Iris DeMent " solo in Aspen | AspenTimes.com
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Iris DeMent " solo in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Time
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoSinger-songwriter Iris DeMent performs a solo show Friday at Belly Up Aspen.
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ASPEN ” Church was a decidedly mixed blessing for the young Iris DeMent. The Southern California houses of worship the DeMent family attended were Pentecostal and Assembly of God churches, meaning the hours were long, the sermons hardcore, the speaking in tongues. As DeMent puts it now, “There’s a lot of weird stuff there that anybody could do without.”

There was some good stuff as well: “Sincerity and deep-felt truth. I soaked that up,” said DeMent, who takes the stage Friday in Aspen. And there was one thing that DeMent herself could not do without: the music.

“I can’t imagine going through that and wanting to repeat it without the music. That was the best part,” she said. “There’s something about music that rises above a lot of crap. Music just does that for you. The nonsense and junk you don’t need just falls away, no matter what church or bar you’re in.”



When DeMent left home, she also left the church behind. She went 25 years without belonging to a congregation. But it’s difficult to hear that part of her history in the music. The songs DeMent writes and sings speak of forgiveness, salvation and gratefulness; her debut “Infamous Angel” ” released in 1992, when she had no church affiliation ” opens with her song “Let the Mystery Be” (“I’ve heard I’m on the road to purgatory/And I don’t like the sound of that”) and concludes with “Higher Ground,” a traditional spiritual that pleads, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

“I have to admit, something about those churches stayed with me,” said the 48-year-old, who performs a solo show Friday at Belly Up Aspen. “When I write I feel I’m aiming for the bigger picture. It’s not about a handful of words on a page that might make me some money. That belief that I can connect something from that bigger world down to this world, that I can hook us up somehow ” that’s what it’s all about when I work.”




Not all of DeMent’s songs are overtly religious. But in every warbly, old-fashioned note she sings there is an overtone of the heavenly, and of her early background. And above all, that sense of connectedness ” to the land in “These Hills,” to community in “Our Town,” to family in “Mama’s Opry,” a version of which she sang on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3.” The last is a personal reflection on her parents ” her fiddling father; her mother, who had private dreams of singing at the Grand Ole Opry; her 13 siblings, all of whom sang ” and the central place music played in family life.

“I thought it was too personal, a song from me to my mother, I assumed she’d be the only one who’d want to hear it. Maybe my sisters would enjoy it,” said DeMent, who was born in Arkansas, and moved to Orange County, Calif. after her father participated in a wildcat strike. When she finally began performing “Mama’s Opry,”‘ “People responded, and that was quite eye-opening for me. Often the thing that is most personal is most universal.”

– – – –

In mid-2008, DeMent rented studio space in downtown Iowa City, where she has lived the last six years. (Her husband, fellow singer-songwriter Greg Brown, is an Iowa native.) She “shows up” at the studio, as she puts it, virtually every day to write and record. But the new album that will presumably come out of those sessions is a subject she talks about haltingly: “I crawl along. But I think I’m going to get there,” she said.

DeMent’s last album was “Lifeline,” a collection of gospel songs, most of them which she had heard and sung as a kid. Her last album before that dated back another eight years, to 1996’s “The Way I Should.” Clearly, DeMent is putting other things before prominence in her profession.

“The record company thought of it as a career, but I didn’t,” she said. “I thought of it as singing and sharing my music, and all the joy and satisfaction that goes with it.”

Her bigger preoccupation is her 9-year-old daughter, whom she adopted from Russia five years ago. DeMent once went after success with ambition: Her first three albums were released by Warner Bros., and they featured the top Nashville players, plus guests like Mark Knopfler and Delbert McClinton. She would tour for months at a time. Since getting married, in 2002, she performs almost exclusively on weekends, going out once or twice a month.

“Everything works better that way,” she said by phone from Iowa, where she was trying to spend as much time as possible indoors on a frigid day. “It’s a lot easier to have family and friends and a home life, which I feel to be important. Going away creates a bit of a disconnect. It took a toll.”

While she hasn’t charged after stardom, DeMent has created a niche as a duet singer. She has appeared often with John Prine, who has championed DeMent since her debut album, and has sung with James Taylor, Steve Earle, John Hiatt and Emmylou Harris. She also had a featured role in 2000’s “Songcatcher,” a narrative film about a musicologist in Appalachia that earned a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival.

DeMent’s life of family, home and low-key career is rounded out by a return to the church. Around the time she got married, she began attending St. Mark Union Church in Kansas City. The African-American congregation is led by a white man, the Rev. Sam Mann, who, according to DeMent, was “thrown out of the uptown white church for speaking out about racism and the Vietnam War.” DeMent, who had lived in Kansas City for 20 years before moving to Iowa, and still has family there, makes the six-hour drive every few months to attend her church.

Earlier, DeMent had tried a Unitarian church. “I liked what they said. But there was no heart there,” she said. St. Mark, however, is “like a dream come true for me. When I started going to St. Mark, I was at a very low place in my life. It healed me in a lot of ways.”

DeMent says she “doesn’t buy into a lot of the Bible stories, the religion.” But she has faith in the power of the church’s music ” “heartfelt, deep-down” gospel. Her “Lifeline” album features a DeMent song, “He Reached Down,” based on the Rev. Mann’s sermon. DeMent says she could talk all day about Mother Bohannon, a member of the choir. She sings with the choir occasionally ” but not comfortably: “Talk about intimidating. I don’t feel qualified.”

There’s a small part of DeMent that thinks it might be time to distance her music from her religious upbringing. “I’ve tried. There’s something about me that’s out of date and I have to get with it,” she said. “But there isn’t much urgency or conviction to that view. “There are things in there that shape me and show up in my music. And that’s not a bad thing.”

“Probably the reason I love music so much is it’s the one place I can go to in life where that stuff happens,” she continued. “You kind of get down to the core of yourself, a very healing, safe place for me.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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