Iris Dement: Part 1 – Review
1n 1995, America bid farewell to the award winning TV series Northern Exposure. As our favorite characters offered one last moment of reflection, the lights began to darken, the moon shone bright over the misty town, and cloven-hoofed Mort took one last stroll across the street of Cicely, Alaska. It was shutdown time but not until the captivating vocals in the background of Iris Dement singing her hit song ‘Our Town’ fell silent, and the credits began to roll. The song itself was well chosen and befitting of the finale, but it holds special meaning for Iris Dement as penning the lyrics led to an epiphanous moment in her life. She had finally received her long yearned for ‘calling’–her purpose in life.
Iris Dement is known as one of America’s most notable singer/songwriters. She’s a powerful and evocative vocalist with a literary gift for penning profound lyrics, a complex artist, and musical storyteller who draws upon her ‘gospel roots’ as inspiration. Recently, host Jason Wilber, while touring with Iris Dement promoting her new album, ‘Sing The Delta’, had the opportunity to interview this fabulous artist about her life and music. Their friendship developed back in the days when she collaborated with John Prine, singing four duets on his album ‘In Spite of Ourselves’, with the title song later becoming a “cult” hit. In Part 1 of this 2 Part interview Iris Dement takes us back to where it all began.
She was born in 1961, the youngest of 14, in the delta region of Paragould, Arkansas, an area rich in family values and deep-rooted music. Times were harsh in the early 60’s and due to her father’s unemployment and limited job prospects the family sold their farm, and migrated to Buena Park, California (Orange County) when she was three. Although born in Arkansas and living most of her formative years in Southern California, those initial years of living in the delta introduced her to a path, historically ascribed to women, of gospel singing. Through singing, the ‘overprotected and nurtured baby of the family’ found her own voice.
The Dements were a musical family of singers and piano players. They were also strongly influenced by Pentecostal doctrine, and with that came the obligation of attending church regularly amongst other responsibilities. Iris Dement recalls how her mother “always prided herself in introducing her children to the congregation the first Sunday after they were born”, so she was 4 days old when she was first exposed to music. It wasn’t long after that she learned how to intentionally wail out (as loud as she could) hymns and music her parents had collected for she held the belief that “if you couldn’t be heard singing from a block away, you weren’t a good singer.” Maybe this explains why her vocals have the ability to shock your senses.
It’s at this point of the interview that the tone changes from one of humor and joyfulness to one that is reflective and seemingly painful. She faced certain realities at a much earlier age than most. Her teenage years and early 20’s seemed to be fraught with periods of fearfulness, isolation, and disillusionment. The familial fabric became unstable as all her siblings gradually moved away, and she was left alone with aging parents. You can sense the loss in her voice as she talks about this. She went through a prolonged cycle where she lacked vocational direction moving from one mundane job to another, “quitting before she’d get fired.” Through a series of changes, she eventually moved to Topeka, Kansas and attended university with intentions of becoming a social worker but spiritually she felt angry, lost and “let down”, still bumping around aimlessly. It would take an inspiring trip through a small town, at the age of 25, for everything to change. The lyrics to her song ‘Our Town’ flowed out like a channeled message and soon after that she bought a guitar to put them to music. She finally received her long awaited ‘calling’, as she explains it, in voices that would speak the words, “Iris, there you have it” -the singer/songwriter was born.
Her debut album in 1992, Infamous Angel, featured the famous song, ‘Our Town’, followed with ‘My Life’ in 1993, ‘The Way I Should’ in 1996, ‘Lifeline’ in 2004, and her most recent long awaited album, ‘Sing The Delta’, was released in 2012. Many of her songs are reflective and personal drawing on her roots and life experiences, negative and positive, and that is what is so endearing about her. She’s taken gospel/country-rooted music to a whole new level. Pick a song, any song, and Iris Dement has a story to tell or a message to hear. There was a long hiatus, a lull in recording new material, before she released ‘Sing The Delta’, but she’s a sensitive artist, instinctual, and the process cannot be rushed. She’s garnered rave reviews of her new album, and with 12 personally penned songs, the wait has been well worth it.
I was really taken by surprise while listening to the dialogue/songs in this interview, and feeling rather naïve that I wasn’t familiar with the great musical talent of Iris Dement. Out of the six exceptional songs featured in this episode, three are from her new album, ‘Sing The Delta’ and the other three from ‘Infamous Angel’ and ‘The Way I Should’. It was really difficult to choose a favorite song, maybe we’re not meant to, but in the end the song that pulled my heartstrings most was, ‘No Time To Cry’, only to read later that it was written in memory of her own father. She’s one-of-a-kind, a bright light, and thankfully to In Search of a Song her music will stay with me for a long time. I hope her story and songs from this episode move you as they did me, and that you continue to join in for another listen when Part 2 of this interview airs on May 18th.