An Eye for an Iris: DeMent Delivers True Blue Storytelling

When viral videos and social media darlings start to matter more than the written word, it's refreshing to see a storyteller like Iris DeMent follow a family tradition and let her straightforward songs do the talking. 

DeMent did just that on July 18 in a modest setting at Swallow Hill's Daniels Hall in Denver, sharing pastoral stories and songs with a mature audience (think more Chevrolet set than jet set) that was supportive and receptive, if not overly enthusiastic. 

Opening act Greg Trooper, a New Jersey-born musician who provided a lively eight-song set, certainly got the ball rolling with his easygoing sense of humor and toe-tappers with admittedly cringe-worthy titles like "Mary of the Scots in Queens."

DeMent, who lives in Iowa with her folk-singing husband Greg Brown and their adopted teenage daughter Dasha, served up an ample supply of musical comfort food for a loyal crowd that ate it up while listening attentively. They even laughed in the right spots at her droll slice-of-life observations presented with a deadpan delivery that was as dry as the Mile High City air.  

"I decided when I was at the grocery store getting a few apples and mangoes and such that I was gonna dye my hair before the show," DeMent said moments after putting old-timey music fans in the palms of her hands with the opening "When My Morning Comes Around" from her 1996 album The Way I Should

"The gal on the (hair-coloring) box, it looked perfect on her. So I was actually late to sound check, believe it or not, I was fretting so much about the color of my hair. I'm sure you can't tell, right. It's big in my world. I can't very well ask for the lights to go down, I guess." 

With a sigh and a forlorn look, DeMent drew laughter and a lone encouraging word shouted from the crowd: "It's beautiful." 

Comedians often rely on a rimshot to punctuate their punch lines, but on this night, DeMent didn't need a drummer or any other band member for that matter.

As an admirer from afar, it had been an unfulfilled dream of mine for many years to see DeMent perform.

Her distinctive voice and quirky charm first caught my attention as John Prine's most prominent partner (four tracks) on his 1999 duets album In Spite of Ourselves that also included Lucinda Williams, Connie Smith and Emmylou Harris.

Heady company to be sure, but only one songbird got the chance on the title track to chirp the immortal lines "He ain't got laid in a month of Sundays / I caught him once sniffin' my undies," the courage to commit only making her more lovable.

Then in 2001, alongside personal favorites such as Allison Moorer and Maria McKee, it was DeMent who sounded like an Appalachian angel on the glorious Songcatcher soundtrack.  

Somehow the years passed as 2004's Lifeline, a collection of primarily gospel standards, was her only album release during the first decade of the 21st century. An endearing, enduring presence of Americana managed to slip under the radar while experiencing a divorce, bouts of depression and recording droughts as other musicians came and went. 

Among them was DeMent's gifted stepdaughter Pieta Brown, who I saw twice before her stepmother, first in 2010 as the opener for Mark Knopfler, the former Dire Straits Guitar God who played on DeMent's The Way I Should. In 2011, she shared a bill with Carrie Rodriguez on the very same stage where DeMent would appear three years later. 

Tempted by fate (or serendipity), it left me wondering, "Why didn't I keep an eye on Iris?" and "How good would a Brown-DeMent family tour be?"

For now, though, seeing DeMent alone became one of life's simple pleasures. 

Whether she's being smart or thrifty (or both), the Arkansas-born, Southern California-bred roots artist is keeping things uncluttered these days on stage. 

She dresses comfortably, this night wearing a red dress and cowgirl boots that matched the color of her dye from a box. 

With a voice that's plaintive and truly original, no frills are needed to get the job done, especially when a list of basic accessories includes a mellow manner, strumming guitar and some spunky piano plunking.

Years after the heydays of Rounder and Warner Bros., DeMent releases albums on her own label, Flariella Records, when she darn well feels like it, and sums up her philosophy about songwriting -- and perhaps life -- in one quote at the end of the bio on her website: "The time it takes is just the time it takes."

