The Coen brothers 2010 version of the western classic “True Grit” is receiving near universal high praise. One of the more interesting questions that movie goers have had after catching the film is, “Who is the woman singing the traditional hymn ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ while the closing credits roll?” Well it is my pleasure to answer that very question because she happens to be one of my all time favorites.
The woman with the stunning and piercing vocal is Iris Dement and this particular version of “Everlasting Arms” is culled from her 2004 gospel release Lifeline. I’m glad to hear of a resurgence in the interest of Iris due to this well chosen closer for the film. She’s an astounding songwriter and her vocals harken back to a time out of mind, an immediate and sacred place where original voices called out to America from small wooden and wired boxes.
Iris seemed to come out of nowhere with her debut release Infamous Angel in 1992. The hallmarks of her style, that warbling mountain vocal and straight away heart bending lyrics came through and were so refreshing people turned on to her music just about couldn’t believe their ears. Here is an amazing live performance of probably her most well known song “Our Town” from this debut. The clip features Emmylou Harris but all the shine comes right out of Dement’s heart on this one:
This debut was followed by my own personal very best album of the 1990’s My Life (1994). This is my go to if anyone ever suggests an album to hear and I think that they may not know who Iris is. It swims in the waters of Johnny Cash’s most earnest work and leaves you with the same type of feelings that Townes Van Zandt’s live records do. It is the most honest record that I know of.
My Life was followed by The Way I Should (1996), an album that had Iris extending her songwriting from the personal to more of a universal theme with songs that dealt with issues such as Vietnam, child abuse, and social injustice. This is another record I would strongly suggest and the title track could very well be her finest song.
In reasons that I will leave to the artist herself Dement virtually walked away from recording waiting near 8 years to record the gospel covers album from which the “True Grit” closer was pulled. It’s an odd and hard to explain phenomenon in her career but the three previously mentioned original abums are such a zenith they stand on their own and if it’s Iris’ decision to remain away from recording original material that’s OK with me. She gave so much of herself on those records it would be selfish to expect more.
During this time she appeared on numerous compilation CD’s including the Bob Dylan produced tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, Nanci Griffith’s masterwork “Other Voices Other Rooms” and a beautiful duet album with John Prine entitled “In Spite Of Ourselves.”
Here is a clip of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” that someone was kind enough to post on YouTube:
A similar interest in her music arose when the above embedded song “Our Town” was used in a beautiful closing sequence for the much loved TV show “Northern Exposure.” These instances just show that Iris Dement can sing you home and keep your emotions long after you leave a theater and go to bed.
I can count on one hand the number of times someone’s voice changed my life and I would venture to say that none hit me harder than Iris Dement’s. I will always be grateful for the musical gifts she’s given. Iris still plays live occasionally and if you’re interested in finding out when and where you can see her perform check out her dates via Pollstar here.