By Jordan Wright
Iris DeMent’s singing voice can best be described as the mournful sound of a dove, the backwoods twang of Appalachia, and having what is known in the industry as a “cry” in her voice reminiscent of Patsy Cline. The woman’s got soul, though she once was classified with a Grammy nomination in the best contemporary folk album category.
So I was somewhat taken aback when I reached DeMent by phone last week in her Iowa home — where she has lived for the past five years with her singer/songwriter husband, Greg Brown — and she spoke with an accent as pure as a television anchorwoman.
“You know I grew up listening to a lot of country music, and that’s the music that rubbed off on me,” she explained when I asked about the difference between her singing and speaking voice. “That’s where I actually go and always have. I don’t think it’s like anything in particular. I don’t know what it is. It’s my accent. It’s just me. I grew up in a house full of southerners in California and I listened to all kinds of music, but I’ve always leaned toward country.”
It’s been 16 years since DeMent put out an album, if you don’t count 2004’s “Lifeline,” in which she covered well-known gospel tunes with the exception of “He Reached Down,” an original composition. During a career spanning more than a quarter of a century, she has sung with greats like Ralph Stanley, John Prine and Emmylou Harris as well as made frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
A role in the 2000 film “Songcatcher” led to her singing on the movie’s soundtrack, and in 2010, one of her songs was used in the closing credits of the Coen brothers film, “True Grit.”
Released in October, “Sings the Delta” is DeMent’s long-awaited, self-composed and much-anticipated album. On January 21 she will perform at the Birchmere along with a band featuring a guitar, mandolin, bass, drums and pedal steel guitar.
Alexandria Times: You grew up in a fairly strict Pentecostal household. How much has religion affected your music?
Iris DeMent: I don’t reject religion. I think I’ve just decided to take religion and tune it up to suit myself. I grew up in the church and that environment had a great impact on me musically and every other way, so I couldn’t separate what I do from that world that I was submerged in. It’s all kind of one and the same. I’ve allowed myself to grow with it. I didn’t long ago. I didn’t buy into the stories and all the answers that were written. It was my job to just go along. I took what I learned from church, and I kept moving through life with it and adapting it to where I was at any particular time. I’m willing to move as far away from it as I have to. The heart of the thing is still in there intensely for me.
Would you say that creating a context for social change within your music is part of your inspiration?
I don’t think of things as issues. I’m just talking about what’s going on in my world — what I care about. I am trying to unravel things for myself and put them back together in a way that makes sense, whether that’s music or sitting down having coffee with friends. I think that’s just human nature to try to make sense of your world. And I do that to a great extent through music. I don’t have an agenda. I just want to see what my heart says about the thing.
What was it like growing up in such a large family in a house with over a dozen siblings? Was it hard to get heard?
It was hard to get heard. But looking back I think there was a huge advantage to that. It meant listening a lot, especially when you’re the youngest. I learned to be quiet a lot. I’m really grateful that I was in that position. I think it’s a lot of the reason I did end up writing.
Is any one else in your family in music?
Oh yes! They all play or sing in the churches. I’m the only one that went out in the world with my music.
You have your own label — Flariella. Is it more difficult to get airtime with your own label?
For me it’s always been difficult to get airtime. The music business has changed so much that now everybody is on their own label. I enjoy the independence of it. I’m inclined to be by myself. Thankfully there have been enough journalists like yourself that will write about me.
What was happening in your life when you wrote “Before the Colors Fade”?
I had just lost my mother. She had been gone only a few weeks. When you lose somebody they’re gone, but their presence, and my sense of them, is intensified. No matter how close you are, there’s a fading.
Have you played the Birchmere before?
I love the Birchmere. I’ve been playing there just about every year since 1992. It’s a great environment. It’s a world made for music. The sound is wonderful. The audience is always really warm. It’s a good place to play.
How would you define your audience?
I wouldn’t do that.
Iris DeMent will perform with Jason Wilbur for one-night only at The Birchmere on Monday at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com. For venue information, visit www.birchmere.com. The Birchmere is located at 3701 Mount Vernon Ave.