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Iris DeMent

Equally adept at quiet introspection, observations on rural life, and fiery protest anthems, Iris DeMent is a widely celebrated singer/songwriter whose music winds through folk, gospel, country, and rock. Since debuting in the early '90s her graceful, poetic songs and distinctive voice have made her a staple of folk and Americana music and her signature song, "Our Town," has been covered widely. Along with a string of acclaimed albums including 1992's Infamous Angel and 1994's My Life, she has collaborated with artists like John Prine, Emmylou Harris, and Nanci Griffith. While her output in the 2000s consisted solely of an album of traditional gospel-folk hymns, DeMent became more active in the following decade with 2012's poignant Sing the Delta and a 2015 album of Anna Akhmatova poems set to original music. Her seventh album, 2023's Workin' on a World, addressed global and political turmoil with a resolute sense of hope. DeMent was born on January 5, 1961, in rural Paragould, Arkansas, the youngest of 14 children. At the age of three, her devoutly religious family moved to California, where she grew up singing gospel music; during her teenage years, she was exposed to country, folk, and R&B, drawing influence from Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. Upon graduating high school, she relocated to Kansas City to attend college. After a series of jobs waitressing and typing, DeMent began composing songs at the age of 25; "Our Town" was her first and would go on to become her signature track. Honing her skills at open-mike nights, she moved to Nashville in 1988, where with the help of producer Jim Rooney, she landed a record contract with Rounder's Philo imprint. Considered something of a late bloomer, DeMent was 31 when she finally made her debut. Released in 1992, Infamous Angel won almost universal acclaim thanks to her pure, rustic vocal style and spare, heartfelt songcraft. Despite a complete lack of support from country radio, the record's word-of-mouth praise earned her a deal with Warner Bros., which reissued Infamous Angel in 1993 as well as its follow-up, 1994's stunning My Life. With its smart exploration of rural values, My Life was another critical success that climbed onto Billboard's Heatseekers chart and earned DeMent a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In 1995, she was introduced to a much wider audience when "Our Town" was played during the series finale of CBS' much-loved series Northern Exposure. DeMent's third LP, 1996's eclectic The Way I Should, marked a dramatic change not only in its more rock-influenced sound but also in its subject matter; where DeMent's prior work was introspective and deeply personal, The Way I Should was fiercely political, tackling topics like sexual abuse, religion, government policy, and Vietnam. It too earned a Grammy nomination. In 1999, she collaborated with countryman John Prine, recording four duets with him on his album In Spite of Ourselves. Meanwhile, her own recording career had gone by the wayside in the late '90s and she didn't return to the studio until 2004. No longer on Warner Bros.' roster, DeMent's next release came out on the indie Flariella and consisted of various traditional gospel hymns, many of which she had learned from her mother. Her rendition of "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" was later used in the Coen Brothers' 2010 western True Grit. Another lengthy hiatus preceded 2012's Sing the Delta, DeMent's first album of original songs in 16 years. Working again within the sparse and emotional quilt of her earlier releases, it became her first to enter the Billboard 200, peaking at 124. Dement returned three years later with 2015's The Trackless Woods, a collection of poems by 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova which she adapted to music, utilizing little more than her voice and piano. That same year, a version of her song "Let the Mystery Be" from the Transatlantic Sessions was used as the theme to the supernatural television drama The Leftovers. Responding to the political, social, and environmental distress of the late 2010s, DeMent again turned to song to express her frustrations and, ultimately, her hope. After sessions were interrupted by the 2020 pandemic, the recordings lay dormant for two years before fellow singer/songwriter and co-producer Pieta Brown helped DeMent resurrect the project. Released in 2023, Workin' on a World was a sharply written and fiercely hopeful collection that celebrated courage, love, and compassion in the face of turmoil.
© Jason Ankeny & Timothy Monger /TiVo


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