Born January 5, 1961, in Paragould, AR; daughter of Patrick Shaw (a farmer, janitor, and gardener) and Flora Mae DeMent; married Elmer McCall (a firefighter and road manager), November 16, 1991; divorced, c. 1999; married Greg Brown (a singer-songwriter), November 21, 2002. Addresses: Booking--Monterey Peninsula Artists, 509 Hartnell St., Monterey, CA 93940. Distributor-- Redeye, 1130 Cherry Lane, Graham, NC 27253. Website--Iris DeMent Official Website: http://www.irisdement.com/.

Iris DeMent is a singer-songwriter with a stellar reputation in American music circles, who first came to public attention with Infamous Angel, her 1992 debut. She earned a loyal following as well as the respect of leading songwriters, including EmmyLou Harris and John Prine. As a result, she was kept busy recording and performing through the remainder of the decade. She then experienced a marked period of writer's block, starting in about 1996.

"Iris DeMent didn't write any new songs, or at least any she was happy with, for close to a decade. In the first half of the 1990s, DeMent released three albums containing 28 original songs that earned her a reputation as one of the best songwriters of her generation," wrote David Cantwell in a 2004 No Depression profile of the singer-songwriter.

DeMent was born on January 5, 1961, in Paragould, Arkansas, the youngest of Patrick Shaw and Flora Mae DeMent's 14 children. The family had farmed for generations, but shortly before Iris was born, the farm failed and the DeMents moved into town, where Patrick went to work at a factory. The family relocated to California in 1964, as had many people from their area, and settled in Buena Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, and Patrick took a job as a gardener and janitor. The DeMents retained their Arkansas pentecostal ties, attending a Pentecostal church that was the core of the family's life.

Music had always played a key role in the DeMents' lives. Patrick had been a fiddle player, and Flora Mae often dreamed of singing at the Grand Ole Opry, a dream that would later inspire Iris to write "Mama's Opry." The entire family sang at church and home; when they were evangelizing in public, the children played piano, and Iris's sisters performed gospel for a time as the DeMent Sisters. "My parents wanted the boys to be preachers and the girls to be singers---forget college and all that stuff," DeMent told Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune.

As a child DeMent heard mostly gospel music, "kind of old-time gospel, with a lot of harmony," she noted in Acoustic Guitar. Gospel, however, wasn't the only music the budding artist loved. She listened to the folk-inflected music of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin's R&B, and Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall's country sounds. DeMent began making up songs when she was very young but did not have the confidence to pursue songwriting seriously. She recalled in the Infamous Angel liner notes, "I was so intimidated by the idea of these people who could really write songs that I could never get one right for me."

Instead of pursuing music, DeMent dropped out of school, left home at the age of 17, and bounced around the country working a variety of jobs. She also moved away from the church, although its influence has remained strong throughout her career. By the time she was 25, DeMent was living in Topeka, Kansas, where a college creative writing course rekindled her desire to write music. "The writing and the music, the two things I loved the most, started coming together," she recalled in the Los Angeles Times. She began writing songs in her head because she didn't have a piano. Eventually she took up the more affordable guitar and taught herself to play with some help from her brother. Her first full-fledged song was "Our Town," inspired by a drive through a deserted Oklahoma town.

DeMent moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where she worked on her guitar skills and continued to write. After a year she worked up the courage to perform her songs, and started participating in open mic nights. "My songs seemed to give me the courage I needed," she told Steve Dollar in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. During this apprenticeship she saved her money and eventually moved to Nashville.

