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Folk veteran Iris DeMent shows us the 'World' she's been workin' on

Iris DeMent.
Dasha Brown
Courtesy of the artist
Iris DeMent.

"I really believe that I have been given an ability to deliver my songs," says the folk and country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. "Not everybody's going to get them, but there's people that get them – and they need them." For over 30 years Dement has been one of the most distinctive and spiritually searching voices in roots music, work that has netted her a couple of Grammy nominations, though never quite making her a household name. Her newest album, Workin' on a World, is out today.

DeMent, born in Arkansas and the youngest of 14 kids, says she mostly grew up in the church, where she learned to ask a lot of questions about their faith by watching her mom – a questioning nature that shows up in her songs all the way back to her 1992 debut, Infamous Angel.

"Everybody is wondering what, and where they all came from / everybody is worried about where they're all gonna go when the whole thing's done," she sings on "Let the Mystery Be," "but no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me / I think I'll just let the mystery be."

DeMent is as authentic as they come, says country music historian and Hall-of-Famer Marty Stuart. "You can listen to most artists and tell who inspired them or where they tipped off from," he says. "There are very few artists that are so original that that is almost nonexistent. What I hear, when I hear Iris, is just a total original."

Stuart produced a song that's been an introduction for many to DeMent's work, a quirky duet from the late '90s that she sang with her longtime collaborator, the late, legendary John Prine. DeMent remembers when Prine faxed her the lyrics to the now-famed song, "In Spite of Ourselves."

"I saw the words and ... I came out of the Pentecostal church and I was like, 'I can't do this.' I mean, like, my heart started racing. I can't do this."

Here's what Iris wound up singing:

"He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays, I caught him once and he was sniffin' my undies / He ain't too sharp but he gets things done / drinks his beer like it's oxygen / He's my baby and I'm his honey / I'm never gonna let him go..."

DeMent says, with a smile, that – not atypical for a clutch of Prine lyrics – "of course, everybody loved it."

Prine died after contracting COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, joining a growing group of figures in DeMent's life that are no longer physically here but who still show up in the music.

"John was so present when he was here. Like a few other people I know ... my mom [is] in that category ... they were so here," DeMent says. "I don't want to be all spooky about it, but I feel like I carry him and that's just a wonderful feeling."

You can hear those presences guiding her within the songs of Workin' on a World, all written at home, in Iowa City – the title track, which begins the record, was penned right after the 2016 election.

"I got so down in trouble, I nearly lost my head / I started waking every morning filled with sadness, fear and dread," she sings. "I sing that song and I get fortified," DeMent says. "I feel like a part of this human family that's been here a really long time and some number of us is going on, and I've got work to do."

Fellow songwriter Ana Egge was excited when DeMent showed her these new songs last year. She says they speak to the influence DeMent has on musicians like her.

"I remember one time, she said, 'Ana, do you think anybody ever asked Johnny Cash who Johnny Cash should be?' " Egge says. "She said, 'I don't think so.' She said 'Be who you are, figure that out, and keep figuring that out.' "

DeMent says that, even at 62, she keeps figuring it out.

"For some weird reason, the kind of culture we live in makes it even more difficult to remember what we know," Dement says. "I think I write in a way that's what I'm trying to do for myself, and I use them for myself in that same way and then I send them (my songs) out into the world."

Copyright 2023 Iowa Public Radio

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.