her third effort, The Way I Should, again on Warner Bros., DeMent, 38, shows that she can still keep the romance fresh by treading on new ground. DeMent tours through range of different emotions this time, but one in particular really jumps out at you: anger. On several songs, it is clear that she has surveyed the political and cultural landscape of America, and doesn't like what she sees.

"There's a Wall In Washington," about the Vietnam Memorial, has a boy asking "Who is to blame for this wall in Washington Why is my father's name etched here in it?" On "Wasteland of the Free," DeMent runs through a whole laundry list of complaints: the Christian right, greedy CEOs, scapegoating politicians, and more, and says that the answers we're being given "Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy." The album, produced by veteran country guitarist Randy Scruggs, is definitely the type of thing a progressive populist might enjoy.

I had the pleasure of meeting DeMent for the first time this winter in her hometown of Kansas City, and she sat down for an interview:

The Progressive Populist: I noticed the political bent that your songwriting as taken. Do you think your songwriting has changed? Iris Dement: I'm sure that it's changed, it's been evolving since I started. But there are a few songs that have taken a more political direction; there's about seven or eight of them on there that didn't, but those three [also including "Quality Time"] certainly have, and kind of stand out.

PP: What sparked this new political bent? Are these beliefs you've had for a long time, or a recent turn in your thinking?

ID: I think it's things that evolved for me. The Gulf War was the first war I experienced as an adult. I remember Vietnam, and my brother went to Vietnam, so I have a consciousness of that war, but I didn't understand the conflicts of the people that are here at home, and what kind of questions you're left to answer. I was oblivious to all that, whereas I wasn't this time around, and I think that, looking back, a lot of these songs went back to that period and I didn't realize it. I felt that, as an adult, I needed to start asking myself questions about those sorts of things. I felt really conflicted at the time of the Gulf War, whereas I didn't when I was 11 years old. I felt kind of trapped between "Support the Troops" and at the same time, "How do you personally feel about this thing that we're involved in?" And over the last few years I've just started paying more attention to politics and decisions that are made that affect all of our lives.

PP: I've noticed that all of your albums follow a theme, more or less. Do you approach your albums as cohesive units, or is it just the way your songs turn out when you put them down?

ID: So far I've never approached it as, "I want to write about this particular thing on this album." I think it probably accidentally comes out that way to some extent because the group of songs I write for each album come about at a given period of time, and I'm more or less in one place for that period of time. But as far as subject matter and consciously trying to create a theme, no I haven't done that. I think that could be fun to do, though.

PP: I thought I read that Merle Haggard was originally supposed to produce this album.

ID: Yeah, he was.

PP: What happened?

ID: Well [laughing nervously], it just fell apart. I think that it was probably not meant to be. Without going into a lot of details, we probably both realized that as we got days away from the time the project was supposed to start. But that was the plan, and I was fairly excited about it and I think he was, too. In fact, I know he was. But it didn't happen, and I think that things took the course they were supposed to take.

PP: Tell me about the musical relationship you've developed with him. I guess he discovered you from the Tulare Dust album [a tribute album to Haggard by various artists, in which DeMent covered Haggard's "Big City."]. Did he just call you up?

ID: Yeah, called me up, and he liked that song a lot, and as a result of having heard that song, he went out and bought my other two records. It was a mutual admiration, although I've been admiring him a lot longer. He got just got something out of my music, the same way I did with his. We had that kind of bond.

PP: People often comment a lot on his political bent. What do you think of his politics?

ID: That's hard to talk about, because in a lot of ways, in the time that I spent around Merle, I sure as heck did not see him as the "Okie From Muskogee."

PP: It was my understanding that that song was always kind of a joke, not nearly as bitter as a lot of people took it to be.

ID: Yeah, well, you know, I think he has a lot of views that go to both sides. I think most people do, actually. I do. A lot of people see it as odd that I wrote these so-called liberal political songs and yet I admire this person who is perceived as this right-wing guy. I didn't see Merle that way.

PP: I've never seen him as right-wing. I see him as maybe typically American, the type of guy who can get caught up in the patriotic flag-waving stuff, but at the same time, he's very pro-labor.

ID: And he's talking about the problems. Like you said, he may be flag-waving, but unlike most writers, he'll stand up and say, "This thing is really screwed up."

PP: And then, "Irma Jackson" was an anti-racism song.

ID: Oh yeah, about mixed marriage, [written] at a time when it wasn't accepted, and it still isn't a subject that a lot of people are too willing to accept. He wrote that at a time when, say, if you and I had been around at that time, we might have rejected that song. I have a lot of respect for him.

PP: You co-wrote a song with him on this album, "This Kind of Happy." Was that a difficult process?

ID: It wasn't difficult at all, because, what happened was I had the bulk of the song written, but it was one of these songs I couldn't finish, and hadn't for about three years. Basically, it needed a chorus, and for the life of me, I couldn't write this chorus. So we had gone to see a show of Merle's in Des Moines, and we're sitting on the bus before the show, and he asked me if I had any songs that he'd never heard. I played him "This Kind of Happy," and said "Maybe you could help me finish this thing." Ten minutes later, Merle had the chorus.

PP: You opened some shows for him, didn't you?

