Iris DeMent: Learning How Not To Pray

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Iris DeMent at the Buskirk-Chumley in Bloomington on Friday night…  A great show.  I’d seen her at the Bluebird a number of years ago, and I remember guessing that she was depressed; she didn’t seem all that happy about performing that time, in any case.  (And later I did read references to some kind of extended depression, or something, that she suffered.)  She seemed much happier about being on stage this time, actually having fun, joking around and teasing the audience quite a bit (she made fun of us for all stopping clapping in perfect simultaneity).  She alternated between guitar and gospelly grand piano.  As one-time Moonraking contributor JF (who went to the show with me) commented, the difference between her singing and speaking voice is surprising and almost bizarre.  Her singing voice (still) has a girlish purity and a choked quaver that reminds me a bit of a female Jimmie Dale Gilmore; but when she speaks, she turns into this earthy, funny, kind of gravel-voiced lady from Paragould, Arkansas.  I liked the lines from one song, something like, “Mama was always tellin’ her truth, now it’s my time” — e.g. “now I’m becoming an old lady [not really– she is about 52] who is going to say whatever I like and not worry too much about it.”

A lot of her songs reflect on the experience of someone raised in a fundamentalist faith who has lost that belief. She’s said about her upbringing,

“It was full gospel-fundamentalist, I guess you’d call it. There was hell and there was heaven, and the in-between was just kind of preparation to get to the better place. [In] everyday life, your primary focus was staying out of the bottom side of the afterlife. I have zero regrets about having been brought up that way — in fact, I can’t even put into words how grateful I am for it. There were some useless things and some, I suppose, somewhat damaging things that I got from it. But … there was a sincerity in there, as well, and a really good message that came through about what’s going on underneath the waters of life. My parents just gave me a gift I can’t even put a figure on.”

In “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” about the death of her younger brother (I have no idea if this really happened or not*): “That was the night I learned how not to pray/ ’cause God does what God wants to anyway/ And I never did tell my mother, I kept it from my sisters and all my brothers/ That was the night I learned how not to pray.”  Or one of her best-known songs, “Let the Mystery Be:” “Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever, and some say you’re gonna come back./ Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour if in sinful ways you lack./ Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas./ I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

From the same interview:

“My mom, who sang straight up until the day she died, told me one day: ‘You know, Iris, singing is praying and praying is singing. There ain’t no difference.’ So I think, even though I’ve left the church and moved away from a lot of the things that didn’t do me any good, I continued to pray — and that is singing for me. That’s as close as I get to praying.”

Infamous Angel, My Life, and The Way I Should (the latter the one that pissed off Nashville) are still probably my favorites, but 2012’s Singing the Delta, her first album in years, is also great.  Merle Haggard, who became a kind of mentor, apparently called her the greatest singer he’d ever heard. It was a treat to see her live again.  (The band was really good, too, including local fave Jason Wilber, who is also in John Prine’s band.)

Here’s an old video of her singing “Let the Mystery Be”:

*Here’s a recent interview with Greg Kot in which DeMent explains that the brother’s death comes from a story told to her by a friend; she also discusses her period of depression.

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5 Responses

  1. Ivan, I really enjoyed reading this piece about Iris DeMent..maybe
    because I’m familiar with her music! Thanks, Liz

  2. Ivan, I heard her perform in Rutland a few years back, on a cold winter’s night, with a very small audience. During that show, much of her banter revolved around her reading a rash of self-help books … and somehow the performance and going on tour was an outcome of trying to overcome a fear she had of performing. I love her songs. Julia

  3. … and I love that video!

  4. Thanks for the comments, Julia and Liz! She actually mentioned the self-help books at this show too (I forget about which song…)

  5. Practical writing . I was enlightened by the insight – Does someone know where my business can access a blank a form form to use ?

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