NOTHING ABOUT Iris DeMent is predictable. She has what may be the most downhome country singing voice in American popular music today, but she really grew up in Los Angeles. Her family fled her Arkansas birthplace after her father led an unsuccessful wildcat strike at his factory job and was rendered unemployable at home.
DeMent was the youngest in a family of 14 children and grew up in the Assemblies of God church. Her personal favorite among her six albums is Lifeline, which features her sitting at the piano singing gospel hymns such as “Blessed Assurance” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Yet her 2012 album, Sing the Delta, featured a song titled “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” and an earlier song, “Let the Mystery Be” (now the theme song for the HBO series The Leftovers), professes agnosticism about the whole business of where we come from and where we are going.
Still, in a recent interview in Discussions magazine, DeMent confessed that she understands her musical work as a “calling” and said, “I’ve always thought more in my spiritual world—and my connection to whatever brought me here and whatever is going to take me out—than any notion of a career.”
The crooked path of her career certainly bears that out. In the great 1990s flowering of alternative country, DeMent popped out three albums that had critics comparing her to her idol and fellow California refugee Merle Haggard. But then came a 16-year silence, broken in the middle only by the aforementioned gospel record.
That silence ended with Sing the Delta, which was a bit of a surprise itself. After decades of living in the Midwest, marrying fellow singer-songwriter Greg Brown and adopting a child with him, DeMent looped back and produced a set of songs steeped in obsession with her Arkansas roots. Now, after only three years, comes another album and another surprise. The Trackless Woods finds DeMent singing poems by the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, who lived through the Stalinist persecutions.