Archive Fun: Iris DeMent

October 23, 2013

Iris DeMent

Iris DeMent was born in Paragould, Arkansas, the last of 14 children in her family. Her parents were farmers, but after hitting hard times in 1964, they sold the farm and moved west to California. DeMent's parents passed on to her their love of music: Her mom sang around the house and at church, and as a young man, her dad had played fiddle at dances around Arkansas. For a family that saw its share of hard times, music was a necessity of life, not just a pastime. Her older sisters formed a gospel group called The DeMent Sisters and eventually recorded an album. Iris began writing songs at 25, and while living in Kansas City, she taught herself to play the guitar. Her songs draw directly upon her own life and the people within it. She says of her parents: "They have been the most important people in my life. I probably care about music the way I do because of them." Eventually, DeMent moved to Nashville, where her performances led to a recording contract. Since launching her career in the early 1990s, Iris has become one of the most celebrated artists of her generation and one of Garrison Keillor's favorite songwriters. Her latest album is Sing the Delta and she joined A Prairie Home Companion twice in the past year to share a few songs from the album.

"Sing the Delta"

It's been 16 years since her last album of original material. Judging by the resulting collection of songs, it was well worth the wait. The title track, "Sing the Delta," is an intensely personal song which she wrote when her mom was slipping away. "That song, I think, just came out of a realization I had one day of the degree to which she had embodied a whole culture and passed that on to me. And that was that part of the country, the Arkansas Delta. ... A lot of what I had stamped on me — musically, Sunday-dinner-wise, religion and everything else — was a direct outgrowth of that. When it came to mum's feelings, there wasn't a back burner on that stove. My mama was always tellin' her truth."

"Mornin' Glory"

"Mornin' Glory" was performed on A Prairie Home Companion in December 2012. The song demonstrates that Iris DeMent is not only a gifted songwriter but a true poet. She ranks with the best of female country songwriters including Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton when it comes to very intimate and personal stories. Upon listening, you realize why NPR declared "The songs on Sing the Delta only grow more rich, more emotionally complex, the more you hear them."

"The Kingdom Has Already Come"

As Garrison has stated, Iris DeMent is one of his favorite songwriters. Her songs are part of the fabric of A Prairie Home Companion. They touch on themes which are familiar to everyone, similar to what Garrison does with the News from Lake Wobegon. Each song tells a story. And a few of these stories have led to magical musical moments on the show...

"My Life" — Garrison Keillor and Heather Masse

Garrison has sung this tune on the show several times, including this performance from the first cinecast where he is joined by Heather Masse. The ballad is the title track to Iris' second album, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The song contains a simple mantra which reads, "but I gave joy to my mother / And I made my lover smile / And I can give comfort to my friends when they're hurting / And I can make it seem better for a while."

"Our Town" — Aoife O'Donovan

This song played over the final scenes of the television series Northern Exposure. "Our Town" was one of the first songs Iris wrote and became a benchmark for her writing. Iris writes about what she knows — the people, places and feelings — in a way which most listeners can respond to.

"When My Morning Comes Around" — Garrison Keillor and Lera Lynn

"I heard this sung at a memorial service and even people who didn't intend to cry, cried when they heard it. It's a beautiful song!" — Garrison Keillor (June 29, 2013) "When My Morning Comes Around" is the lead song from Iris' third album, The Way I Should. When Iris first wrote it, she didn't think the song was a "keeper." Garrison stated on the October 12, 2013 broadcast that the song was a permanent classic.

"Sweet is the Melody" — Garrison Keillor and Andra Suchy

The lead song from the album My Life paints an incredible portrait, almost pure poetry with words and images that are so vivid: "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 its place."

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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