Fortunately, DeMent's website does keep an updated listing of her limited tour dates (beginning July 30 in Portsmouth, N.H., she does play a string of five straight days). Otherwise the Denver show might have been another missed opportunity.

Let others connect artificially through Facebook or Twitter, which offer little evidence of DeMented activity since she released the critically-acclaimed Sing the Delta in 2012. 

Five songs sung in succession from that comeback album, her first collection of original material in 16 years, formed a bond in Denver more meaningful and powerful than any Instagram selfie. 

DeMent covered family life with her mother (the heartwarming "Makin' My Way Back Home," a rollicking "Mama Was Always Tellin' Her Truth"), taking time in between the two to wistfully recall the rare instance when matriarch Flora Mae, who died in August 2012 at age 93, left her youngest of 14 children at home alone -- for 15 minutes. 

Warned days in advance of that eventuality, DeMent said, "I'll never forget how that felt when I walked in the house and none of my siblings were home, my dad wasn't home and, most importantly, mama wasn't there. I didn't know what the house felt like without mama in it. ... She filled a lot of space." 

When she moved to center stage with an acoustic guitar, DeMent gave shout-outs to her husband ("This Love's Gonna Last" even though "some days together we're like a baseball breaking glass") and stepdaughter ("Faller," she pointed out, was Pieta Brown's ode to JJ Cale, who probably wasn't aware of the personal tribute).

Of course, a candid DeMent made sure to mention early in the set other memorable moments that weren't nearly as poignant: 

• A parent-teacher conference, when her daughter once revealed she put on the coffee and wakes up her parents, made DeMent feel like she "fell short" of her own mother's child-rearing prowess. 

• Her first panic attack occurred in the dead of winter in Bemidji, Minnesota, where a series of circumstances involving getting left alone in a huge room full of mannequins led her to cancel the show and feel guilty enough to go back to her hotel and at least start the song that became "The Kingdom Has Already Come." 

• And having to worry about the fragility of nature after reading a book about the Tunguska event, when an asteroid exploded in the Siberian Forest in 1908, then being reminded during a conversation with guitarist Leo Kottke that anyone today could face such cataclysm on the way to their local Walmart.

"I hadn't brought it that quite close to home," DeMent said, eliciting nervous laughter before she praised the "hearty people" of Russia for enduring everything from Stalin to the "biggest asteroid thingamajig in recorded history."

Perhaps having a daughter from Siberia heightened DeMent's interest in Russian history, and she offered details about a fascinating project she recorded at home more than a month ago with Kottke and other musician friends. 

A book loaned to her that DeMent said, "I had rudely not returned," included some of the works of Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet whose words and difficult, lonely life provided a source of inspiration to her Midwestern counterpart a century later. 

DeMent said she set 18 of those poems to music. After returning to the piano, she presented two of them to a rapt Denver audience, including the lovely "Like a White Stone," with the opening verse: 

Like a white stone deep in a draw-well lying
As hard and clear, a memory lies in me
I cannot strive nor have I heart for striving
It is such pain and yet such ecstasy

The translation fittingly provided a darker complement to more spirited material that closed out the set such as:

• The 19th century hymn "Leaning on Everlasting Arms," a Lifeline hallelujah that DeMent covered on the Coen brothers' True Grit remake. 

• "Go on Ahead and Go Home," the gospel-infused leadoff track to Sing the Delta that paints the vivid picture of a place "where the cotton grows tall / And a fragrant delta breeze shakes the cypress trees."

• And "Our Town," DeMent's signature tune from her 1992 debut album Infamous Angel.

A few voices even participated during the chorus of the "Our Town" encore, a bittersweet song many people know from the TV show Northern Exposure that deserves to serve as a companion piece to Springsteen's "My Hometown." 

No matter the origin of her songs or stories, Iris DeMent brings a weary soul, warm heart and her mama's honest-to-goodness wisdom into a realm where she's always tellin' her truth.

Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Iris DeMent at Swallow Hill's Daniels Hall on July 18, 2014.