Iris DeMent

  • Friday, Jan. 15, 2016

    One of the great voices in contemporary popular music. —NPR

    Iris DeMent

    1060 Cerrillos Rd., Santa Fe
    James A. Little Theater


It was by pure chance that Iris DeMent opened the lent book of Russian poetry sitting on her piano bench to Anna Akhmatova’s “Like A White Stone.” “I felt as if somebody walked in the room and said, ‘Set that to music,’” remembers DeMent. So she did. The melody just poured out of her, and she was instantly immersed in what would become The Trackless Woods, her sixth studio album.

Beginning with her 1992 debut, Infamous Angel, hailed as “an essential album of the 1990s” by Rolling Stone, DeMent released a series of stellar records that established her as one of the finest singer-songwriters in America, earned her multiple Grammy nominations, and led to collaborations with the likes of John Prine, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin. Merle Haggard dubbed her “the best singer I’ve ever heard” and asked her to join his touring band, David Byrne and Natalie Merchant famously covered her “Let The Mystery Be” as a duet on MTV Unplugged, and recently HBO picked up one of her songs to play over the opening credits of its moody masterpiece The Leftovers. Behind the scenes, DeMent and her singer-songwriter husband Greg Brown were raising their adopted Russian daughter in Iowa City.

DeMent was born the youngest of 14 children in Arkansas and raised in southern California. “I remember noticing that people seem to be most their real selves when they were in the music. My dad would cry my mom would wave her arms around when they sang church music. So I figured out at some point that there was a breakdown there with my daughter. She was six when we adopted her, and there was a whole culture that had been translated to her in those critical years that I didn’t feel like I could get through with the tools I had. So always in the back of my mind, I had this sense of wanting to figure out how to link her two worlds, Russian and American.” Akhmatova’s poetry proved to be that link and more, as it drew DeMent into a remarkable journey through Russian political and artistic history.

“Her whole adult working life was marked by this constant struggle to do her work in the face of the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, World War II, and Stalin,” DeMent says of Akhmatova. “One of her husbands was executed, one died in the gulag, and her son was sent there twice just by virtue of being her son. She often lived in poverty and out of other people’s homes, never owned a place of her own. She wasn’t some elevated star figure exempted from suffering, she was right there in it. All of her poetry came out of that….You can hear all that sorrow and burden in her poems, but there’s always a lightness, a transcendence somehow, a sense of victory over all that inhumanity.”

It’s only fitting, then, that the album opens with, “To My Poems,” a short, four-line invocation recorded sparsely and simply with just DeMent’s voice and piano: “You led me into the trackless woods, / My falling stars, my dark endeavor. / You were bitterness, lies, a bill of goods. / You weren’t a consolation—ever.” That stark pairing of piano and voice forms the heart and soul of the album, with a small backing band that drifts in and out of the arrangements, and timeless melodies that could easily be mistaken for long-forgotten hymnal entries or classic country tunes. That DeMent can make the work of a 20th-century Russian poet sound like Sunday morning on a cotton plantation is a testament to her versatility and depth as an artist.

“I learned from this project that I don’t have just one voice, I have lots of voices, and they’re all connected somehow,” says DeMent. “Something happened on this record because the music wasn’t tied to a place from my past or my family history, but it was linked to my daughter by way of her cultural history. I realized writing these songs that I’m linked in some way to another world, as well….All of the poems just felt like songs to me from the get go, the melodies came while I was reading them the first time. That still mystifies me. My gut sense is that they were songs, already…the music was already in the poems.” Twenty-three years after her debut, DeMent is creating some of the most poignant music of her career, bridging two seemingly disparate worlds with every note.

7:00 DOORS, 7:30-8:00 PIETA BROWN opens, 8:15-9:30 IRIS DEMENT
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James A. Little Theater, 1060 Cerrillos Rd., Santa Fe, NM

CLICK HERE for No Depression‘s review of Iris’s new album.