"Workin' on a World," the seventh album by Arkansas native Iris DeMent, came out Feb. 24 to all sorts of critical acclaim.
Sam Sodomsky, writing at pitchfork.com, likened the record to "... a parade on a stormy day, a celebration beneath increasingly ominous skies"; Rolling Stone declared in a headline that the album is a "Stirring Political Statement in Desperate Times"; at folkalley.com, reviewer Henry Carrigan wrote that DeMent "affirms life in the midst of chaos and despair."
They are not wrong, of course. DeMent, who is performing May 25 at a sold-out show in the Performing Arts Theater at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts in Little Rock, is an important American songwriter whose folk, country and gospel music include vital protest songs and thoughtful, gorgeous musings on life, faith and love. She is brave, vulnerable and honest. She's funny, too. Just listen to "In Spite of Ourselves," the playful and sweet duet with her pal, the late John Prine.
DeMent also just happens to possess one of the most unique voices in music. In a 2013 Oxford American essay, Little Rock novelist and DeMent admirer Kevin Brockmeier said that her vocals are "... as clear and unpolluted as any voice you're ever likely to hear, washing through the instruments like a warm Southern stream, but its timbre is unusual. The way it lifts up so ardently from the bed of the music, swaying along with the fiddle or the accordion, and bowing out around the vowels -- well, it takes some getting used to."
On the new album -- her first since 2015's "The Trackless Woods," in which she adapted the work of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova -- the 62-year-old DeMent rails against a litany of American ills including, among other things, hatred, religious intolerance and this country's love affair with guns ("I'm Going Down to Sing in Texas"); praises her gospel music hero Mahalia Jackson ("Mahalia"); references Martin Luther King Jr. ("How Long"); and pays tribute to peace activist Rachel Corrie and civil rights leader-U.S. Rep. John Lewis ("Warriors of Love"). In the title track, which opens the record, DeMent finds hope and strength in working to improve the world, even if she may not be around to see the results.
The album is the latest in a stellar career that began with 1992's landmark debut, "Infamous Angel," an album Rolling Stone recently placed at No. 50 in its Top 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time. She followed that with "My Life" in 1994 and "The Way I Should" two years later. After recording those for Warner Bros., DeMent formed her own imprint, FlariElla Records, to release her subsequent albums, which include 2004's "Lifeline," "Sing the Delta" in 2012, "The Trackless Woods" and "Workin' on a World."
Curiously, it took a while for "Workin' on a World" to gestate. DeMent had recorded a few tracks during two sessions, but was hesitant to proceed. Then her stepdaughter, singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, took a listen.
"I drove around on the back roads of Iowa so I could hear the songs by myself and not be distracted," she says. "I listened for a couple of hours or more, and at some point I pulled over and called her and said: 'You have an album, and it's called 'Workin' on a World.'"
Brown would go on to co-produce the record with Richard Bennett and longtime DeMent producer Jim Rooney.
Writing and performing is a way for DeMent, who has done grassroots activist work, to process what's happening in her life and the world around her. She has also come to terms with the fact that she can make a difference through music.
"At the end of the day, I do it because I've figured out that this is something that I can do to make myself useful in the world," she says in late March from Iowa City, where she lives with her husband, the musician Greg Brown. "For a stretch of time, I was focusing my energy on canvassing and working phone banks and trying to be vocal and involved in a feet-on-the-ground way in my community. Those are extremely important actions to take, but at some point I realized that I was failing to see that my real gift is music; it's songs and writing and singing for people. So I decided to hunker down and write."
DeMent was born in Paragould and is the youngest of 14 children. Her parents, Patric and Flora Mae, grew up in northeast Arkansas. Neither made it past the eighth grade.
"My family goes way back on both sides in that region," she says. "My mom's parents were sharecroppers. My dad's parents owned their land, but they were not of means."
Patric, who died in 1992, was a farmer before going to work at the Emerson Electric Plant in Paragould. He worked there for about two years before taking part in a wildcat strike.
"When I was a baby, my dad was on a picket line for eight hours a day for a year trying to bring a union to the Emerson plant," she says.
The strike failed, so the DeMents and 10 of their children, including Iris, who was about 3, left Arkansas in a station wagon, bound for California.
"I don't have memories [of Arkansas ]. I was too young," she says. "But I sometimes think I do because I've heard so many stories. When you hear things being told so vividly for so long, it's a challenge knowing what I was actually there for."
The family first lived in Long Beach before moving to Buena Park. Patric, who was in his mid-50s, worked at a chair factory and later was a groundskeeper at the Movieland Wax Museum and Palace of Moving Art. Flora Mae took care of the house and the children.
"They were ingenious at making ends meet," DeMent says. "My mom could sew and cook on a budget. Times were very different."
Patric played the fiddle when he was younger, performing at dances and parties, though DeMent never heard him play.
"By then, life got in the way. He was busy," she says. "But I do remember being told that my dad got religion and someone in the church told him that the fiddle was sinful, the Devil's instrument. So we can blame that bit of nonsense for me not ever hearing my dad play fiddle. Well, that and having all those kids to raise."
Still, she came up in a musical home. Flora Mae sang all the time, and the family piano was well used.
"Music was just always there," she says. "It was everyday life. The piano was our toy. We always said, 'I'm going to go bang on the piano,' and that's what we literally did and nobody told you to stop, ever. We would sit at the piano bench and play, and if you play long enough, you're going to learn something."
