On Saturday, Iris DeMent, one of the great voices in contemporary popular music, returns to the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, performing songs from her latest album, “Sing the Delta,” a masterpiece 16 years in the making. This is one of only three California performances that include shows in Petaluma and Berkeley. DeMent will be accompanied by Jason Wilber and David Jacques from John Prine’s band.
The Grammy Award nominee is best known for her one-of-a-kind voice that is “capable of both heartbreaking fragility and blow-your-ears-back power.” DeMent was born the youngest child of a large Pentecostal family in rural Arkansas and later moved to Southern California. She grew up listening to traditional country and gospel music, which influenced her roots-folk sound, though she was 25 years old when she wrote her first song. It would take another five years for her to release her first album, “Infamous Angel.” Since her 1992 debut, DeMent has bloomed as a songwriter, finding her niche in folk and country, putting out four albums and performing with greats such as John Prine, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard.
Haggard, who said of DeMent, “She’s the best singer I’ve ever heard,” invited her to sit in as his piano player touring with his legendary band The Strangers. He subsequently covered two of her songs, “No Time To Cry” and the gospel-tinged “The Shores of Jordan.”
Along the way, several of DeMent’s songs became cultural touchstones. “Let The Mystery Be” found its way to MTV Unplugged as a duet by David Byrne and Natalie Merchant. “Our Town” was played over the farewell scene in the series finale of “Northern Exposure.” She has also made frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.” Most recently she recorded an album of gospel songs, “Lifeline,” which included her rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which was later used in the closing credits of the Coen brothers film “True Grit.”
DeMent is releasing “Sing The Delta” on her own label, Flariella Records. She co-produced the album with Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett, and their arrangements emphasize DeMent’s voice and piano-playing first and foremost in the mix. Of the time it took between albums, DeMent says, “Some of these songs I’ve had around awhile, but I needed time to grow into them. I guess you could say I just wasn’t ready to deliver them in the way that they deserved. I’m glad I waited. It’s taught me to surrender … to trust the natural flow and order of things and not worry about it.”
It’s an instinct she’s learned to trust ever since she first sat down to write her first couple of songs at age 25 and found “Our Town” spilling out onto the page.
“It was like somebody walked right into that room and said, ‘There you have it, Iris’ — I knew then and there that I had gotten my calling,” she relates. “I had always been taught in church that God, or spirit, if you will, calls us to a life work. I got mine that day. Whether I write one song a year or 10, it doesn’t matter. It’s a ‘knowing’ that I have that hasn’t left me since that day. That’s what I check in with and as long as that’s there, the rest of it doesn’t matter. The time it takes is just the time it takes.”