Iris Dement Explores Life’s Truths on Sing the Delta

A couple of months back, Iris Dement walked to a baby grand piano parked on the stage of the Ford Theater in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, settled herself on the bench and got right down to the business of soul-baring, without beating around the bush even for a moment. Performing song after song from her new album, Sing the Delta, she made those lucky enough to be in the audience that day feel privy to something rare.

Not only was this the singer-songwriter’s first new batch of originals in more than a decade and a-half, they dealt with topics that would be too tender for most writers to touch. Ever since her debut album, Grievous Angel, was picked up by Warner Bros. Records 20 years ago, Dement has been exploring her relationship to her down-home, devoutly Pentecostal roots and confessing that it’s both deeply conflicted and a deep source of sustenance.

That, plus the keening purity of her voice — which she bends to fluent country-blues effect on her latest album — have made her a contemporary old-timey treasure, a source of songs for the discerning (from 10,000 Maniacs to Joe Nichols), a sought-after backing vocalist (from her husband Greg Brown to Emmylou Harris and Josh Turner) and a perfectly devastating addition to the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit remake.

So revealing are Dement’s songs, she seemed almost timid about sharing them onstage during her Nashville concert. Later on, in a rare sit-down interview, she was admirably open about her music making process.

CMT Edge: I love the country-blues direction of this album.

Dement: Yeah, that’s kind of a new thing.

How’d you wind up there?

I don’t know. It just kind of evolved, I guess. You know, I hadn’t really thought much about this, but I started going to a church in Kansas City back in — oh, gosh — it’s probably been 10, 11 years ago now. We moved away, so I’ve not been there in a few years. But it was a black church in the center of town, inner city, in Kansas City. I hadn’t, until you asked me that, made that connection, but I think it’s probably safe to say that musically, I’d grown up with a lot of that sound. But to be there every Sunday in this really small congregation of people who sang in that more soulful, bluesy kind of a quality. … I think that rubbed off on me. So thank the people at St. Mark’s Union Church for that one.

I hear a lot of songs about rootsy, rural life, but I don’t hear many people writing about it the way you do. In your songs, you come right out and name the things you still cling to from your upbringing and the things you’ve disavowed. That has to be so much harder than just singing a happy, nostalgic, romanticized song about going back home.

Well, I appreciate that you get that. And that’s … true. And that very well may be partly why I don’t have that many songs. (laughs) … Yeah, I guess actually being in the thing, rather than talking about the thing — whether it’s prayer or writing a song — that getting in the thing is a process that doesn’t happen every day. Not for me. I try to do that when I’m writing, go into the place.

It’s interesting, too. When I go in there, I’m going in with people. I feel like I’m going into a universe that’s populated. You know what I mean? I feel presences of people I knew, people who knew those people I knew. Maybe I’ve never met them, but I have this real strong sense of not being alone when I actually get down into the thing. I feel very alone thinking about going into it, that process of getting down into it, but when I get down into it it’s like the room is full. I talked earlier about [channeling] Tammy Wynette. I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but I really felt her in the room [when I wrote “Makin’ My Way Back Home”]. Whatever that is, I don’t know. I felt her. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, and I don’t care. What do we have to go on in this life?

You invoked her during your Hall of Fame show and Aretha Franklin, too. What sort of kinship do you feel with them?

I think struggle. It’s also that thing, both of them, I think, came out of the church. I mean, Aretha, obviously, came out of the church. Well, I know Tammy did, too. So I think there’s a commonality there. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t feel like I had a hard life, but I came from people and a part of the country where people really struggled, and that’s in me. I get that, you know? So there’s probably some kind of connection to not just the story, as far as the details, but there’s something that comes across in the spirit of a person, like in their voice or whatever, when they’ve had certain kinds of struggles. And I hear that in Tammy Wynette and Aretha.

How did they, and how do you, manage to expose those still tender areas?

That’s always a challenge in life, you know? I see it as a parent, all the tenderness I feel for my daughter and all of the, like, “Meanwhile this is everyday life that we’ve gotta get done.” It’s always that sort of balancing thing, I mean, in relationships with people you really love. Yeah, songs definitely have that, which is relationship. Songs are a relationship. I think that’s why I said what I said about going in there. I feel like I’m going into a relationship. Maybe it’s the energy. Maybe it’s the spirit. I don’t know. Whatever. But I feel very much that involvement and that responsibility that you feel when you’re in a relationship with something or someone. I don’t know what I’m talking about, maybe. (chuckles)

In “Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth,” you take a trait that most people would find hard to deal with and celebrate it, even claim a link to it yourself. That’s a powerful example of you writing about your evolving understanding of your roots. Did it feel like a big thing to articulate that in a song?

I guess you’re talking about that verse, “Life with my mama could be a rough road/She’d say something and blood would pour out of my soul.” She didn’t like that line. I could see it on her face. But she knew it was true. Really, when I think of it, any relationship I’ve had with anybody that amounted to much, they had that capacity, and I for them. You know, draw blood. But my mom, she was a pretty intense gal, straight up to the end. [Her mother, Flora Mae, died in August.] So there was that side of her that was very challenging, difficult, but she was also really tender and really amazing. So we just walked that road together all those years. That’s what you do, and I have no regrets about any of it. Yeah, it did feel good to just be able to acknowledge that.

It’s a rare thing to hear a song about mom that’s not just sentimental.

Right. Like a Hallmark card. Well, it’s the truth. I mean, it’s a damn hard job, and it brings out the best and the worst in you. I’ve found out sides of myself I’d really rather have just not gotten acquainted with. It just does. I’m a lot more sympathetic towards my mom since I became a mother.

A lot of songwriters have told me that songwriting is cathartic for them. That often takes the form of this amorphous thing that isn’t necessarily all that intelligible to anyone else. But you take the added step of fashioning the emotion into this very clear, articulate thing. Is that what it feels like you’re doing — not just putting the raw feelings out there but really working to communicate?

You know, I don’t know how to answer that because, to be honest, I don’t really have much of an intellectual take on what I do. Something about what you just said made me think of this, though. I know for years I felt like there was something so just plain about my writing. I felt like it was inferior, to tell you the truth. I mean, I don’t have that poetic thing.

Plain as in unadorned or plain as in clear?

Just plain truth and clear. There’s not much guessing about what I’m trying to say. At different times I’ve tried to, you know, make something a little mysterious (laughing), but I don’t seem to have that capacity. It’s just the way I do it. It’s the only way I know how to do it.

I appreciate that you’re as straightforward about matters of belief and unbelief as any contemporary songwriter I can think of. That’s got to feel like really putting yourself out there.

From where I come from, it does. I mean, I grew up in the Pentecostal church, and I have a lot of very religious family members. It’s not uncommon that I get responses from audience members and such. They’re jarred by how I can sing the hymns the way I do. Because I feel them. I sit around the house — that’s 90 percent of the time what I’m singing, these old church songs. They’re mine. I feel those. And I can sing, “I don’t even know if I believe in God.” … I’m not gonna lie about what I feel and think. The other side of that is I’m also not gonna lie and say that those songs don’t mean the world to me. Those church songs, I couldn’t live without them. And I don’t feel anymore that I have to explain to somebody why I have that, but I can also say I’m not even sure what I believe in. That’s for them to work out for themselves.