Iris DeMent: Ass-Kicking, Outlaw Country Singer Talks Growing Up in OC

Iris DeMent
Iris DeMent

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Maybe it'd be a little crass to start this out by talking about what an ass-kicker Iris DeMent is. But if outlaw country means telling it like it is, then Arkansas-born and Orange County-raised Iris DeMent is still on the run and free at age 51. Her new album Sing The Delta--her first originals in sixteen years--is about to release on her own Flariella label and she says she feels like a kid again: "You do it for the joy of it and make the music the best you can and go out and sing, and if people want it, so be it," she says. "If you're willing to talk to me, I'll talk back."

And she does, with a voice straight from one of those mysterious and powerful 78 RPM records that taught a young Bob Dylan what folk music really was. If there is something most special within the many special things about DeMent's music, it's the fearless and even agonizing way in which she pours her true self into her songs. Lots of people cry when she plays something like "My Life," which starts with the line "My life, it don't count for nothin' ..." and stares alone into a lonesome universe.

Loss and love are the twin poles of the DeMent discography and maybe the DeMent life. If songs like "Wasteland Of The Free," which called out lopsided CEO pay and "politicians running races on corporate cash / don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them people's ass" long before Occupy--possibly not coincidentally, it was on the final album of her major-label career--are the political, then songs like "The Night I Learned How Not To Pray" (in which "God does what He wants to, anyway") are the personal. But at the heart of both is the heartbreak of a person trying to make sense of the insensible on the way to making right out of wrong.

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"Unlike my husband, who I really envy because he can write anywhere, I have to have a place," she explains. "I have a cabin out where we live in the country, and pretty much everything on the new record was written there. I have to have a total sense of privacy. When I go to that place where I feel like I'm really hooked into something, I feel ... I don't know except RIGHT. I feel right in the world. Life feels more doable."

She was just a toddler when her family moved to Valley View and Ball in 1963, currently home (like so many intersections) to a shopping plaza and a Starbucks. But back then there were strawberry fields. Her father had just lost his job in Arkansas--after a year-long strike, his company shut down and its workers were spit out into the world. He'd end up working as a janitor at Buena Park's Movieland Wax Museum. (He'd bring the museum's Rolls Royce home to wash on the weekends.) She remembers Orange County now as the place where she grew up on Merle Haggard and church music, and where her family (of fourteen kids) was all together.   ;"Everything I associate with that part of the country is linked to that sense of myself in the world, surrounded by brothers and sisters and the community," she says. "When we moved there, it was full of transplants from the Midwest and the South, and about the time my parents were leaving, there were a lot of Vietnamese coming in. I thought that was really cool. New blood--people trying to find a better way."  

The DeMent family looms large on all her albums, and Delta has a song for both mother and father. "Mama Was Always Tellin' Her Truth" is another entry in the biography of DeMent's mother, certainly the source of DeMent's ass-kickery and humor both, while "If That Ain't Love" turns to her father and his unflagging dedication to his kids: "That song is definitely set at Movieland," she says. "It's just about when you get down to the heart of things--what really sustains us. Somebody gets up in the morning and goes to some crummy job every way to
bring the money home and keep the kids afloat. It's not glamorous but it's necessary and it's true and it's real."

Sometimes these songs take five minutes for the first half and five years for the rest, she says. Maybe that's why it's been so long between 1996's The Way I Should and Sing The Delta. Her 2004 album Lifeline was her first independent release, but was made up of gospel standards--maybe you heard her version of "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" in the Coen brothers' True Grit? But Delta is vintage DeMent, built on her loping piano melodies and dressed up with a full band like her classic debut Infamous Angel. Recorded in two quick sessions with help from her son-in-law Bo Ramsey and producer Richard Bennett, it's an album that touches both the beautiful and the tragic. And she put it out just how she wanted it, with nobody but herself to tell her not to tell it like it is.

"When I put my last record out, I thought about going with a label," she says, "but man ... when I thought about how much freedom I'd have doing it myself, nothing else was quite as enticing to me as that. It felt so good! Like--wow, this is what music is about. You throw it out there and if someone wants to listen, they listen, and they kick it down the road a little farther. For this one, a lot of people told me I should go with a label, and maybe they were right. But I just loved the way I felt doing it the other way. And I have no regrets."

An evening with Iris DeMent at the Grammy Museum, 800 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. Thur., Aug. 9. 8 pm. Contact venue for exact ticket information; All ages.

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