Perhaps the unlikeliest vote-getter in this year's Country Music Critics' Poll was Iris DeMent, a singer-songwriter who hadn't released an album of original songs in 16 years and no album of any kind in eight. She has never had a single nor an album on the country charts, despite being described by Merle Haggard as "the best singer I've ever heard," and despite releasing two albums on Warner Bros. in the mid-'90s.
When DeMent finally released Sing the Delta, an album of new songs, in 2012, it was issued not by Warner Bros. but rather by her own tiny Flariella label. Enough critics heard it, however, to vote the record 2012's No. 3 album and DeMent herself the No. 2 singer, the No. 3 songwriter and the No. 6 artist of the year. Though it was never played by mainstream country radio, there was no disputing the album's country character. It featured the twangiest vocals of any record to garner multiple votes in the poll, and DeMent's singing clearly echoed the sound of her own favorite singer.
"Tammy Wynette was just the greatest country singer there ever was," DeMent tells the Scene via phone from her home in Iowa City. "There was a quality to her voice on songs like 'Apartment No. 9' like there was no filter between you and her rawest emotions. She had an amazing range; she could go from low note to high note like there wasn't anything in between. She could sing very soft, and then have the next note come through like a bus. I just felt a lot coming off her."
In recent concerts, DeMent has been dedicating her new song "Makin' My Way Back Home" to Wynette, and there is a certain resemblance melodically between that song and "Apartment No. 9." If anything, the new song sounds even more traditional than Wynette's, for DeMent's churchy piano playing and testifying recall a style of country music that Hank Williams Sr. rendered old-fashioned with his brisker, bolder form of honky-tonk.
And yet the lyrics that DeMent has written for that music are far more ironic and iconoclastic than anything you might have heard on country radio in any era. DeMent voices her doubts about God, debates the pluses and minuses of burying oneself in books, compares her father's love to Aretha Franklin's singing, looks death in the eye and makes her peace with growing old. And it's the tension between these challenging words and those ancient sounds that makes Sing the Delta such a singular recording.
"I'm not writing for my own entertainment," DeMent says. "I'm writing and singing as part of a calling. I feel like I have a job to do, and I invite the spirits of the dead into my room; I invite my history, the people who got me here. When I go to work, I actually call to mind other people I'm close to. I sort of pray."
Nonetheless, one of the most striking songs on the new album is "The Night I Learned How Not To Pray." It's the story of a child who prays to God to save a little brother who has tumbled down the stairs, and then abandons prayer when the pleas go unanswered. The tale is not autobiographical — DeMent heard it from a good friend — but it's the latest in a series of songs where DeMent ponders the ultimate questions. She once sang that she would "Let the Mystery Be," but it seems she can't stop herself from scratching at life's mystery as if it were an itchy scab.
" 'The Night I Learned How Not To Pray,' give or take a few details, is the story of my friend," DeMent reveals. "He told me he had become an atheist at the age of 10. When I asked him why, he told me that story. For some reason, a bell goes off, and you have to write it down. I've been playing with that song for 10 years. I thought, "Who wants to hear a song about an atheist? How does that touch your heart?' But when I came up with that title line, it all made sense. I don't know why, it just did.
"You have to have an instinct for when it happens," she continues. "Nobody else can tell you when it works; you've got to trust it for yourself and see it through. I live with an amazingly talented songwriter, but I would never think of asking him if something works or not. It doesn't matter that it's not my story. If I can find the emotional connection, that's all I need. Not as many of my songs are autobiographical as people think, but I can feel them. It's amazing to me, for example, how many people who don't come from a small town can relate to my song 'Our Town.' "
The songwriter to whom she's referring is the folk-music legend Greg Brown. But she insists she has never tried to write songs with him or his young songwriter daughter Pieta Brown, nor did she expect them to help her through her long spell of writer's block. The spell was finally broken when DeMent's beloved mother died in August 2011. DeMent suddenly found herself with the time and material to create a bunch of new songs. Some of those songs looked backward to the Arkansas Delta where she was born the youngest of 14 children in a Pentecostal household. Other songs examine the moments leading up to death and the time afterward. DeMent may no longer be satisfied with religion's pat answers, but she's still fascinated by religion's basic questions.
"I don't know what's going to happen, and who does?" DeMent says. "But there's something big going on that we can't see. Most of us, religious or not, have that sense, and we can't help thinking about it. I'm feeling for that thing all the time, trying to find a name for it or put a melody around it. It's too great a question to leave it alone. And there's something about the music that falls into that realm, because when I sing, I feel transported. When I hear a beautiful song, something happens that I can't explain. Sometimes these songs come to me and move me and move other people, and I don't know why that is."
The Results of the 13th Annual Country Music Critics' Poll
Selected factoids from the 2012 Country Music Critics' Poll
From Eric Church to Jamey Johnson, 2012 found country music in a holding pattern and searching for role models