Iris DeMent’s Sing the Delta: A masterwork 16 years in the making

The opening piano on Iris DeMent’s new album Sing the Delta took me back to visiting a friend’s old childhood church. In many ways, it’s this confessionally reflective vibe that permeates throughout a recording 16 years in the making.

As a fan I had given up hope of having the opportunity to hear a brand new album of Iris DeMent originals. The last release featuring her own songs was 1996’s The Way I Should. It was as if Iris was this beautiful shooting star that fired up my dark nights of the soul so many years ago, then faded away leaving a beautiful, if not brief, gift.

I’ve always thought her sophomore effort My Life is the most honest work I’ve ever heard. It was straight testimonial, sometimes brutishly personal and revealing. As the years grew on her discography I understood in many ways that DeMent’s confessions must have taken a heavy toll. I harbored no disappointment about this delicate soul not releasing any more original stuff. The gift she had given was enough and it was her own damn business anyways. And then…

A fellow admirer dropped a Facebook bomb on my wall by announcing that Iris was releasing an entirely new album of original material. I was overjoyed, shocked, and then, apprehensive. Iris still played shows, made a record in between of gospel tunes as well as a great recording with John Prine, but what would she sound like? She was stepping into the doorway of her own ghosts, a dangerous proposition.

Having no idea what was coming I put on Sing the Delta and a surprise came that I would have never expected but probably should have. Iris is better than before, her vocals that seemed to have beamed in from an ancient spring of familial warmth and integrity has matured and aged in a wonderful way. The songwriting is focused and intense. To steal her line, it’s just DeMent “telling her truth.”

Before today’s release Iris played a show at The Living Room in New York City and discussed the unrelenting stakes that are personally on the line when she goes about her craft:

I have memories of laying on a pallet in between my mom and dad’s feet and looking up at them crying and singing the songs. That’s what it comes out of for me. You’ve got to believe it in your heart.

I learned about music from people who didn’t use music as entertainment. My parents lived very on the edge. They had a gazillion kids and came from an area where people live on the edge. They used music as a life source. That music had to come through for them and make them feel like they could get up on Monday and keep going. I think that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t write for so long. I learned about music as a life line. I feel like that’s the kind of task I’m trying to take on every time I try and write something. I’ve got to make somebody want to keep going. That’s what music was about.

The 12 songs on Sing the Delta are mindful of the things that Iris reflected on way back when; mom, dad, family, faith, one’s personal place in this sweet old world. On the devastating song about losing a little brother to an accident, “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” she sings:

“I knew that it was over when my sister slammed the phone against the wall. That was the night I learned how not to pray. God does what he wants to anyways. I never did tell my mother, kept it from all my sisters and my brothers. That was the night I learned how not to pray.”

The title track is an instant classic, a reflection on the roots of one’s raising. Iris was born in Arkansas but her family moved out west when she was young. Sing the Delta purveys a greater sense of home, the idea of belonging to a place and how that connection can sustain us and bring grace to our lives:

“It’s a land where the cotton used to grow – that holds a piece of my heart and soul. It’s where my people on both sides going back eked out a living farming and throwing them old cotton sacks. Dad took us west when I was a little child but it’s in my blood and still flowing strong and wild. Sing the delta love song for me.”

Speaking of her dad, on “If That Ain’t Love” she tells us about how her father’s devotion to his children helped define her idea of love and how music, via being floored by Aretha Franklin while driving her car, did the same. Man, is there a better way to say, “I love you dad,” than comparing your feelings about him to the eternal voice of Aretha?

Mom gets her praising too on the joyous song “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth.” This one’s straight autobiographical and highlights the immense influence that DeMent’s mom has on her life and art. It reminds me of The Avett Brothers‘ line, “I wanna have pride like my mother has and not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.”

“When it came to her feelings, wasn’t no back burner on the stove. Someone or something would go wrong and she might start yelling or crying. If you didn’t know better you would think that one of us was dying. That was momma and she just told her truth.”

After letting Sing the Delta sink in, way deep to that place where only the greats go, I’m just left with a sense of gratefulness. It’s been a long time Iris, but it’s so fine catching up with you and to hear how you’re doing. Thanks for helping me want to keep going as I face my tomorrows while remembering all those defining yesterdays down gravel roads where the cotton used to grow.