AN AMERICAN'S STORY
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
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
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
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
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
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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