The gentleman sitting next to me looks at my notebook and remarks, “Either you are a scholarly sort, or you are reviewing this evening’s show.” I tell him how excited I am to see it. “What about journalistic objectivity?” he asks me. “Already blown to smithereens on this one,” I say as the lights go down, “but I don’t believe in it anyway.”
Iris DeMent, the country folk singer-songwriter, has a devout international fan base, one that has grown since the early 1990’s when her album Infamous Angel introduced her unique amalgam of country gospel melodies and personal narrative. When DeMent strides on stage at the Kate, the sold-out audience cheers as if greeting an old friend. DeMent’s down-to-earth persona of Arkansas-drawled warmth and informality grounds her artistry.
Part of that artistry is in her plaintive, twangy voice. It’s a country gospel voice, gloriously over-the-top, redolent with history. It harkens back to white and Black country gospel: those Holiness missionaries who crisscrossed the country in the early 20th century. It’s a voice that catches the heart. There’s sorrow and joy layered into it. DeMent tosses this powerful voice into different registers with abandon. She soothes it over into tremulous soprano. This voice, the backbone of her art, carries her songs over. They are filled with such pain and hope, we might not be able to bear them otherwise.
Later in the show, during the silence after DeMent’s “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” telling the story of the death of her baby brother, a man calls quietly from the back of the auditorium, “Thank you, Iris.” “Thank you,” Iris DeMent replies. “We don’t do anything by ourselves, isn’t that true? The older I get, the more I realize that — and I like it that way.”
Part of her artistry is her songs, which defy easy categorization. There’s some country and folk in them, but mostly, they feel like gospel hymns. Growing up as the youngest of fourteen children in a Pentecostal household, church singing — in the form of country gospel — was a mainstay of DeMent’s life.
Like gospel songs, DeMent’s lyrics often give you a story and a message. Like country songs, they give you a slice of her unique everyday perspective on life. Like contemporary folk, they are quirky; they make you think.
DeMent’s “Working on a World,” from her latest 2023 album of the same title, does all of these. She tells the audience at the Kate that she sang the song to herself every morning of the pandemic: “I talked myself into hope.”
“The world I took for granted
Was crashing to the ground
And I realized I might not live long enough
To ever see it turn around
But then I got to thinkin’
Of the ones who came before
And all the sacrifices that they made
To open up so many doors
Doors I got to walk through
On streets paved for me
By people who were workin’ on a world
They never got to see”
Workin’ On a World
DeMent’s songs touch on universal religious themes. She elides dogma — DeMent left the church as a teenager, saying to Terry Gross in a 2015 NPR interview, “I didn’t believe that story, you know, that there was all this separation between me and all these other people in the world just because they didn’t claim Jesus Christ as their personal savior. I didn’t buy it.” But a Pentecostal feel — a visceral conviction — runs through her music. She may “let the mystery be” as one of her most famous songs advises, but its spirit still courses through her fingertips and voice.
In “There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven,” DeMent lays out an alternate vision of a cosmos:
“There’s a lot of people talking ’bout getting in the glory land way
Walking straight and narrow, ’cause they’re trying to get to heaven someday
But I’ve been saved by the love of the people living right here
And there’s a whole lot of heaven shining in this river of tears”
There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven
There’s no artifice in DeMent’s live presentation. The stage set up is simple. A well-microphoned piano sits centerstage and guitars line the front. DeMent goes back and forth between jangly, slightly off-key playing on guitar and robust strides on the piano. DeMent commands the stage. She also commands a lot of sonic space in with her voice and piano. I could question this tendency to overplay, but this heaven-bent enthusiasm seems a signature. Entering her performance, we are all, in some sense, entering a plain white clapboard Arkansas Delta church where DeMent shapes an entire aural and kinesthetic atmosphere.
DeMent speaks to this inheritance in her song, “Sing the Delta,” from her 2012 album of the same name:
“So you’re heading down a Southern way
passing through the Delta sometime today
In my mind, pictures line the walls
Of a place I used to know a vividly recall
I love you so much, and you sure sing good,
It would mean so much to me if you would
Sing the Delta a love song for me.”
Sing the Delta
DeMent is joined onstage at The Kate by two nuanced musicians, Liz Draper on upright bass and Myra Burnette on hollow-bodied electric guitar. Draper and Burnette are perfect foils for DeMent, finding the moments to add quality content, stylistic kick, and sensitive solos. Burnette, who fronts a New Orleans-style swing band on her own, sings a stunning verse or two on DeMent’s encore songs. A notable part of this entire trio is, of course, that it’s all women, a rarity onstage in any genre.
Although her faith has gone through much transformation, DeMent is a devout, a work-a-day mystic when it comes to her song craft. Dement introduces one song: “When you are a songwriter, you have to be open to them. Well, I found this one on the treadmill.”
DeMent is even composing mid-performance. She plays a run of chords between songs, then plays it again, then again. She looks at the audience and says, “That’s a nice progression, isn’t it? Can someone remember that for me? I won’t.”