Soulful songs of the South
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, January 18, 2013
Performing at Rams Head on Stage a year ago, Iris DeMent announced she was recording an album of original songs. One could immediately see heads perking up throughout the Annapolis nightclub. It had been almost 16 years since DeMent had released a collection of new songs, and here was the news her most devoted fans had almost despaired of ever hearing. They perked up even more when she performed “Sing the Delta,” the terrific title track for the album that would be released in October.
The singer-songwriter sat at the club’s baby grand and sang in the thick Arkansas accent of her childhood: “The Delta lived in my mama’s voice and in her hands / It’s a language my spirit understands.”
DeMent, 52, who headlines a show Monday at the Birchmere, was describing her family’s roots on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi floodplain, recognizing both its pleasures and hardships (eking “out a living farming and filling cotton sacks”). DeMent had written the song the previous summer, while her mother was dying, but she addressed it to her stepdaughter, singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, who had opened the Rams Head show.
“Pieta was going down South to mix a record,” DeMent says by phone from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. “She called me one day while my mom was failing. Between those two things, I felt homesick for that part of the country more than I ever had before. My mom was slipping away, and all my feelings about that part of the country and that way of life came back to me.
“I’m a grown-up now and trying to figure out the things I carry with me, and the South is just part of that,” DeMent adds. “Part of being alive and creative in a spiritual sense is testing what you’ve got. This is what was handed to me; how does it hold up? What imprint do I put on it today?”
Flora Mae DeMent died in August 2011 at age 93, and a week later, DeMent found that her mother was more present to her than ever.
“My mom in body was already gone, but the memories were very vivid,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t going to last -- and it didn’t -- so I tried to pay as much attention as I could. Part of that was writing that song, ‘Before the Colors Fade.’ I was just savoring something in that song.”
That song, too, was a highlight of the Rams Head show. DeMent played slow, elegiac arpeggios on the piano and sang more wistfully than sadly, declaring, “In time you might seem like a dream, but until then and in between, I’ll linger on each sacred scene.”
For all the Southernisms in her songs, DeMent spent much of her childhood in California. The youngest of 14, she was 3 when the family moved from Arkansas to Orange County. Outside the house, it was the beach, Top-40 radio and the 1960s, but inside, it still seemed like 1930s Arkansas.
“My parents didn’t change,” DeMent says. “If anything, they became more entrenched as a way to hold onto Arkansas and hold off California. It was the food, the word choices, the velocity of life, the songs, the religion, the things that tell us who we are in life.”
After DeMent had sung eight of the 12 songs on her new album at Rams Head, she performed her best-known song, 1992’s “Let the Mystery Be.” The hillbilly gospel hymn about whether there’s an afterlife seemed a continuation of what had come before, not only in terms of quality, but also in its weird combination of the Mississippi River Delta and the Pacific Coast.
“If you listen to my songs, you’ll hear both Arkansas and California. . . . I’m a country-gospel singer and I work in that medium, but the words don’t fall into that traditional framework. But the music is from my parents’ context; it’s Arkansas.
“When you get older and you look for things that keep you from jumping off the bridge, you have to dig down deep,” DeMent adds. “And when I dig down, this music is what I find.”