Show People: No 14 with a bullet: Iris Dement

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The Independent Culture
ONCE in a while a voice comes along that can make you put down your mug of tea and drink freely from the sugar bowl. Iris DeMent's is one of those voices. There's a sob in it, a roll of the tongue, a fluty quality that speaks of dust and dryness and the heartbroken slam of porch doors. There is also, every now and then, the hint of a yodel.

In 1993, DeMent became an overnight sensation at the age of 32. Her debut album, Infamous Angel, had come out on the US folk label Rounders Records towards the end of the previous year. Amid a flurry of superlatives from 'new roots' peers such as John Prine and Nanci Griffith, the LP was picked up by the mighty Warner Brothers. It's not only DeMent's voice that stands out, but the simplicity and directness of her songwriting. Comparisons with Hank Williams and Johnny Cash are too readily bandied about, but the best of this woman's work merits them.

'It's funny,' Iris DeMent observes. 'People call me country, but country doesn't call me country.' This is hardly surprising, as DeMent has little in common with Garth Brooks or Trisha Yearwood. The raw emotions of her songs and unrepentant idiosyncrasy of her delivery are far from the bland stuff of new-country careerism.

Pressure to smooth off the rough edges came early, but she resisted it. 'Some of the record companies that came to see me when I was starting out in Nashville (she now lives in Kansas City) said they'd sign me if I would sing other people's songs and change my appearance a bit,' she remembers. 'If I'd been a bit younger I might have been willing to do that, but I just figured it had taken me so long to get started that there was no point in changing.'

Iris DeMent had always wanted to write songs, but only found the confidence to do it in her mid-twenties, while training to be a social worker. From the first she was surprised at how countrified she sounded. 'I didn't grow up on a farm, though a lot of people seem to want to think I did. It was almost as though I was reaching back into my parents' lives . . . '

Iris is the youngest of 14 children. Her strict Pentecostal parents moved out to California in 1964, just when the Beatles happened. 'I always felt - I think we all did - that we were the weird family,' says Iris. 'And it wasn't just the religion. My dad grew up in a very isolated part of Arkansas; he lived there till he was 50 years old. It was very rugged and he and his family had their own way of doing things; and when we moved out to California, he didn't change.'

In her teens, Iris started to question some of the certainties with which she had been raised, but she never broke with her family. It is the combination of ambivalence and respect that makes her embrace of country and, on her new record, gospel traditions, so truly compelling.

This second album, forthrightly entitled My Life, is a worthy successor to her superb debut. There are several songs with a smile in them, but the overall feel is a lot more sombre than that of its jolly predecessor. It turns out that its making was overshadowed by the death of Iris's father.' I just didn't seem to have anything humorous to say this time. I guess to do things that are truly light-hearted, you have to have a light heart.'

In the seven minutes of mourning that are 'No Time to Cry', and the classic hard-times anthem 'Easy's Getting Harder Every Day' ('Had a garden but my flowers died']), My Life boasts two of the most magnificently sad songs ever committed to tape. Joy Division are a walk in the park compared to this. 'I never thought of myself as having any kind of sense of humour anyway,' Iris says drily, 'it just came out of the blue. So maybe it'll come back again.'

Does she find it hard to write such songs? 'Usually when a song happens it comes effortlessly, but it takes a lot of effort to get to the place where that can happen. I'm usually at home and I'm always by myself. I can't write when my husband (Elmer, a former fireman) is even in the house. So a lot of times he'll just make out like he's got to run errands and I'll find he's been sitting in the bookstore all day wondering when he can come home.'

Elmer now travels with her on the road. 'It's a good arrangement,' she says, 'because it means we can stay married.' She still doesn't think of herself as a performer, but she wouldn't want anyone else to sing her songs. 'I've always felt very close to my songs,' she says. 'If someone's going to mess them up, I want to be the one to do it.'

'My Life': Warner, 11 April, CD/tape. Concerts: Cambridge Theatre, WC2 (071-494 5040), 8 May; Renfrew Ferry, Glasgow (041-552 0767), 19 May.