ID: No, I went out and played piano for him for a couple of weeks.

PP: I saw another interview with you, and you mentioned the song "Wasteland of the Free," and said you'd gotten a mixed reaction from some of the crowds that you've played before. Tell me about what you've experienced as far as feedback from some of this stuff.

ID: I love it when the lights are up enough in the room that I can see people's faces when I do that song, because inevitably there's a verse that everybody is going to agree with - at a different time. I'll sing the first verse, and I'll see this guy clapping and really into it, and then I'll hit on the next one and he doesn't agree with me, and their faces will turn sour. Most people don't agree with everything in the song. You just feel this mood moving through the room. I expect the song to be received in this way. I agree with everything that's in there, naturally - it's my point of view and I threw it out there -- but I anticipated that most people wouldn't agree with everything. That's fine with me. Then there's always the handful of people that are with me the whole way. So far, no one's thrown anything at me, and I expected they might.

PP: As we said, not everything on the album is political material - in fact, most of it isn't. Are you afraid that this album will get branded as a political album, or that you'll get branded as a political singer? Or does that bother you at all?

ID: I'm not terribly worried about that. I don't feel compelled to write nothing but politically oriented songs from now on. So, as long some people continue to buy the rest of my records, I don't think that's going to happen, but who knows? I guess I am a little uncomfortable with that term, "political songs" ­p;- even though I keep using that term myself - because I don't actually think of them so much that way. To me, they're pretty personal; these are things that affect my life and the lives of people I know.

PP: There's another song that might not strike some as political, but the on the title track, "The Way I Should," your chorus says "And it's true that I don't work near as hard/As you tell me that I'm supposed to" and then, "But I live just the way I want to/And that's the way I should." That, to me, seems to be a labor sentiment. Is that what you were trying to express, or was it something else altogether?

ID: I think what I was trying to express was that in this world we live in, or at least in America, there's a lot of pressure to work your butt off and get a bunch of stuff. And if you don't have a bunch of stuff, you're not very well thought-of here. That's just a fact. I knew when I was a kid, it dawned on me that because we didn't have a bunch of stuff and because my dad was a janitor, I understood how this society was set up, that somehow we were left [behind]. Even though I admired the heck out of my dad, it was this dilemma that went on with me for a number of years. I think probably about the time I was 25, I got over that way of thinking. And I think that's more or less what that line is saying: It just so happens, folks, that I really don't care about all the junk. I took a year and a half off to write, and we lost a lot of money, spent everything we made the year before, and that's what we wanted to do. That's what's important to me, and luckily, my husband supports that.

PP: Well, that leads lead me to the song "Quality Time," where you criticize people for being more obsessed with "nice cars" and "nice big houses" than with raising their children.

ID: I feel pretty strongly that there's a lot of kids in this country that are being cheated, being raised by 18 different babysitters. I think I would have felt cheated if I had grown up that way. I think kids deserve more than that. They deserve a lot of time from the people who brought them into the world That may be old-fashioned, but I happen to think that's a healthy thing. And I think also that the message that a child gets when they're growing up in a household where getting junk is considered more important than time spent with them, I think that's an unhealthy message. You're this amazing little human being, but stuff is more important than time with you.

PP: In the liner notes, you said that the song "Letter to Mom" [a powerful song where the character tells her mother that she was molested as a child by the mother's boyfriend] was not autobiographical. Where did the song come from?

ID: Just hearing about that and putting myself in that position - I find something in that person's story that I can identify with. I was lucky that I grew up and felt safe around the adults I was with; I have to find something in that person's life, some pain of my own that I can identify as being somewhat similar to theirs in order to write about it.

PP: Have you had anyone come up to you and say that because of your new political direction, you've lost a fan?

ID: I haven't at the shows, but I've gotten mail. I've gotten some of my CDs returned, broken. It seems to be primarily people that were familiar with my work already, and aren't pleased that I've gone in a direction that isn't satisfying to them. Face-to-face, I don't get as much of that, people are usually pretty polite when they meet you. But yeah, a number of people, a number of critics that were fans aren't fans anymore, and I expected that. Actually, I expected much worse. I truly thought this was going to be the kiss of death album for me, that I would lose most of my fans and probably not get any new ones.

PP: Have you picked up new fans?

ID: I think so.

PP: I remember reading in that same article that you said you're not a Christian, and yet the concept of God has been present in a lot of your songs. How would you describe your religious philosophy?

ID: There are a lot of Christian principles that I share; the reason that I can't call myself a Christian is that, unless I read something wrong or misheard all these ministers growing up, they believe that you have to be Christian - you have to believe in Jesus as the one and only son of God, and that's your rite to heaven, and if you don't buy that, you're out. Because I don't believe that, I can't call myself a Christian. Call it a crime - which a lot of people do - but I pick and choose. If it doesn't feel right to me I throw it out. I try to my best to figure out what's right for me, and what the right way to live my life is I do talk about God. I don't see God the way I did as a child; I think of it more of as a great big thing that's in everything. It's in the trees, it's in me, it's in everything around us, and I wouldn't go beyond that and try to define it. I just know I like to think of something that's this greatness that's in all of us, and I try to grab a hold of it and touch it at least once in a while.

Lee Nichols is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.

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