Years ago I had the pleasure of seeing DeMent at the long-gone Side Door in St. Louis. The lines for the show stretched from the back club and out the door. A country-folk singer, with just a guitar and a piano to back her, rarely elicits such devotion. I had brought roses with me, I don't really know why, as I'm not the rose-giving type, but it was a special evening, my first opportunity to see her. During a break I leaned towards the stage and handed her the flowers, which I had, for some reason, unwrapped from their tissue. "Ouch!" she said, grabbing a thorn. She thanked me and went on singing.
Wall Street Journal writer Barry Mazor calls "Sing the Delta" a major event. He's right, but then in some ways, every time Iris DeMent sings is a major event. Her voice can crack open the hardest of hearts, her stories cut through all convention and her presence, above all, simply commands attention. She's an artist with a deeply personal musical gift who somehow still believes it's worth sharing. If that isn't major, nothing is.
From the opening old-time churchly piano chords of "Go on Ahead and Go Home" and the rich, blossoming twang of the voice, it's clear that DeMent, for all her absence from touring and recording and songwriting, has lost none of her country soul, none of what made her a major artist to begin with. Her gifts are as stunning as ever. Second track "Before the Colors Fade" is a languorous, ruminative love song, so simple and gentle, floating on piano and steel guitar, and the quiver of DeMent's voice. But third song "The Kingdom Has Already Come" and the closing seven-minute epic "Out of the Fire" are like nothing she's ever written or sung before. They're revelations, like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," visions that transcend time and earthly strife.
Gospel themes and sounds are everywhere, but always filtered through DeMent's temperament -- willful and independent but connected to "her people" and her sense of the land. She draws strength from the gospel stories and sounds, as she clearly does from country and blues. The poignant and sometimes grand arrangements -- the horns on "Livin' on the Inside" for instance -- have fathomless roots and yet never put on musty airs. And there's nothing backward-looking or fatalistic about the title track "Sing the Delta." Like the whole album, it's a song of praise, of being in love with what you see, smell, taste, touch and hear, in love with the people you know and the time you have in the only kingdom you'll ever be able to share with another.
Iris DeMent doesn't just sing and write with grace. She sings through it. And in doing so she invites us to share in something rare and real and mysterious. That's her gift, and ours.
"Sing the Delta" will be released on October 2, 2012 by Flariella Records.