“My whole religious thing is pretty broad,” Iris DeMent told the audience at The Birchmere Tuesday. “I don’t fit into any category.” But it’s a deep faith, one committed to love and justice.
Born in Paragould, Arkansas, in the Mississippi Delta, DeMent was the fourteenth and youngest child in her family. Her family moved to the Los Angeles area when she was just three, but she inherited the culture — and clearly, the accent — of her Delta heritage, as well as their faith. Her parents were Pentecostal, and, as she said during her set, she grew up believing in the Rapture. She didn’t like school, and she often “laid up all night praying for the Rapture, so I wouldn’t have to go to school.”
Iris inherited her mother’s love of music, her passion for country, folk, and gospel. Her own records blend all those genres and styles, and have landed solidly in the Americana camp. In 2017, the Americana Music Association recognized her contributions by giving her its Trailblazer award.
The subject of the Rapture came when Iris was discussing the making of her latest album, Working On A World, which was released to widespread critical acclaim earlier this year. “I owed it to the songs to record them, in case I got whisked away by the rapture.” The album involved “a lot of stops and starts,” and had four producers, including Iris herself.
The songs for Working On A World were written over several years. The title track came to her in November 2016. “I can’t imagine why,” Iris mused during her concert at The Birchmere on Oct. 10. A reaction to the election of Donald Trump, the song celebrates her heroes, referring as many of the songs on the album do, to icons of the civil rights movement. It’s a somber acknowledgment that we have to do the work to make a better world, though we may not come to see it see pass: “working on a world we may never see.” DeMent wrote the song as much for herself as for any audience. For some time, she sang it to herself everyday, and she “recorded it hoping it would help someone else.”
Another song on the album, “Goin’ Down to Sing In Texas,” was inspired by her experience playing the Cactus Cafe in Austin. When she went in for sound check, she saw a sign on the wall with instructions for how patrons should handle their firearms. At first, she thought this was some kind of joke, but she learned, to her dismay, it was not. The Cactus Cafe is located in the student union at the University of Texas. The state’s Republican-dominated government had decided to allow guns on campus. “I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t want it to happen,” Iris said.
Iris is, clearly, an extremely sensitive person, and she projects vulnerability. She’s even a bit shy; she told the audience that, while forced off the road due to the pandemic, “I got used to people not looking at me.” Things get to her, and she feels them deeply. Seeing this sign about the guns upset her greatly, to the point she contemplated retirement and not playing the show. Fortunately for all of us who love her work, she decided to soldier on, playing that show and many more since.
Watch a lyric video for “Going’ Down to Sing in Texas” by Iris DeMent on YouTube:
The set began with another song from Working On A World, “The Sacred Now.” After playing the song, Iris said, “All we have is the sacred now.” “Warriors of Love” celebrated the life and legacy of John Lewis, the late civil rights leader and longtime congressman from Georgia, and “Mahalia” was a tribute to the great gospel singer and activist Mahalia Jackson. After playing “Nothing for the Dead,” she said, “If you get bored enough on the treadmill, you just might get a song.” The set also included “Say A Good Word.”
The staunchly political nature of these songs stirred some people up. When he went to use the restroom, my friend Paul heard some people complain that they didn’t think this new material was a good as the old stuff. While it’s true that DeMent’s 1993 debut, Infamous Angel, is a spectacular record, these people are wrong, and it’s nothing more than the old chestnut you hear from music fans who can’t follow an artist as they do different things through their career. It’s not like this latest album was that much of a departure, either. As long ago as 1996, Iris made an equally political album, The Way I Should. And it needs to be said that the critics are right in their assessment of Working On A World: It’s one of her strongest albums.
This is but a trifle, though, compared to the rather distressing incident that took place during the show. In her lyrics, DeMent references Rachel Corrie, a young American woman who was crushed to death by an Israeli armored bulldozer when she stood in front of it to prevent from it bulldozing a Palestinian house in Gaza. A woman began screaming hysterically to convey this information to the audience, and wouldn’t stop, which prompted others in the audience to start shouting at her. I felt for Iris, who said, as things became confrontational, “Don’t do that. Her heart is heavy.”
As my friend Paul stated, one has to read the room. This was a fairly intimate show in a listening room environment. There is a time and place that welcomes more audience participation, even loud participation, but this wasn’t it. It was also this woman’s second outburst, and the rest of the audience was getting frustrated with her interjections. I’m not quite sure exactly how the whole situation was defused, but, somethow, thankfully, it was, allowing Iris and her band to get on with the show.
While much of the material was political on Oct. 10 at The Birchmere, not all of it was.
“I don’t have a lot of love songs,” DeMent said, introducing “This Love Is Gonna Last.” “I figure everyone else has that base covered.” There were a few old favorites thrown in, too: “There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven” and “Higher Ground” were both played early in the set. When Iris and her band came back for their encore, she did two of her oldest and most beloved songs, “Let The Mystery Be” and “Our Town.” “Let The Mystery Be” is an exploration of spirituality, and an acceptance of the limits of our knowledge. “Our Town,” the song that made fall in love with Iris when I was 13 and heard it on WKSU, is about the decline and death of many small towns in America, especially in places like the Rust Belt.
The songs were beautiful, and this was the first time I’ve seen DeMent with accompaniment — guitar and bass. I enjoyed getting to hear some of my favorite songs — “Our Town” connects me to very powerful memories of my younger days — but all the songs were great. It’s thoughtful, empathetic music with a spiritual core that processes our world and its challenges with love and compassion. In a time when country music is increasingly being identified with reactionary politics, Iris DeMent’s music represents a meaningful, intelligent alternative that offers uplift and hope.