“I don’t really have a poet-y way of writing, although people tell me I’m a poet,” says Iris DeMent. “But that feels funny to me. I think of myself more as a preacher.”
The Grammy-nominated DeMent, whose distinctive twang coupled with an unmistakable musical style — a heady swirl of folk, gospel, blues, and country — has made it her mission to provide the world with songs that convey revolution, resolution, hope, and forgiveness.
“My writing style traces back to the Pentecostal preaching that I grew up with,” says DeMent, calling from her home in Iowa. “The messages were really straight — nobody flinched at spelling out the details about the fiery furnace, or what have you. That was my world.
“Mom had me in church the first Sunday after I was born,” adds the 62-year-old. “They were very, very devoted. So that was the style that I absorbed. It’s natural to me: say what you mean, mean what you say, and make it really clear.”
DeMent left the church eons ago, trading fire and brimstone for a guitar and songwriting to advocate for a better world. Her earliest singles — the resonant, graceful “Our Town” and the impressible, knee-slapper “Let the Mystery Be,” both forged in the early ’90s — remain potent some thirty years later.
“I came from people that were not highly educated, but who were incredibly intelligent, resourceful people,” she says of her upbringing. “But I understood that pretty early on, I didn’t want to communicate in a way that created division. I wanted to write and to present myself in the world as a writer-musician-singer that throws the door wide open for everybody.”
DeMent’s civic-mindedness flows through her latest album, Workin’ On a World, released earlier this year. “The world I took for granted, was crashing to the ground,” she sings in the defiantly upbeat title track. “And I realized I might not live long enough / To ever see it turn around.”
The song evolves into a call to action, advocating making changes now for the good of generations to come.
“I’m joinin’ forces with thе warriors of love, who came beforе and will follow you and me,” goes the chorus. “I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged just to be workin’ on a world I may never see.”
The new album, DeMent’s seventh, features 13 exquisite tracks that take the listener on a powerful journey. It evokes the folk icons of the sixties, such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger, whose calls for social change were baked into their songwriting.
“With this record more than any record I’ve ever had, I felt an intense need to clarify where I stood on things as an act of love, to have solidarity with so many people that continue to be under attack,” says DeMent of Workin’ On a World. “I didn’t feel like it was optional for me to not make it really clear, with the microphone that I have, who I was standing with.
“I’ve always said this, and I mean it from the bottom of my heart,” she continues, discernable humility in her voice, “but I hope these songs go out and help people. We need a lot of help right now. We need encouragement. We need something to make us dance, or something to make us sing, and something to make us resist and fight and carry on. And I really, really hope that I’ve accomplished that with this album.”
An ally of the LGBTQ community, DeMent admits it wasn’t until she left behind her Pentecostal roots that the world opened up to her.
“I was so naive [growing up],” she says of her Arkansas childhood. “I probably was into my young adulthood before I had much concept of what alternative sexual expressions were. That’s the truth. We were very repressed and isolated. I lived in a world that a lot of the right-wing, White Christian Nationalists, fascist folks would like to recreate. All these book bannings, and all of the B.S. that’s going on — basically, they’re trying to create the world that I grew up in, and that didn’t serve me well.
“I feel like for most anybody, if they found my music, it would be pretty clear pretty quickly which side of the fence I’m on,” she continues. “I have LGBTQ young people in my life that I’m very closely involved with, and I’m a strong supporter of that community. I’m just all for standing up against all kinds of injustice. And what’s being heaped upon the LGBTQ community right now is just unbelievable and horrifying.
“What should just be humans going about their lives has been turned into a political wedge issue. And unfortunately, it’s also growing into a fair amount of violence. And I think largely it’s the church that I came out of. Largely, they’re the ones behind it. That’s really what I think.
“The very organization that raised me is behind this dangerous movement — that patriarchal Christian world is very much male-oriented. And I certainly experienced the downsides of that repressive environment just by way of being female, and it’s still something I’m working on overcoming. I still am working on believing that I have a right to write songs, I have a right to be in the world, I have a right to be heard.”
Iris DeMent appears Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va. Tickets are $45. Visit www.birchmere.com/calendar.
Her current tour is scheduled to end on Oct. 31 at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, Scotland. For more tour dates and information, visit www.irisdement.com/tour.
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