Her bio states that Iris DeMent started singing when she was three years old, but I bet she started earlier than that. I bet she sang the day, the minute she was born. And I bet she sang a gospel song. In the liner notes for her 2004 CD Lifeline, DeMent writes about gospel music and what it has meant to her in her life

When I was growing up and things would get too much for my mother, she would run, sometimes in tears, to the upright piano crammed between her and dad’s bed and the wall and pound out some old church song.

She always looked up to the sky while she was singing, like somebody was there and she was talking right to them. I wouldn’t say I knew what was going on or that any of us kids did. We just knew when mom went to the piano, things were getting serious and you’d better get quiet.

When she finished singing, there was always a calmness about her. I could feel it spilling over on to me. It was a good feeling of knowing everything was going to be okay.

Born in Arkansas and raised in California, DeMent was the youngest of fourteen children in a Christian family where music soothed, teased, thrilled, and inspired. At twenty-five, she started writing songs herself and moved to Nashville, where, in 1992, she released her startlingly eloquent debut album, Infamous Angel. Country music radio was never a home to DeMent, but her country-folk songs found their way to thousands of American roots-thirsty listeners across the country and abroad by the noblest means: word of mouth.

In the records she’s released since, DeMent has grown and changed as an artist, of course. Lifeline is a return to the songs she grew up with: thirteen ancient (or at least ancient-sounding) deeply Christian songs produced with frank reverence for the good churchgoing people who wrote them so long ago. These are songs that poured out of moments of joy, questioning, and hope, and DeMent honors this with a spare, acoustic treatment that lets the beautiful words ride on her wide-open voice.

Gospel music has always presented something of a quandary to me. Through its sheer populist power, it’s made the leap from church picnic to rock album and beyond. It’s fun. It’s undeniable. It’s uplifting. But I’ve always felt a little like I should pay some cosmic rental fee for singing it, since I don’t particularly abide by many of its literal messages. If you regard it purely metaphorically, however — and I’m always happy to do so — it fits quite nicely with pretty much any faith you can name. Faith of course is the operative word. These are songs that bring comfort to those who sing them, that bring the promise of a better day. Iris DeMent was made to sing them.

Iris DeMent returns to the Ark on Saturday, May 12.

[Review published May 2007]