The music of Iris Dement

Last Sunday I caught an NPR interview with one of today’s finest country and folk music artists, Iris Dement.  Her music is not as well known as it should be, though it has been featured on several notable TV shows and movies.

I first heard Dement’s music in the final scene of the final episode of my favorite TV show of the 90’s, Northern Exposure.  The song, “Our Town,” from her first album Infamous Angel 1992, illustrates one constant in her work, an unflinching look at the losses and longings that permeate our lives.

And you know the sun’s settin’ fast,
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts.
Well, go on now and kiss it goodbye,
But hold on to your lover,
‘Cause your heart’s bound to die.
Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town.
Can’t you see the sun’s settin’ down on our town, on our town,
Goodnight.

In the NPR interview, Dement said that for her, singing is prayer, and two other songs on Infamous Angel reflect the range of her spirituality.  The album’s title song is about redemption, imagined from the perspective of her evangelical upbringing, while “Let the Mystery Be” opened the soundtrack of Little Buddha 1993.

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from.
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done.
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me.
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Dement’s second album, My Life, 1994, won a grammy nomination in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category.  The liner notes explain why it’s dedicated to her father who had been a fiddler but stopped playing after he was “saved.”  Young Iris was fascinated by the dusty violin case in the back of the closet and one day mustered the courage to ask her father to play a song.  He looked at her and at at the violin for a very long long time before picking the instrument up.  The few bars he played gave his daughter permission.  “No Time to Cry,” is her song about his passing.

Also notable on My Life is “Sweet is the Melody,” a beautiful song and fine expression of the nature of the creative process:

Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by
It’s so hard to make every note bend just right
You lay down the hours and leave not one trace
But a tune for the dancing is there in it’s place

Dement appears in Songcatcher 2000, a movie about an early 20th century musicologist collecting Scots-Irish ballads in the Appalachians.  She sings “Pretty Saro,” an expression of American roots music that parallels her own search for musical authenticity. Her most recent film credit is True Grit, 2010, where her version of the classic hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” plays at the end of the movie.  You can watch a clip in my review of the movie: http://wp.me/pYql4-up

The recent NPR interview follows the release of Dement’s fourth album, Sing the Delta, a reference to the Arkansas Delta where she was born. http://www.npr.org/2012/10/28/163560263/singing-is-praying-for-iris-dement.  She discusses the importance of her Pentecostal upbringing.  As the youngest of 14 children, she sang in the church choir and took her faith seriously as an adolescent.  Losing that faith as an adult is reflected in her new song, “The night I learned how not to pray,” yet Dement emphasizes her gratitude for what she was taught as a child, saying it gave her a message “about what’s going on underneath the waters of life.  My parents just gave me a gift I can’t even put a figure on.”

Though she left the beliefs that sustained her youth, Dement relates a lesson she learned from her mother, “My mom, who sang straight up until the day she died, told me one day: ‘You know, Iris, singing is praying and praying is singing. There ain’t no difference.’ So I think, even though I’ve left the church and moved away from a lot of the things that didn’t do me any good, I continued to pray — and that is singing for me.”

You won’t find music more sincere or heartfelt than this.