For Iris DeMent, Music Is The Calling That Forces Her Into The Spotlight
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Since so many of us are staying home now, looking for things to see or listen to to lift our spirits or deepen our sense of connection in this period of isolation, we're going to occasionally bring out something from our archive that seems right for the moment.
Today we're going to listen to the interview and performance Terry recorded with songwriter, pianist and singer Iris DeMent, whose music was deeply influenced by the delta and the Pentecostal Church. If you don't recognize her name, maybe you know her song "Let The Mystery Be," which was used as the theme song on the HBO series "The Leftovers." Her version of the hymn "Leaning On His Everlasting Arms" (ph) was used at the end of the Coen brothers movie "True Grit."
DeMent was born in Arkansas on the delta, the youngest of 14 children. Her family moved to California when she was 3. They belonged to the Pentecostal church, where they all sang. Dement is no longer affiliated with the church. She now lives in Ames, Iowa, where she tells us she's sheltering in place and sewing a lot of masks and thinking about her mother, who was born during the 1918 influenza pandemic and who taught her how to sew.
When Terry spoke with her in 2015, Iris DeMent was seated at a piano at an Iowa Public Radio studio. She started with a recording from her album "The Trackless Woods" on which DeMent has set to music the poems of the late Russian writer Anna Akhmatova, who Stalin named an enemy of the state. This poem is about staying in Russia and fighting for what she believed. It's called "Not With Deserters."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOT WITH DESERTERS")
IRIS DEMENT: (Singing) Not with deserters from the battle, that tears my land do I belong. To their coarse praise I do not listen. They shall not have from me one song. Poor exile, you are like a prisoner to me or one upon a bed of sickness. Dark your road, oh, wanderer, of wormwood smacks your alien bread.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Iris Dement, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've said that these poems by Anna Akhmatova spoke to you because you adopted your daughter Dasha from Siberia when she was 6, and you wanted to connect with the culture that she's from. How old was she when you started this project?
DEMENT: Dasha would have been maybe about 12 years old. I - yeah, the poems, I first started setting them about four years ago. And, you know, I was playing these song poems around the house while she was running around and playing and half the time, you know, with her headphones on, listening to pop music. And I didn't try to pull her along into that. The extent to which she absorbed that is her story to tell and yet to be seen in the future.
GROSS: Akhmatova was accused under Stalin of being an enemy of the state. Her son was imprisoned because he was her son. She lost friends who were executed. But she didn't want to flee. She wanted to stay and fight for her country and be with her country, and she thought that her poems could bring something of value to the people in Russia. Do you have that kind of faith in your own art?
DEMENT: Well, I've not had to endure the test of it to even the slightest degree that she did. But I would have to say that, yes, I do. It sounds maybe a little arrogant. I don't know. But yes, I do. I am extremely shy and never wanted to be on a stage, but the music propelled me there. When the songs started coming to me, I felt I didn't have the option, you know, to hide and avoid my most - least desirable spot in life, which is in the spotlight. So I guess that would answer your question kind of, wouldn't it? Yes, I do.
GROSS: As we've talked about places so important to you in this project for Anna Akhmatova but also in your own songs, a couple of years ago you released an album called "Sing The Delta." And the music is very inspired by the delta, where you were born and were raised till the age of 3. And then your family moved to California. You were born in Arkansas. Tell us a little bit about the music you were first exposed to.
DEMENT: Well, the music - I have a very large family. I was actually the last of 14 children. And when I was very young, my parents sold the farm and moved into town, and my dad took a factory job. And the way we wound up in California is my dad had staged a wildcat strike at the Emerson Electric plant with some other guys. And after a year of standing on the picket line, they didn't get the union. So literally, it was a last-minute thing. My dad packed up and hitched a ride out to California. And then later, my brother moved my mom and the last 10 kids out to California in the station wagon.
But the music that I heard - my mom sang pretty much nonstop. Anything she was doing, she was singing. And often we'd call it banging on the piano because the only times I remember my mom playing the piano was when things had just gotten pretty tense and awful, and she didn't feel like she could bear it anymore. She would go over there, and she'd take her singing over to the piano and kind of beat out her frustrations, which was quite a thing to witness as a child, I must say.
But - so I heard that southern gospel sound. You know, the first nonreligious singing - you know, secular, I guess they call it - singing that I heard was these country singers who would put out a country record. You know, that's how I was first introduced to Johnny Cash, and that's how I got to hear, you know, Loretta Lynn and different ones. So what I heard was gospel church music. And it was by real people, you know, people that I knew and whose lives overlapped with mine - until I was about 5 years old, so...
GROSS: So since you are seated at a piano at a studio at Iowa Public Radio, can I ask you to sing a song that you heard in church when you were young that stayed with you and that inspired you musically?