In Nashville, DeMent attracted the notice of a number of influential people in the recording industry. Record producer Jim Rooney brought her to the attention of a Rounder/Philo executive, and she was quickly signed to a recording contract. Nashville performers took notice as well. Country singer Emmylou Harris invited DeMent to sing backup on her album Brand New Dance, and Nanci Griffith included her on the Grammy-winning 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Rooney assisted DeMent on the production and recruitment of musicians for her first album, Infamous Angel. The instrumentation they chose was acoustic and spare, and included guitar, piano, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and upright bass. Harris returned DeMent's earlier favor and sang harmony on "Mama's Opry," while on the spiritual "Higher Ground" DeMent gave the lead vocal to her favorite gospel singer---her mother. Infamous Angel was released in 1992, complete with well-known singer-songwriter John Prine's endorsement in the liner notes.

The music press was uniformly positive. Steven Rosen wrote in the Denver Post that Infamous Angel "astonished those who have heard it," and Mike Joyce, writing in the Washington Post, praised her "unadorned, often church-inflected balladry."

John Grooms of Creative Loafing pointed out that in the cynical age of the 1990s, the "spellbinding" DeMent put critics in the precarious position of "sounding sappy." Comparing her to some of the legends of country music, Guardian contributor Charlotte Greig felt that "she has the straightforward, pure delivery of a Loretta Lynn or a Hank Williams, a voice that doesn't compromise with the coy mannerisms of pop." "Her voice is extraordinary, there's nobody like her," country singer Emmylou Harris declared in the Chicago Tribune. "There's such a homogeneous sound on radio today, it's almost a shock to hear something so immediately identifiable and unique."

Infamous Angel was immediately popular on non-commercial radio, but mainstream stations showed little interest. Fortunately, many in the industry loved DeMent's music. Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant took to performing DeMent's songs in concert and, with alternative rocker David Byrne, did a rendition of the album's opening tune, "Let the Mystery Be," on MTV's Unplugged.

In early 1993 DeMent agreed to move to Warner Brothers, because they promised to let her do her music the way she wanted. The label executives held true to their word; that spring, they reissued Infamous Angel without making any changes or recutting any material. With her album in the stores, DeMent began touring, first in the United States with Griffith, Prine, and country-folk singer Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and then solo in Europe. She even put in an appearance at an inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton in January of 1993.

DeMent's next album, 1994's My Life, proved she was right to trust Warner Bros. Once again, there was nothing slick about it. The themes of family, love, and loss were similar to her previous work, as was the spare instrumentation. The tone of My Life was darker than her previous work. Still, the somber lyrics and mood didn't disappoint the majority of music critics. Billboard, which found no track "less than stunning," agreed that the release offered "a more melancholy worldview," but contended that "it's the sweet kind, not the bitter, and it's easy to swallow when the presentation is unadorned acoustic guitar and piano that could be labeled country, bluegrass, or folk."

In 1996 DeMent released The Way I Should on Warner Bros. Randy Scruggs produced the album, and according to All Music Guide, it "marked a dramatic change not only in its more rock-influenced sound but also in its subject matter; where DeMent's prior work was introspective and deeply personal, The Way I Should was fiercely political, tackling topics like sexual abuse, religion, government policy, and Vietnam."

Lee Nichols, writing in The Progressive Populist, felt that the material came about from DeMent's having "surveyed the political and cultural landscape of America, and [not liking] what she sees." Not all the material on the album was political in nature, and DeMent told Nichols that she was not worried about perceptions that she was becoming more politically-oriented in her art. "To me," she said, "[the songs are] pretty personal; these are things that affect my life and the lives of people I know."

Even so, the album sparked some extreme reactions, particularly for her song "Wasteland of the Free." In an interview with David Cantwell that appeared in No Depression, DeMent noted that she was unprepared for the public reaction. "I guess I was a little ignorant as to how much of the response would be directed not at the song but at me personally."

She continued to tour constantly and was kept busy collaborating with others, frequently contributing vocals to the recording projects of other artists, including Ralph Stanley, Steve Earle, Tom Russell, and John Prine. OnIn Spite of Ourselves, DeMent recorded four duets with Prine, including "We're Not the Jet Set," "Let's Invite Them Over," and "In Spite of Ourselves." The latter, a bawdy he said-she said number, was also the title track for the Grammy-nominated collection.

