The first time I heard Iris DeMent, I was reminded of a sheep’s bleat. That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but I’d add that the first time I heard Bartok’s 4th string quartet, I was reminded of an axe murder, and the first time I heard Radiohead’s OK Computer, I couldn’t hear anything but fuzzy, disjointed noise.
My college politics professor liked to say that it took him 40 years to develop a taste for grappa — but it was worth it. Sometimes the best things take the longest to learn how to love.
I can still detect the elements of DeMent’s drawl that used to put me off, but it’s these same elements that now make her such a strange pleasure to listen to. The unexpected turns of her vowels, the way she croons and warbles — these things are like the savor of a strange fruit, something out of C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra. What I used to find sheeplike now sounds to me like the very voice of the human heart; which, after all, has something of the sheep in it.
The first tune of hers I heard was Leaning On the Everlasting Arms, featured during the credits of the Coen brothers’ True Grit. It’s both a traditional song and a typical Iris DeMent song: simple, clear, and suffused with a longing that somehow anticipates and makes present the peace that it longs for.
DeMent grew up in a Pentecostal family in Arkansas. Although her songwriter’s vocabulary is mostly drawn from her childhood faith, it’s not clear whether DeMent herself is still a Christian. Her recent album Sing the Delta is full of this ambiguity. The album’s first track, Go On Ahead and Go Home, evokes as poignant a picture of Heaven as any I’ve seen:
In the deep of the night
In the deep of the night
By the river so still, sorrows come to heel
Wrongs are made right
And then what you miss, reading the lyrics, is the rolling piano line, just this side of honky-tonk, the unobtrusively cheerful drum track, the perfectly executed organ solo.
But the “sorrows and wrongs” show themselves on the album, too. DeMent reminds me of a more backwoodsy Patsy Cline, but if Cline’s expertise was in heartbreak, DeMent’s is in spiritual desolation. The Night I Learned How Not To Pray is a heartfelt but never maudlin meditation on the death of her (or somebody’s) baby brother when she was a child, and on her unanswered prayer for his life. The song is so brightly punctuated by mandolin and slide guitar that, if you’re not listening closely, you might believe you had misheard the chorus:
That was the night I learned how not to pray
‘Cause God does what he wants to anyway.
It’s not clear whether the speaker has turned cynical on prayer in general, or whether she’s just moved to a different understanding of what it might mean to speak to God.
It’s not the only time on the album that DeMent seems to reject her childhood faith as a bit too pat. A song later on the album, The Kingdom Has Already Come, is set in a loping 3/4 that is distinctively Gospel-inflected, but it starts like this:
I stopped in a church to pray
It was the middle of the day
And I don’t even know if I believe in God
The gentle irony of setting a song about agnosticism to a Gospel backgound comes about partly because those rhythms and scales are as native to DeMent as her Arkansas accent; but at the same time, she uses the song’s setting to suggest that salvation is found, not by ignoring the daily realities of life, but by entering deeply into them:
I was out on the fourth of July
When I saw those kids, and just had to cry
The whole town was blazing in the summer’s heat
But out in front of a row of rundown shacks
they had that fire hydrant uncapped
baptizing their bodies right there in the street
The speaker seems to be seeing for the first time that natural reality from which sacramental Baptism takes its raw material: a true washing, a relief from the scorching heat of the world, a richness in the midst of poverty. It’s a vision of nature suffused by grace.
We all see good or bad
In everything that we have
But life is waiting just behind that veil
If this will be loved and that will be hated
The soul is left to struggle segregated
Trapped in the harbor too weighed down to sail
Is she rejecting Christianity, or is she only rejecting the sort of Christianity that maintains itself by reducing the world to caricatures? Each verse of the song is capped by the same observation: “Maybe the kingdom has already come.” The suggestion is that the moral axioms of her childhood tended to obscure, rather than reveal, the depths and beauty of life. Maybe the heaven we’re waiting for is already here, but we’re too blind to see it.
It’s a strange contradiction in DeMent; the lyrics tend one way, the music another. It reminds me of a line from Walker Percy: “Show me a lapsed Catholic who writes a good novel about being a young Communist at Columbia and I’ll show you a novelist who owes more to Sister Gertrude at Sacred Heart in Brooklyn, who slapped him clean out of his seat for disrespect to the Eucharist, than he owes to all of Marxist dialectic.” DeMent owes a lot to her Pentecostal upbringing, and if she’s not sure what to make of it all forty years later, she hasn’t quite got quit of it, either.
The best way to sum up the album, maybe, is a single line from one of the last tracks: “There’s a whole lot of Heaven shining in this river of tears.” DeMent is a writer who sees both Heaven and the tears more clearly than most, and her voice — just as sweet as it was when she was younger, but with a richness and maturity that speak of a life well-lived — is well able to communicate both.