‘It’s Another Song of Arkansas:’ Iris DeMent
January 7-13, 2019
By Stephen Koch
Iris DeMent is from rural Paragould in northeast Arkansas and became a gospel/folk sensation in the 1990s. Born Jan. 5, 1961 – happy birthday, Iris! – she grew up in a musical and religious family, and was the youngest of fourteen children. Gospel music was the order of the day in her Pentecostal household. Despite her Arkansas origins, DeMent actually has said she didn’t hear much folk or country music until after the family moved to Cypress, California.
DeMent attended college in Kansas City, Missouri, and then relocated to Nashville in the late 1980s to become a performer.
Folk and country music legends Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris and Roy Husky Junior all appeared on DeMent’s debut album, Infamous Angel, which was originally released on folk label Rounder Records of Cambridge, Mass.
With songs like “Mama’s Opry,” DeMent’s debut album is largely a celebration of her northeast Arkansas roots and family. DeMent’s mother, Flora Mae DeMent, even gets a lead vocal turn on Infamous Angel’s closer, “Higher Ground.” Meanwhile, the album’s opener, “Let The Mystery Be,” has been covered by several artists – including 1990s alternative rock band 10,000 Maniacs and blues guitarist Alice Stuart – and DeMent’s version was used in the 1993 film “Little Buddha” and as the theme for TV’s “The Leftovers” in 2015.
The Arkansawyer followed up Infamous Angel less than a year later in spring 1994 with an album called My Life. By now, she was an acclaimed singer-songwriter with a hot record on a major label, having signed to Warner Brothers, which re-released Infamous Angel. The album My Life also seemed to harken back to her early days in Arkansas as well. And it also continued DeMent’s rise, being nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk album. Two years then passed before Iris DeMent’s next record, The Way I Should, which explored broader lyrical themes as well as broader musical themes.
In 1995, the song “Our Town” from Infamous Angel closed out the series finale of the Emmy-winning TV show “Northern Exposure” – although it was announced at the end of 2018 that the series is being revived.
Also through the 1990s, DeMent sang harmony or duets with notable artists such as Emmylou Harris, Tom Paxton, Nanci Griffith, Randy Scruggs and Steve Earle, but the smooth-crooning Greene County native’s most frequent, and perhaps incongruous, duet partner has been craggy-voiced John Prine. She sings on four tracks on Prine’s 1999 album, In Spite of Ourselves, and sings on two on Prine’s 2016 album For Better, For Worse.
In 1999, Iris DeMent’s debut Infamous Angel was named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s Essential Recordings of the 1990s, solidifying her ubiquity in the decade. Eight years passed however, before her fourth album, Lifeline, which had but one original composition. She could be heard singing in the closing credits of the 2010 movie remake of Arkansawyer Charles Portis’s novel, “True Grit”, and she appeared in the 2000 movie “Songcatcher”. Until the 2012 release of Sing The Delta, it had been sixteen years since DeMent’s last album of original songs.
In 2015 Demet released her sixth album, The Trackless Woods, inspired by the poems of Anna Akhmatova. But, comparatively speaking, the 21st century has been quiet for DeMent, folk music’s veritable It Girl of the 1990s.
“Let the Mystery Be”
“Fifty Miles of Elbow Room”
(Stephen Koch is a musician and author of “Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B”. Koch’s weekly “Arkansongs” radio program is syndicated on National Public Radio affiliates across the state. Visit the “Arkansongs” Facebook page for show details.)
Iris DeMent will perform on March 3, 2019, at UA-Pulaski Technical College’s Center for Humanities and Arts (CHARTS). Tickets are now available online. (Photos provided)