DEMENT: Yeah. There's a long list of them. And I, actually, a few years back, put out a record called "Lifeline" that was made up of all the songs that pretty much shaped me and that I lean on still. So which one?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEMENT: I'll do "Pass Me Not." (Singing) Pass me not, oh gentle savior. Hear my humble cry. While on others thou art calling, do not pass me by. savior, oh, savior, hear my humble cry. While on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.
And then there are two other really beautiful verses, but we'll save that for another day.
GROSS: That was beautiful. You know, I...
DEMENT: That's a pretty song.
GROSS: Yeah, and you performed it so well. My guest is Iris DeMent, and she's at the piano. And she has a new album called "The Trackless Woods." So it must have been so great to think of music as something that was really holy, as something that, like, connected you to the Holy Spirit. It wasn't just, like, pop tunes coming over the radio - not that those aren't great, not that that doesn't have a whole lot of meaning (laughter).
DEMENT: Yeah, the side of it that I came from is exactly what you're talking about. I think I had developed this notion that there was something silly about the Holy Spirit idea, if you want to call it an idea, and my deep link that I had in my mind and in my work to all that. It seemed like something that I was supposed to grow out of. I started to sort of separate myself a little bit from some of those ideas. And I started having terrible things happen. Like, I couldn't remember my words - songs I'd sang my whole life. I just became paralyzed.
And it took a while. It took about a year for me to realize what I had done. And yeah, pretty much when I returned to that place where I started, which is what you brought up in the beginning - that it's the spirit that moves through us - I began to be able to do what I needed to do again with a calm. And so I learned a great lesson there. I learned to believe in it and hold onto it, whether I can explain it or not, whether anybody else can or not - 'cause I just happened to be one of those people. I'm going to go under if I don't.
And, you know, on that same note, I think another thing that I learned from my parents, who had, you know, pretty difficult, challenging lives - to put it mildly - I saw my parents use music to survive, you know. They had to have that music. My mom had to sing, and my dad had to go to church, and he had to hear that music washing over him and through him. It wasn't a, oh, this is nice (laughter); it was a, I'm not going to make it if I don't have that.
And so I felt that that's my job. That's how I think of what I do. I have to give people that lifeline, you know, that I saw my parents reach out for and that I was taught to reach out for. And so that's what I aim to do. And I guess I don't feel like I can do that without that connection to the spirit.
GROSS: There was a period of 16 years that elapsed between your albums of original songs, and it was 2012 or 2013 that you released your album "Sing The Delta." So you were just talking about this period where you felt like you weren't connecting with that spirit. Does that explain the absence of an album of original songs from you during that period?
DEMENT: You know, I think that was - would be safe to say - some of it. A lot happened during that time. As far as musically, I continued to go out and play, and much to my amazement, I still had people that would come and listen and get something out of it. And I would, too. And I made that gospel record during that time, which was - is actually the only record of mine that I can listen, to be honest. That record means a lot to me.
And there was a lot going on. I think - you know, I had a struggle for a few years with some pretty severe, you know, down-in-the-dumps kind of stuff that I was battling and just kind of trying to figure out where I needed to go next. And then, of course, in the middle of that, we also adopted our daughter, who had been orphaned until she was 6, and she came with a lot of needs, a lot of attention. And there was a lot that I had to learn about myself in order to do that job too. So I had my hands pretty full.
But I feel, just on a personal level, I can see, looking back, how much I needed that nothingness. I learned a lot, and I feel like I - I grew a lot in myself just as a person. And my - and I can bring all that to the music now. And I don't know. I just - I guess I just accepted that it went along as that was supposed to go, and I didn't do anything wrong. You know, for a long time, I felt like I was doing something wrong because the songs weren't coming. But I'm over that now. And, you know, things have their natural timing and rhythm, and I'm a part of that natural time and rhythm. And it was as it was supposed to be.
GROSS: On your album "Sing The Delta," the album that was your first original - your first album of original songs in 16 years - you have a song called "Go On Ahead And Go Home." And it's home in the sense of death, not in the sense of - you know, it's about crossing over; it's not in the sense of, like, going back to your house.
GROSS: Is there something specific that inspired the song?
DEMENT: Well, one of my older brothers passed away, and that very much led to that song. And it was my - my send-off to him, my attempt to honor his life.
GROSS: It's a beautiful song. Would you play that song, "Go On Ahead And Go Home," for us? Like, an excerpt of that song that you wrote for your brother?
DEMENT: I would love to.
GROSS: Thank you.