Gospel music was also crucial in her musical upbringing, and it's something she has explored on her albums, from covering traditional hymns to her own compositions like "Let the Mystery Be," which was used as the theme song to he HBO series "The Leftovers" and takes a more questioning look at faith and religion.
"I was born on a Thursday, and I was absolutely in church on Sunday," DeMent says. "Church music goes way back for me. I'm grateful for that musical foundation. I've carried it with me, and I've grown it. I've allowed myself to expand on my religion and to question it and alter it as I need to."
DeMent dropped out of high school in the 10th grade to work full time at Kmart, although her parents required her to get a GED. She eventually followed a boyfriend to Topeka, Kan., where she attended Washburn University.
It was there that she started writing after receiving positive feedback from an English composition professor named Judith Fertig.
"She recognized some talent in me, and I was so encouraged by her that I started writing songs. To this day, I don't know if that would have happened had she not encouraged me the way she did."
At 25 years old, DeMent wrote her first song, "Our Town," the bittersweet, tender ode to small-town life, love and loss that would become a highlight on "Infamous Angel." (It was also used in the series finale of "Northern Exposure.")
"It was one of those can't-write-it-down-fast-enough kind of things, and I thought that was how this songwriting thing was going to go," she says with a laugh. "As anybody who writes anything knows, though, those experiences are few and far between."
She moved from Topeka to Kansas City and performed her songs at open mic nights while working at a pizza parlor and attending school. Next, she moved to Nashville, Tenn., and hit the open mic circuit there while working day jobs. Through all of that, she managed to write the songs that would make up "Infamous Angel." (Prine wrote the album's liner notes, and the record closes emotionally with the hymn "Higher Ground," sung by DeMent's mother.)
Rooney, who has produced albums by Nanci Griffith, Hal Ketchum, Jerry Jeff Walker, Prine and others, produced the album.
"She came over to my apartment, and I asked her if she could play me some songs and she said, 'Do I have to,'" Rooney remembers with a laugh. "She was extremely shy ... but at my dining room table, you can imagine the effect it had on me of having her that close, with that voice and those songs. It left an indelible mark on me."
Rooney also produced "My Life" and "Lifeline." The latter contains several Protestant gospel songs and was partially recorded at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View.
The two have butted heads over the years, he says, adding that her initial reluctance to speak up is long gone.
"Iris is not shy about telling anybody what she thinks, and she tackles some heady issues on this latest record. ... She is a wonderful friend, and it's not all sweetness and light, but we have such love for each other. It's real love. We have that for each other, and nothing will ever change it."
Pieta Brown says DeMent "is so much like her music. She is intense and really funny and one of the sweetest people that I know. She's a warrior of love, not just inside the music or just talking about those things. I think that's why her songs almost sort of weave in and out of that preaching place, but it never feels like Iris is telling me or anybody else what to do, she's asking those questions that are hard to ask. She's that way as a person, too. She's really strong."
After "Infamous Angel" was released, DeMent says she went from "a wallflower at a party" to learning that people were interested in her work.
"It troubled me, but I went from a day job to days spent getting in a car to get to the gig. For me, I never had any hits and wasn't on TV a lot, so I didn't have to deal with the stuff that some people have to deal with."
One of the great friendships that came from this period was with Prine, who took her on tour.
"We just never stopped," she says. "For many years, I would do long tours for weeks at a time with him. He became a friend, that's for sure."
DeMent left Nashville and returned to Kansas City. She and Brown married in 2002. They adopted a daughter from Russia and settled in Iowa City.
She knew one of his songs long before she knew Brown. She was still living in Topeka and was in a car when she first heard "The Cheapest Kind" on the radio.
"It tells the story about a family that does everything extra," she says. "When they went to the store, the mom and dad would tell the kids to get the cheapest kind, whatever it was. The line in the song is: 'But the love was not the cheapest kind/it was as rich as any you will ever find.' I remember distinctly thinking to myself that if I could ever figure out how to write a song, I want it to be something like that."
Fast forward years later, after "Infamous Angel" came out, she was about to play a concert in the northeast and heard someone playing that song. It was Brown, though they didn't get to meet at the time. It would be years later before they met and fell in love.
"Our paths would cross, but we never really visited until a few months before we got married," she says. "We were at a festival in Colorado. Greg was there, and John Prine was there. I was going to do a duet with John and he called me onstage. I had a plate of food and I gave it to Greg and said, 'here, eat this.'"
A month or so later, they were married.
"We just had a lot in common in terms of our beginnings and the paths we had chosen to travel."
Interestingly, their first musical collaboration is the song "Let Me Be Your Jesus," a track they co-wrote that appears on "Workin' on a World."
"He wrote the lyrics but said he thought they were too creepy to sing," she says. "I disagreed."
DeMent added a melody and whispery, conspiratorial vocals to Brown's words and the result is one of the most powerful, chilling songs on the album.
The reception of the new record has been rewarding, she says.
"I never doubted the songs I was working on. I just wasn't sure that I had a body of work. People don't have much time left over in a day anymore, and when I put a record out, I would like to not waste folks' time. I set a high standard for myself, and that's why. I've been pleased with how it's gone and that a number of stations are playing it and a lot of journalists that I respect have been writing about it."
After all these years, coming back to Arkansas to perform "always is kind of emotional for me," she says. "My folks are passed now and they're buried in Arkansas. A lot of my siblings and my aunts and uncles have passed on. My connection to Arkansas is largely through that generation, and they have all passed on. Also, a lot of my awareness of the inequities of society stem from my beginnings there. It's an emotionally charged place for me."