This week, we feature my conversation with beloved folk firebrand Iris DeMent. Born the youngest of 14 to a singing Pentecostal family in Arkansas and raised in California, DeMent released her iconic 1992 John Prine-endorsed debut, Infamous Angel, and has been creating poetic protest records and warm collaborations ever since (garnering two folk Grammy nominations along the way), culminating in her much anticipated and fiery new LP, Working On A World.
Certain songwriters in the folk field will occasionally speak up about injustice or corruption — but with Working On A World, DeMent puts the protest front and center: honoring luminaries like Mahalia Jackson, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and even The Chicks for giving her hope that putting your principles and life on the line will help bend history towards progress and righteousness.
DeMent, who is now based in Iowa with her musician and collaborator husband Greg Brown (check out their biting co-write “I’ll Be Your Jesus”), will be the first to say that at times in her wide-ranging career, playing clubs to enraptured but small audiences, she has questioned whether she was doing enough to make a difference. But songs like the epic Dylan-esque take-down “Going Down To Sing in Texas” show that Dement is still at her fired-up best, confronting the Lone Star State’s open carry gun laws that put so many at risk, while also spitting in the face of all the wannabe tyrants who shun the very progress she is still hoping to see. In many ways, Working On A World is a hard-won release of pent-up energy, created over the course of six years with co-producers Richard Bennett, Jim Rooney and Pieta Brown.
While many of her longtime fans are used to her fearless political confrontations — 1996’s seething The Way I Should and its dark anthem “Wasteland of the Free” demand answers from sexual abusers and government war mongers alike — casual listeners may only know DeMent from her playful duets with sonic soulmate John Prine, most notably the foul-mouthed love song “In Spite Of Ourselves.” With a little laugh, she says she’s alright with that too. Life is long and the music, no matter the light or the dark, is equally as powerful.
Photo Credit: Dasha Brown