DEMENT: (Singing) Go on ahead, and go home. Go on ahead, and go home. Boy, you've done your best, time you took your rest in the sheltering loam. Go on ahead, and go home. Go on ahead. Go home. The spirits of the dead will meet you up ahead, and you won't be alone. Go let your momma see you smile. Go let your momma see you smile. Your momma's going to wait however long it takes, but it's sure been a while. So let your momma see you smile. Go let your momma see you smile. She's standing in the sun saying, boy, your work's been done by long, long, mile.
DAVIES: That's Iris DeMent at the piano from an interview recorded in 2015. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF IRIS DEMENT SONG, "THE NIGHT I LEARNED HOW NOT TO PRAY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're presenting an interview from our archive which we thought would be nice to listen to during these difficult days. Let's get back to Terry's 2015 conversation with singer and songwriter Iris DeMent.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Your parents were Pentecostals and you grew up in the Pentecostal church. What were some of the things you witnessed when people would feel, like, overcome by the spirit?
DEMENT: Well, you would see people dance - they call dancing in the spirit. They called it being slain in the spirit. You would fall over. People would talk in tongues. I can remember sitting on the pew on Sunday night - and we were in church a lot, at least three times a week - but I can remember a young fellow going into a trance-like state and leaping, like, over the backs of the pews and going over my head a time or two. That was one of the more extreme expressions. So...
GROSS: Was it the kind of church where everybody sang, as opposed to their being a separate group of singers?
DEMENT: We had both. I mean, there was lots of - there was the congregational singing. We had a choir. And then there would be different groups, you know. And my sisters had a group - the big DeMent sisters. And when I was 5, you know, there was a - the little DeMent sisters were formed and, you know, I...
DEMENT: I messed up the first performance, which I don't think I ever quite got over. But one thing that I remember, even as a child, is music. I was talking earlier about my discomfort with performing. I didn't like that side of it. Even at a very young age, I felt the music really deeply, and I felt very grown up in the music. I didn't have a sense of myself as being a little kid. I felt this big stuff going on in me.
I remember that first performance, I forgot my words. And I remember the audience beginning to laugh, but they weren't laughing - they were laughing in that way that I realized they thought I was cute, and it really troubled me because I didn't - it wasn't that I was embarrassed so much that I'd forgotten my words. I probably would have just gotten right on with it there, you know? But it was that awareness that oh, this is a performance. I don't know, have an - a minimizing opinion of me or of - it felt really weird. I didn't like that.
And I really shied away from performance after that for a long time. I would - you know, I would sing in church, and I'd take a solo now and again. But I found myself waiting till everyone would leave the home so I could really sing, you know. And there's like 10 kids in the house so it - I had to wait around a long time...
DEMENT: ...To get a little quiet. But it was always very private, and I always felt very protective of it. I didn't want to be a show to somebody.
GROSS: Your mother sang at church, right?
DEMENT: She sang at church. She was - she sang in the audience, and she sometimes did solos. My mom had that same thing I have. It was always very hard for her to get up and sing. She'd get very nervous and rattled and - but yes, she did. And her and my dad, they've had - they'd have knock-down drag-outs every time they'd do a duet together because my dad had a very different approach to the music. You know, he knew how to read, and he had the timing. And he was a beautiful singer, too, and musician. My mom was very instinctual, and she'd go off in - on her own beat and everything, which was beautiful, but she wasn't a group singer. She wasn't a group anything, to tell you the truth. But - so it was funny to watch them try to pull that off. And somehow, they managed a long life together (laughter).
DAVIES: That's singer and songwriter Iris DeMent speaking with Terry Gross in 2015. We'll hear more of her interview and performance after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF IRIS DEMENT SONG, "LEANING ON THE EVERLASTING ARMS")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross back with her 2015 interview with songwriter and singer Iris DeMent, an interview we thought would be nice to hear while so many of us are at home in this period of social distancing. When they recorded the interview, DeMent was at the piano with her guitar by her side in a studio at Iowa Public Radio. She just released her album "The Trackless Woods." One of her early songs, "Let The Mystery Be," was used as the theme of the HBO series "The Leftovers."
DeMent's music is influenced by the Pentecostal church her family belong to and sang in. She was born in Arkansas on the Delta, the youngest of 14 children. When we left off, she was telling Terry about how her mother loved to sing but had to do it her own way, which made it difficult to sing duets in church with DeMent's father.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You recorded a duet with your mother. That's on your first album, "Infamous Angel." And I'd like to play that duet. It's of the song "Higher Ground." Do you want to introduce this recording for us?
DEMENT: Oh, it's funny that you moved into that because I just remembered - I was talking in that - what I was saying about my mom, how she just had to do things her own way. I brought her in. That was my first record, and that was her first time to go to Nashville. And it had been my mom's dream to go off and be a singer in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry way back in the day. Keep in mind my mom was born in 1918, so we're going way back there. And she never made it - married my dad had a bunch of kids instead. But when my - I did my first record, I brought her to Nashville. And we got in the studio, and I wanted her to sing that song with me. And the original plan was that she would harmonize with me, which was - I don't know. It just - the producer - everybody thought, well, that's how this should go. It's my record.
