Iris DeMent is from Arkansas, and that means she and her 13 siblings grew up singing in a classic Bible-belt Pentecostal church. It means she has an affinity for Charles Portis, the famed novelist who also hails from that state. So it makes sense that her haunting version of the classic hymn "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" is featured in the final seconds of the Coen Brothers' 2010 adaptation of True Grit
, Portis' most famous story.
On the screen, as a one-armed woman stands over the grave of a U.S. Marshal who saved her life years ago, DeMent's stark music rolls out, arresting and captivating as it tells the Western story of survival. The song reflects the expansive majesty of it all, and the combination of film and music sticks to the soul.
Watching the movie for the first time in a tiny theater in Iowa, DeMent says the moment the song came on, her own teenager stood up and announced, "That's my mother; that's Iris DeMent." She says she wanted to curl up under the seats and die of embarrassment. But also, the mom part of her was overjoyed her daughter was proud enough to do something so brash. These feelings turned to laughter though when a theatergoer said in disbelief: "Iris DeMent would never be here."
But it's true, DeMent now makes her home in Iowa City. She's there today after just getting back from a trip to Little Rock, where she helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of True Grit
at a literary festival. She's waiting for her granddaughter to come by soon for a visit. She says that Iowa makes her happy. Soon, the singer-songwriter will be back out on the road playing music for people night after night. The tour includes a stop at the Music Box Supper Club on Sunday, May 6.
While the 57-year-old left the church decades ago, in a way it seems it hasn't left her. DeMent comes to music through quite a spiritual lens.
"When I sit at the piano, I do my best to let something ancient and spirit-filled come through me and move around the music," she via phone when asked about performing. "It’s the point of music and church, and we do that to be uplifted. So I’ll show up to my own concert like everybody else and hope that I can be a part of that moment."
She admits that being on stage playing the piano and letting the music pour out feels like the most natural thing possible. Yet, this is a woman who describes herself as shy. She says she doesn't like to listen to her old albums or even consider herself an artist, which is hard to comprehend as she's made country-tinged music professionally for decades, has recorded on major labels and has two Grammy nominations. Last year, after being given the Americana Trailblazer Award, she says she found herself incredibly uncomfortable.
"I was really conflicted about that," she says. "The older I get, I’m not at ease with that. I felt honored. It was kind and respectful and all, but I don’t know if I’ll participate in something like that again. It doesn’t suit my nature. Sure, anytime your peers recognize you it feels good, but that’s the extent of it. I’m uneasy; there are so many people whom I admire who are the real trailblazers."
To stand out in a sea of singer-songwriter wannabes and to be a trailblazer in the genre, a person's vocals must sound wholly organic. In DeMent's tone, there's screeching and wildness but also a purity. She says she always tried to emulate her mother's voice and also the preacher's wife from her hometown church. These vocals went straight to her heart.
"You know when you’re moved and when you’re not moved from an early age," she says. "In developing my voice. I was always checking for what sound moved me. If it did, I did it without thinking. From childhood until now, I'm changing. I sound different than I did 10 years ago. I always think, 'What do I need inside of me?' That changes all the time. Anyone who does that, they’ll find their voice."
Currently though, the songs she's working on — she hasn't released a solo work since 2015's The Trackless Woods
, the third album on her own label — don't have any words yet. And they may not ever. All she has are instrumental lines she can't stop playing.
"I keep running in the house to play," she says. "If I could just think of something to say. Melodically, I feel very alive. I’ve been thinking of letting them be melodies. Maybe they can say more that way. I’m less interested in stories these days; I think I’m more affected by the music itself."
She says that she'll keep doing this as long as she can. In making music, she is free.
"This feels like something I need, and the people out there by and large seem to need," DeMent explains. "It’s on odd situation for me. I don’t have the need-to—be-seen thing. Or maybe I do, and I don’t know. As long as I’m ministering to people, I’ll show up. I’ve never really thought of what I do as a career, but this can feed people. I don’t really understand why, but it does."
Iris DeMent, Sam Baker. 7:30 p.m. Sunday May 6. Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave. 216-242-1250. Tickets: $35 ADV, $40 DOS, musicboxcle.com