Without her nomadic life’s timeline as accompaniment — the youngest of 14 kids, catapulted from Northeast Arkansas to coastal California at the age of 3 — you might hear Iris Dement’s inimitable voice and assume she never left the American South. There’s something about the way she finds multiple colors in a single vowel, maybe, or the way her melodies are couched in a watery lilt, that seems inextricably tied to a backdrop of humidity, sorghum molasses and the Gospel according to Luke, King James Version. Whatever bits of Arkansas she carried with her all these years, though, have turned up strangely and abundantly on “The Trackless Woods,” Dement’s 2015 album inspired by verse from Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.
I caught up with Dement ahead of her upcoming performance
on Sunday, March 3, at UA Pulaski Technical College’s Center for the Humanities and Arts (CHARTS), [postponed to April 7] where all proceeds benefit Compassion Works for All, a prison outreach organization that teaches meditation, yoga and conflict resolution to incarcerated Arkansans. Singer-songwriter Claire Holley and guitarist Ben Harris open the show.
You were born in Paragould, but your family moved to California when you were very young. Despite that, it seems to me that Southern musical traditions have remained ever present in your work. Why is that, do you think? What kept you connected to country and gospel and folk as you grew up? Was it something familial? Something in the musical climate at that time?
Gospel and country were the first types of music I heard, and although I was exposed to, and appreciated, other genres, those two were ever present. I got it around the house all week listening to my mom, family singing and old country records. Then I got it at church three or four times a week by way of a largely Southern congregation of people who had migrated west like my family had. Folk music was on the radio and on records my older siblings brought home. So, those forms of music became like a first language for me. It’s where I feel most comfortable, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to create anything until you’ve found a place to work from that feels like yours.
You’ve really made no secret of the fact that although music itself is something you’re very naturally and deeply connected to, performing — and being in the spotlight — hasn’t always been. Has that changed over the years? And if so, what happened to make you feel differently?
What’s changed is that I’ve begun to wonder if I was ever, by nature, all that shy or afraid of the spotlight. My family was very patriarchal. As was the white evangelical church I grew up in. I think a lot of my discomfort with being on stage and stepping out as a writer had to do with old, and largely Biblical, messages I’d carried around with me about how females are supposed to behave in the world. Not drawing a lot of attention to yourself was rated pretty high. It’s taken a few decades, but I’m just about over that. Lies take up a lot of room. The fewer of them I carry around the more room I have for the music.
To me, there’s a beauty and maybe a little bit of a paradox to the idea that the spotlight is not necessarily your favorite place. I mean, your voice is not one that blends into the shadows; it’s bold and clear and declamatory. And sometimes it takes a while for people to find their voice and their style. Did you ever experiment vocally at all with different sounds, or have you always had a sense that this voice — the one we know you for — was your own?
Yeah. Believe me, I’ve been aware of that paradox. It just doesn’t trouble me like it used to. As far as style, I’ve tried all kinds of things over the years. Anyone I’ve ever heard and loved, I’ve studied and brought a part of them into what I do. And, I’m still doing that. It’s called learning and growing. I hope to live long enough that the me I started out with won’t even recognize the me that makes it to the finish line.
You’ve spoken about the ways in which your late mother’s dream of becoming a singer has sort of intertwined with your own career, something you delved into with “Mama’s Opry,” and in an interview with NPR, in which you talk about how you finally found a key you could agree on for “Higher Ground.” Do you think about her when you sing certain songs?
I think about her all the time. Even when I’m not. That’s how powerful her influence on me has been. She’s why I’m a singer. She’s why I sing in the style that I do. She’s why I step out even when I’m afraid. She was always finding small ways to resist the sometimes stifling and repressive world she was born into, and music was her outlet. I saw that in her before I was even school age. I knew it was the music and I knew she was free there. And when I sang with her I got to be free, too. She put on wings and left the room, and I got to go with her. And so, yeah, she’s with me every time I step on a stage. And I always try to sing in a way that will help my audience to have the same experience that she gave me. People need that. I wish I could do it better and more consistently than I do. But I try and I know it’s something worth striving for.
You’re a mother now, too, and I wonder if (as odd as it is to ask someone this in 2018!) you could talk about this strange, maybe serendipitous connection you’ve developed with Russia — both through your having adopted a Russian-born child with your husband, Greg Brown, and through this book of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry you discovered and turned into “The Trackless Woods.”
Our daughter spent her first six years in Russia and much of who she is, is still rooted in elements of her birth country and culture. So, there’s that. Then there just seems to be something in my nature or life experience that draws me to Russian literature. When I discovered the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, time stood still. I knew after reading the first poem a meeting had occurred, and some kind of work would come of it. That “work” turned out to be “The Trackless Woods.” Like just about any other recording I’ve made, I can listen back and imagine what I could have done better, but the spirit is strong in that record and the love for those poems and Anna’s will, courage and unique artistry comes through. When we were working on the record, Richard Bennett, my friend and producer, would often say: “We might be able to do it better, but will it be as good?” It’s so easy to fall into that trap of perfecting the life right out of something. Music, raising a child … just about anything. It’s a fine line.
Get tickets to see Iris Dement Sunday, March 3, at charts.uaptc.edu.