Iris DeMent started life in Paragould, Arkansas in 1961. Being one of fourteen children, she went from the gospel music fortress of the Arkansas Delta to the depths of the Left Coast in Orange County, California. The voice is haunting, yet sweet. The songs sometimes remind me of small town America, others of memories strewn through my life. In addition to Gospel music, Iris DeMent has written and recorded slice of life lyrics that may shock some and amuse others.
The lyrics in God May Forgive You (But I Won’t) may touch many who’ve been through the trauma of an unhappy parting with a once passion love. Although not written by Iris, (Harlan Howard/Bobby Braddock) the emotion she pours into the song bring back painful memories, while adding biting sarcasm. That song may seem out of place for an artist so steeped in the tradition of the Gospel and it’s message of “forgiveness.” Which may sum up Iris DeMent – a living/breathing/singing contradiction.
Another title which puts the folk singer on the wrong side of what many call the traditional America was recorded in 2009. “Wasteland of the Free” presents a scathing account of the 1990’s. Before anyone launches into the “anti-American,” tirade, let me remind you, folk singers write/sing what they or someone else experiences as reality. As mentioned earlier, DeMent is a contradiction.
Let’s consider her past, born into an Arkansas Pentacostal tradition, she was thrust into Orange County in the late 60’s. From there she moved to the Midwest- Kansas, then Kansas City, Missouri, where she started singing at talent night. Through all of that her passion might have been for writing, because that’s what catapulted her from being just a singer into the spotlight.
Let me also remind you of folk singers and the penchant for protest. In my memory, Woody Guthrie would stand out as one of the earliest American protest singers. Guthrie associated with communists of his time such as John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath). Guthrie’s most famous song (This Land) has been covered by many of the popular folk artists of the 60’s. While The Man in Black by Johnny Cash is not a song of the 60’s, the material within the song do reflect life in the 60’s, from integration to Vietnam and political corruption.
Many of those folk singers were politically active. In my opinion a true folk singer creates a snapshot in time from their reality. Many times we find snippets in their songs which touch us. Other times, we are outraged by the anti-American sentiment. When I listen to protest songs, I can usually find a bit of something which touches me.
My first experience at the University, 2nd semester English, changed my views on business, politicians and the world when we read and wrote essays on works by John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis. That semester changed my view of the world. Two years later, I was in the military in the middle of a Cold War in Berlin. While my view of the inequities in life during the Industrial Revolution never changed, The Berlin Wall gave me a perspective on communism few outside it ever understood. In my opinion, being able to evaluate varying views does not alter the core principles. I may love some of the lyrics of Dylan, Cash, and other protest writers, I love the U.S.A. And what she’s given me.
Choosing Iris DeMent as a feature was not because she writes, and/or, sings politically themed songs, but, because she has an unforgettable voice and passion. For me, music is about emotion. Radio66+ features many different styles of music because no one genre allows us to dance across the emotions and experiences of our lives. Sometimes, we just want to be happy, sing, and/or dance. Iris DeMent give me the opportunity to experience the full spectrum of emotion.
And, also you might like to read more about Iris on The Immortal Jukebox.