Music is an honest day’s work for Iris DeMent
Iris DeMent is nothing if not authentically herself.
What you see is what you get, and what you hear is from her heart.
“I tried to call myself a performer for a stretch of time, and I felt so paralyzed. I learned I can’t go down that road. It’s not in my makeup. I can’t think of it that way,” says DeMent, 57, in a phone interview from her rural Iowa home where she lives with her husband, singer/songwriter Greg Brown.
“The business side of music really never interested me,” she says. “I think of myself as a servant — a minister, a nurse. I think of myself in the service profession. That’s what I’m really doing. Frankly, I think that’s all any of us are really doing. At the end of the day, we’re all just here trying to give something to each other.”
The youngest of 14 children, Iris Luella DeMent was born to Pat and Flora Mae in rural Arkansas in 1961, raised in a Pentecostal household that held dear both church and music.
Naturally shy, it was the feeling she needed to share her own music that pushed DeMent, feet proverbially dragging, onstage.
Her songs have a “Grapes of Wrath”-like authenticity. Sung in her prairie-strong warble, DeMent could be a long-lost member of the Carter Family.
It’s that feeling that spurred John Prine — before the two singers ever met — to write in the liner notes for her 1993 debut album, “Infamous Angel,” that he cried into a pan of frying pork chops and burnt his arm while listening to “Mama’s Opry.”
Prine and DeMent have since become good friends and frequent collaborators. Fittingly, it was Prine who introduced DeMent at the 2017 Americana Music Association Awards, when she received a lifetime achievement honor. (They’ll also ring in 2019 together at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House.)
We caught up with the two-time Grammy nominee as she readies for shows in Fall River and Boston — the city where she met her husband — with stepdaughter Pieta Brown.
Q. When did you first get into music?
A. I don’t think I got into music so much as music was there. It was always in our house, our church. That was our social media. That’s what we did for entertainment. My family liked gospel music, old hymns, old spirituals.
Q. How did growing up in a Pentecostal church influence you?
A. That question I can’t answer. It’s so what I am as a person, and my philosophical view of life is tangled up in that. The whole notion that “We have the way, and it’s our job to convince others of that; there’s only one lifeboat,” that was the message I grew up with. As I became an adult, and had the wherewithal to question that, I had to figure out what part of that fit with me, and how I can reinterpret that story in a way that felt honest to me personally. In some ways it would be safe to say I did that by pursuing the life work I have: songs and singing. Music [is] an offering of hope. An invitation into a different kind of lifeboat.
Q. You were a member of the Little DeMent Sisters as a kid.
A. I was 5 when it formed; it was my older sisters who created that formation. That was a very short-lived career. I’d forget the words and panic. I wasn’t a performer per se as a kid, and I don’t consider myself one now. The only way I’m able to do what I do is to step out of that, and say I’m not a performer. I push myself to be as authentic as I can, to give the best thing I have in me — that’s the only way I push. For me, it hasn’t played out well to push for anything else.
Q. Have there been moments where you felt: I can’t do this?
A. All the time. I don’t know that I can put this into words very well. I think, from my church upbringing, from the time I was tiny, I picked up on the spirit that moves through a room and moves people — rich people, poor people, all kinds of people. I saw it. I learned that as a kid, and I have absolute trust in that. When I get insecure — which is all the time — I lean on that thing that’s there for everyone. I do my best to open up and allow [it] to come through me. That gives me strength. I don’t know if I’m explaining it well.
Q. No, I completely understand what you mean. So what kind of feeling do you get when you’re up onstage?
A. I feel really close to the world. Close to the people in the room. Unobstructed. I feel like everything’s going to be OK in a way I don’t really understand. I feel part of something that’s timeless and ancient. I feel a lot of love. That’s probably what I’m describing — love. I feel love.
Q. “Our Town” was the first song you wrote. How did that come to you?
A. I’d always wanted to write songs — I wrote a few things on my roller skates when I was 5 or 6, then I didn’t really write until I was 25. I just had such great respect and awe for that form of expression. Probably too much. It tripped me up. Then a song started coming to me. I was in Topeka, and I wrote about a town I’d driven through in Kansas a few days before, called Lonesome. I didn’t have a hometown like that. But you don’t have to live in an old town to know Lonesome.
Q. What about that song sparked you to keep writing?
A. You asked me about my Pentecostal upbringing. I was raised to believe you can be directed — that this ancient spirit moves through every one of us. [And] I knew I’d been told: ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ I’ve talked to other people who’ve have that experience in life, [and when] you get a message like that, you don’t question it.
With Pieta Brown. At the Narrows Center for the Arts, Fall River, Aug. 24 at 8 p.m.. Tickets $37-$42. At City Winery, Boston, Aug. 25 at 8 p.m. Tickets $30-$40. www.irisdement.com/tour