Iris DeMent holds a special place in my heart. Growing up in the suburbs of Akron, Ohio, every night I listened to WKSU, the local public radio station, originating at Kent State. On the weekend evenings, WKSU would play folk music. Iris DeMent’s song “Our Town,” from 1993, is the first song I clearly remember hearing on the radio at night. But I’d forgotten who sang it, and the song and the artist were lost to me for 25 years.
Earlier this year, I rediscovered Iris, and she reminded me of why she is so great in a perfect show at City Winery on Nov. 13.
In my constant musical exploration, I found Iris’ outstanding debut album, Infamous Angel. I played it one morning on my way to work, and lo and behold, “Our Town” came through my earbuds. I’d found her again after 25 years.
At her concert at City Winery on Nov. 13, Iris performed solo, mostly on piano, with just a couple of songs on guitar. As another musician said to me this spring about Iris, “What an incredible songwriter” — and she did not disappoint her audience, playing many of her beautiful originals. Iris was also careful to acknowledge the influences that have shaped her as a musician, such as Tammy Wynette, and she played a few covers of artists to round out her set. Among these was a lovely rendition of the 19th-century hymn “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior.”
Stream Infamous Angel, the debut album by Iris DeMent, on Spotify:
Sitting down at the piano, Iris played “Sing the Delta,” a song that calls out to her roots along the Mississippi. Iris was born the youngest of 14 children in Arkansas, and her parents, as the song describes, moved the family west to California.
Considering her stature in Americana music — she’s won the Americana Music Association’s Trailblazer Award — Iris displays a refreshing streak of self-consciousness in live performance, maybe even a bit of shyness. She commented, half-sarcastically, that the room was too quiet, and that we were listening too hard — as though we ought not be hanging on every word, every note of an artist of her caliber. Later, she asked us to put down our phones and cameras, and look at her with our “real eyes.”
Iris speaks passionately about feminist ideals. Her mother was born in 1918, two years before women had the right to vote. She marvels at the strength of her grandmother, who managed to be so strong despite the lack of political control she had over her life. Iris honored her mother with the heartfelt “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” a song that I’m certain made everyone present think about their own mother.
Opener Anna Egge described Iris as “such a righteous person.” Iris spoke about reading Sojourner magazine, a publication at the intersection of faith and social justice, on her flight. She told the audience that she was reading a beautiful poem as her flight got rough coming into her connection in Atlanta. Iris said she was slightly disappointed that she did not meet her end with that poem as the last thing on her mind, but she was glad to be in DC.
Faith, and the struggle with faith, is a major theme in Iris’s music. Iris played her heartbreaking song “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” describing the tragic death of her baby brother despite her fervent prayers. The chorus of the song includes the words, “God does what God wants to anyway.”
In 2015, Iris released her sixth album, The Trackless Woods. Iris discussed the album at her concert, explaining that it was tied to her and her husband’s (folk singer Greg Brown) adoption of a five-year-old girl from Russia (the young lady is now 19). On The Trackless Woods, Iris set to music translations of 17 poems by the Russian Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), a shortlisted candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Iris made this album to explore Russian literature and culture (and she spoke enthusiastically about taking a class in Russian literature). From the album, Iris played “Not With Deserters.”
For her encore, Iris played two songs on the piano. She first played a Bob Wills song that I wasn’t familiar with. Sensing their last chance to get her to sing a favorite song, several members of the audience shouted requests, mostly for “Let the Mystery Be.” Without acknowledging the hollers from audience, Iris closed the show, appropriately enough, with “Go Ahead and Go Home.”
With the simplicity and elegance of her presentation, Iris allowed the audience to take in the full beauty of her songs. The spirit, the emotion, the soul in her songs, reach profound depth to which most musicians can only aspire.
Here are some photos of Iris DeMent performing at City Winery on Nov. 13, 2018. All photos copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.