Music

Iris DeMent finds inspiration in Russian writer’s work

Mei-Ling Shaw Williams

A few years ago Iris DeMent was invited to sing one song on the Grand Ole Opry’s radio broadcast. It had been 20 years since the one-of-a-kind singer had released her debut album, “Infamous Angels,” which featured a song she wrote called “Mama’s Opry.”

Flora Mae DeMent, who’d always wanted to be a singer, didn’t live long enough to hear her youngest child (of eight) get her Opry showcase; she’d died the year before. But DeMent’s husband, the songwriter Greg Brown, and their daughter drove down a long gravel road in their truck to catch the broadcast.

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“It was the only way for them to get reception,” says DeMent, who sings at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center on Saturday. “Very Grand Ole Opry-ish.”

The passing of DeMent’s mother left the singer feeling at a loss for direction. She’d already slowed down considerably, career-wise. Since her second album, 1993’s “My Life,” was nominated for a Grammy (for best contemporary folk album), she’s released just three more records, and one of those was a collection of traditional gospel songs.

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DeMent, who was born in Arkansas and raised in Southern California, says her close relationship with her mother was her musical guide. “It created an inroad for me, I think, to her, and to my deeper self in some odd way.


“When she passed, that all shifted,” she says. “I remember feeling like, what am I gonna do musically? And when this Anna project came along, it sort of . . . it didn’t ‘sorta’ — it answered that for me.”

Anna is Anna Akhmatova, the pen name of the late Russian modernist poet who died in 1966 after surviving — and wringing exceptional art from — her many brutal years under Stalinism. Some years ago a friend gave DeMent a collection of Russian poetry, which included Akhmatova’s work.

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“I’d never heard of her — zero,” DeMent admits. “I had no familiarity with her whatsoever, or any of the other poets in the book, frankly.”

But one of Anna’s poems in particular, “Like a White Stone,” startled her.

“As unmodern a story as it is, it just felt like someone told me to set it to music,” she says, burbling a self-deprecating laugh, which is something she does often. That day, a Sunday, she wrote four songs based on Akhmatova’s words.

“My head was spinning,” she recalls. “Who is this person who’s come into my world?”

The book was a gift commemorating DeMent and Brown’s adoption of a little girl from Russia, Dasha, who is now 16. Though it took the singer several years to complete “The Trackless Woods,” her upcoming album in tribute to Akhmatova — along the way, she made her last album, “Sing the Delta,” and she also “tried to talk myself out of” making the stark new album — she couldn’t deny the sensation that a transition was taking place.

“It shifted from the Southern thing I came out of to my daughter’s world,” she says. “She was 6 when we adopted her. She was very entrenched in a world that felt unfamiliar to me.”

Although her husband had once made an album that set the words of William Blake to music, it had never occurred to DeMent to do something similar.

“I had poetry anxiety,” she says. “I was comfortable with songs. I grew up in the [Pentecostal] church. I was soaked in those hymns. But there was something about poetry — the teachers presented it with so many rules. I can remember my heart gripping. I felt so intimidated with it.”

Now when she listens to her album — on some of the songs she’s accompanied only by piano; others feature mandolin and nylon-string guitar — she realizes it’s a quietly demanding piece of work. It’s not for doing the dishes to.

“It’s a little content-intense,” she agrees. “It’s a record you have to stay in the room with, literally and otherwise — the emotional room.”

Some of the lyrics can be devastating. “The souls of all my dears have flown to the stars / Thank God there’s no one left to lose,” DeMent sings, working hard to maintain an eerie calm. She notes that two of Akhmatova’s husbands were executed and her son was sent to the Gulag. To describe the poet’s artistic achievement, she has used the phrase “victory over inhumanity.”

“Her spirit was so intact, so solid,” DeMent says. “No matter what you dropped her in, whether the sun was shining or it was hailing, that quality comes through crystal clear.”

Though her own transcendental warble is the kind of sound that will stop an uninitiated listener in her tracks — it’s bruised and pure, girlish and old as the hills — DeMent says her favorite moment of the record is the rare recording of Akhmatova’s speaking voice appended to the last track.

“I can’t hardly bear it,” she says.

DeMent was raised in the church, but she says she doesn’t go anymore. While living in Kansas City, Mo., she attended a gospel church that cast a wide net, a house of worship where the preacher welcomed all denominations and also celebrated the non-religious, “the natural stuff that swims around.” She and her family live in Iowa now.

“If I find a church that respects that, then I’ll get up on Sunday,” she says. “But it’s hard to find.”

At the moment it seems she’s found another kind of religion.

IRIS DEMENT

At: Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport,

Saturday at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $28-$46. 978-546-7391, www.rockportmusic.org

At: Center for Arts, Natick,

Aug. 7 at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $36. 508-647-0097, www.natickarts.org

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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