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Arkansas native Iris DeMent has used her distinctive voice to sing folk, country, bluegrass, and gospel music. She has sung songs about family, religion, people, places, and political ideas in a time when few were doing so.
Iris DeMent was born on January 5, 1961, in Paragould (Greene County), the youngest of fourteen children. Her parents, Patrick Shaw and Flora Mae DeMent, were farmers on an island in the St. Francis River outside Paragould. When Iris was three, her father lost his factory job after a failed attempt to unionize, and the family hit hard times, sold the farm, and moved to Buena Park, California. They lived there until she was seventeen and then moved to Sacramento, California. Eventually, her parents and some of her siblings moved back to Arkansas.
The family had a love of music, and not just the kind they heard at Pentecostal services in Arkansas and California. DeMent’s father played fiddle at dances during his early years in Arkansas and later at Pentecostal church services. Her brothers, sisters, and mother played piano and sang. Her older sisters—Zelda, Reba, Regina, and Faye—had a gospel group, The DeMent Sisters, who recorded one album. DeMent quit high school and moved to the Midwest, where she supported herself by cleaning houses and working as a waitress.
It was not until she was in her late twenties, living first in Kansas and then briefly in Nashville, Tennessee, that DeMent began to consider a career as a singer-songwriter. During her years working a series of day jobs, she gradually built up her confidence by playing at open-mike nights in clubs and coffeehouses. She came to the attention of folk label Rounder/Philo Records after she enlisted the help of producer Jim Rooney, who helped her get a recording contract, leading to her debut CD, Infamous Angel, in 1992. It was produced by Rooney and endorsed on the liner notes by singer-songwriter John Prine.
Warner Bros. Records re-released the album in 1993 after noticing the strong word-of-mouth praise it earned, along with sales of approximately 80,000 copies. The album included “After You’re Gone” and “Mama’s Opry,” two songs about her parents, the latter of which featured Emmylou Harris on harmony vocals. The song “Our Town” was used as the credits rolled in the final episode of the TV series Northern Exposure. Another song, “Let the Mystery Be,” was used in the opening sequence of a movie, Little Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves. Her version of “Whispering Pines” was used on the soundtrack of a Robert Redford movie, The Horse Whisperer.
DeMent’s songs—some inspired by, and some in reaction to, her fundamentalist upbringing—have earned her more critical than commercial success. Many of her songs express her openness and reluctance to embrace rigid doctrines.
She released a second CD, My Life, in 1994; its liner notes featured her memorial to her father, who died in 1992. Her third album, The Way I Should, came out in 1996 and marked a move into political topics (including the songs “There’s a Wall in Washington,” “Quality Time,” and “Wasteland of the Free”). Her political topics have earned her comparisons with Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and other musicians who have criticized American government and its politicians. She co-wrote “This Kind of Happy” with Merle Haggard (who had praised her version of his song, “Big City,” on Tulare Dust, a Haggard tribute CD) and sang a duet with Delbert McClinton on “Trouble,” the final cut of The Way I Should.
DeMent’s fourth CD, Lifeline (2004), marked her departure from Warner Bros. to record for her own label, Flariella Records, named for her mother. The album’s thirteen songs are old hymns, save for DeMent’s “He Reached Down.” Her singing is also heard in several movie soundtracks, including the 2010 version of True Grit.
On November 21, 2002, DeMent married fellow singer-songwriter Greg Brown, a troubadour from Iowa. They divide their time between her house in Kansas City, Missouri, and the house he built in recent years in southern Iowa.
In October 2012, DeMent’s Sing the Delta, consisting of twelve original songs, was released on the Flariella label.
For additional information: Brockmeier, Kevin. “Iris Dement.” Oxford American 58 (2007): 129–134.
Jack W. HillArkansas Democrat-Gazette
Last Updated 4/9/2013
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