DeMent contributed music to and had a brief role in the 2001 film Songcatcher. She told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service that she reckoned "they lost their heads for a while ... I'm definitely not an actress." The film concerns the part music plays in the lives of the mountain people of an Appalachian community, and was met with favorable reviews.

This period was emotionally trying for DeMent, who was unable to compose any songs for several years after the release of The Way I Should. She summed up the period in a few pat phrases. "I got divorced, I bought a house, I remarried, I made some new friends and got back in close with old friends I'd lost touch with, I started working a lot less, eating a little better, resting a little more," she told Cantwell. "I've been gardening. Basically just having more of a home life, something I didn't have much of for a while there."

DeMent married singer-songwriter Greg Brown in 2002. That same year she recorded his "The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home" for Going Driftless: An Artists' Tribute to Greg Brown.

On the evening of March 21, 2003, after the United States had begun the war in Iraq, DeMent was scheduled to perform in Madison, Wisconsin, but went on stage and told the audience she could not sing that evening. DeMent contended she never intended to make a "big statement," as she explained in an interview with No Depression, but "I'd been named as one of the new 'enemies' on some extremist show and that's all it took." The reaction unnerved her, perhaps even exacerbating the problems she was experiencing with her writing.

"DeMent's standard response when asked why she hasn't put out a record in so long---'I haven't written twelve songs that I want to make a record of'---doesn't identify the problem as writer's block so much as her own high standards," wrote Cantwell. "She's worked very hard at writings songs; she's written some songs; she just doesn't think they're good songs.

DeMent chose to record a project filled with gospel standards in 2004. Lifeline was released on her own label after she turned down an offer from New West Records in the summer of 2004. "A few years ago... the hard times came in for a long visit and about the only thing that helped was sitting at the piano singing these songs to myself," she wrote in the liner notes. The songs are traditional staples of church music---"Blessed Assurance," "Sweet Hour of Prayer," and "I've Got That Old Time Religion in My Heart."

"Religious and old-time gospel songs have always informed DeMent's music, even on her earlier albums when she was singing about her home town or war or passion. Here, though, they are the central focus," wrote Joe Heim in the Washington Post. "And in them she has found the refuge and relief she so desperately sought. It's not a stretch to imagine that she hopes the songs might provide the same for others," he wrote.

by Megan Rubiner Zinn and Linda Dailey Paulson

Iris DeMent's Career

Began writing songs in 1986; performed at open mic nights in Kansas City, MO; moved to Nashville to write and perform; signed with Rounder/Philo, c. 1990; released Infamous Angel, 1992; signed with Warner Bros. and reissued Infamous Angel, 1993; released My Life, 1994; appeared in film "Songcatcher," 2001; released Lifeline, 2004.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 6 years ago

The first time I heard Iris was on Priarie Home Companion several years ago. she was singing Lord Surely I Will playing only the guitar. It gave me an uncanny feeling and I decided that I must listen closely and remember who this is. I have never heard anything like that before or since. I wish I could hear her do that again with only the guitar. Can't find it. Saw the piano thing on youtube, awsome, but not like the guitar. don't let instruments overpower you. Love it simple. My two cents. Thanks for the music....Jim

almost 7 years ago

Iris you just keep on singing your way & I will keep on listening as well as a lot of folk,s i know that also think,s you are one of the BEST thier is.Love your stuff & my family love,s you. SO doe,s The Master he is also listening. THANK,s For Your Music.--------------Carl C. Carter S. Ga.Lister. Keep it up good luck.

almost 7 years ago

Hi, I love Iris. The way she sings. So nice voice! I've bought all the cd's Iris recorded so far. "Infamous Angel" , "The Way I Should" , "My Life" , "Lifeline"). One of my favorite song is "Our town" from "Infamous angel". I eagerly await the fifth album. Alberto from Paris (France)... not Tennessee !