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Heart Songs

I remember overhearing a religious discussion once between (my father) and some other men from the church. The thrust of it was "Who's goin' to heaven and who's not?" and there basically wasn't much to discuss because they already knew. But they went on to busy themselves quoting Scriptures to back their conclusions. As they all began to fold their arms and close their Bibles, my dad opened his and read this verse: "Man looks on the outside, but God looks on the heart." There was not much said after that.

-- Iris DeMent

I remember talking to Iris DeMent for the very first time, two years ago. She had just released her third album, The Way I Should (Warner Bros.), and I had just begun writing about music. I didn't know where to begin. For all the comparisons drawn between DeMent and traditional country singers like Loretta Lynn or Hazel Dickens, I'd never heard anyone sing with such wild soulfulness, from someplace inside so deep and private the sound of her voice scarcely seemed possible at all. And her songs astonished me: their reverence for life and language, their melodies so sweet and, in her words, "so hard to come by." I asked her about "When My Mornin' Comes Around," the opening track on her then-new (and still most recent) album. She told me: "That song just came from a lot of pain. I was in a really bad place when I wrote it, one of those places where I thought dying would be better. I knew I needed to imagine something else, a really great place, where things are good."

I don't know where to begin again. DeMent's music is such a paradox, bold for the emotions she shares and as intricate and fragile as the first or last breath of life. The critic's interpretation would only kill her songs. Her art lies in that vulnerability, in her absolute willingness to look on her own heart and sing it. Her songs are not confessions, because she rarely asks for mercy or forgiveness, but they are testaments of the heart. "I woke up this morning without you/Don't ask me how but I got through," she sings in "Calling for You," and her song calls for strength.

Her career began about a decade ago, when John Prine first heard her songs and encouraged her to quit work at the Kmart in Gladstone, Mo., and record Infamous Angel, released in 1992 by Rounder Records. Filled with faith in music, family and home, DeMent already possessed a lyrical maturity that, as she sings on the opening song, "lets the mystery be." Through her mother, who sang and dreamed of performing on the Grand Ole Opry, Iris soaked in the old songs and inherited a voice as old as country music itself.

In 1994, she released My Life (Warner Bros.), a 10-song spiritual autobiography that gave the themes of her previous record short-story-like details and unprotected honesty. It is her best record, without parallel in this pathologically ironic decade. "My father died a year ago today," she sings in what will unfold as a heartbreaking personal sequel to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." "Roosters started crowin' when they carried Dad away/There beside my mother in the living room I stood/With my brothers and my sisters, knowing Dad was gone for good."

"I'm older now," she concludes, "and I've got no time to cry."
Now, more than two years since releasing the politically charged The Way I Should, two years since she made her first tour with a full band, DeMent is home in Gladstone, alone with her hopes for songs. "I'm kinda in the middle of trying to write songs for another record that I hope will happen some day," she tells me. "I'm waiting to see what happens. I'm just trying to write." If DeMent sounds tentative, it's not because she doubts her work: "I don't talk about my new songs until they're done. I've got a lot of pieces."

When DeMent comes to St. Louis this week, she will come alone, and it's unlikely she will risk any of those pieces. "Usually I live with them for a good little while, and I've at least sang 'em once to live human beings before I record them or play them live," she says. "I work them out at home, and then I just take 'em out and play 'em for people. I don't play 'em to see if they will pass inspection. Pretty much, if I stand up in front of a bunch of people and sing a song, I have confidence in the song. I feel like I better believe in it myself and pull other people along. Whether they respond to them or not, I usually stick to what I feel, unless I think it's a funny song and nobody laughs. I'll bury those pretty quick."

Do not mistake her, do not mistake me. This Iris is no delicate flower: Her vulnerability is only a measure of how strong her convictions really are. The power of her music lies not in entertaining and not even in moving an audience. Her gift is to console deeply and to tell deeply the truth, whether private or public. "We kill for oil and throw a party when we win," she sings in "Wasteland of the Free." DeMent's honesty is an unsettling gift.

"It doesn't get any easier," she says of the stage. "I just have to throw myself out there and try to survive the experience. I know that may sound silly, as many songs as I've written and as often as I've played in front of people. But you always feel completely vulnerable. I don't know anybody who doesn't. You just have to do it. But it's worth it. When you write something, and people hear it, and they get something out of it, and they appreciate it, they express that. There's no better feeling.

"You just hope that it's equal to all the terror you go through."

DeMent sings at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room on Friday, Feb. 12.

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