So we get in there. We did that a bunch of times, and, oh, it was just awful. It was awful. It just wouldn't work. Mom couldn't get with it, and we decided to just give up on it. We didn't say that, but we stopped, and we were starting to leave the room. All the players were leaving. And my mom grabbed the lyrics. She said, let's get on in there. And she told the piano player what key to play it in, and we - she just did the song, and we just followed her. And at the end - I don't know if you can hear it, but at the end she says, now that was my key.
So - and it was great. I was so happy. You know, and I'm her kid. You know, she's gone now. But it felt so right to be in there and have mom being mom and me being the kid. I loved it, and she sang beautifully. And - but there again, it's that thing. She just had her own deal all the way around. And it wasn't a hateful thing. It was like, if I'm going to be here, I got to be the thing I am. And the timing and everything, I've got to do it my way. It's a beautiful thing to witness. And that's what she did.
GROSS: So let's hear the duet with my guest Iris DeMent and her mother recorded in - this from a 1992 album, would have made your mother on 74 at the time.
DEMENT: Probably. Yeah, that sounds about right.
GROSS: OK. Here we go.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHER GROUND")
IRIS DEMENT AND FLORA MAE DEMENT: (Singing) I want to scale the utmost heights and catch a glimpse of glory bright. But still, I'll pray till heaven I've found. Lord, lead me on to higher ground. Lord, lift me up and let me stand by faith on heaven's table land, a higher plain than I have found. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground. Lord, lift me up and let me stand by faith on heaven's table land, a higher plain than I have found. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
FLORA MAE DEMENT: See; that was my key.
GROSS: So that's Iris DeMent duetting with her mother on Iris DeMent's 1992 album "Infamous Angel." So did her voice influence your voice?
DEMENT: Oh, God, yes. In fact, I - you know, I won't do it, but I can mimic my mother's voice almost to the tee. And I've been doing that since I was a kid. But, you know, so much of that was my mom - you know, I was aware that the things she loved and really, really wanted in life didn't happen. And she didn't see, you know, the avenue to the - to get to the place she wanted to go.
GROSS: Which was singing professionally.
DEMENT: Yeah, she wanted to be a professional singer. And then my dad showed up at church one day with six kids. His wife had died, and they knew each other. They knew each other when they were kids, and she knew she was supposed to marry him and help him raise those kids. And then, of course, she went and had eight more, so her hands were more than full. And I think - you know, well, there's no doubt about it. I mean, there was this merging of my great love for music that went way, way back to the time I was a child and my desire to bring her out into the place in the world that she had wanted to go to. So I always felt like every step of the way in my musical life, my mom was walking with me. I was bringing her along with me, and that's how I wanted it. I don't have any regrets about that.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're listening to an interview Terry Gross recorded with singer and songwriter Iris Dement in 2015. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF IRIS DEMENT SONG, "THERE'S A WHOLE LOT OF HEAVEN")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. While all of us are dealing in one way or another with the impact of the pandemic, we're going to our archives for an interview we hope you'll enjoy. Let's get back to Terry's 2015 interview with singer and songwriter Iris DeMent.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: We've been talking a lot about church and the music you grew up with from the church and in the church. And you know, so much of your music seems connected to that music - that church music that you grew up with. And this is an interesting twist on that, your song "Let The Mystery Be." And that is now the theme song of the second season of the HBO series "The Leftovers." And that series is about people who have just inexplicably vanished off the face of the earth. And some people think it might be the rapture or some other godly or mystical or just mysterious superstitious thing that happened. No one really knows.
But you didn't write this for the series. This is from years ago. And it sounds to me like a song from - by somebody who is now secular and saying, I don't know about the answer. I'm not sure if there is a God, but I'm content to live with the mystery.
DEMENT: Yeah. I wrote that about 25 years ago. And yes, that is true. But I think, you know, nowadays, the thing - for where I am now maybe, the way I would describe it is I have - I don't know about God and all that stuff, and I'm not, you know, connected to a particular religion. But I like to think of it as my preacher friend Sam Mann talks about it - it's the - what always was, what is and always will be. You know, you can maybe sum that up and call it God if you want to; I don't know. But I feel that. And I tie my music up with that.
GROSS: Would you sing some of "Let The Mystery Be" for us?
(Singing) Everybody is wondering what and where they all came from. And everybody is worried about where they'll go when the whole thing's done. No one knows for certain, so it's all about the same to me. I think I'm going to let that mystery be. Some say once gone, you're gone forever, and some may say that you come back. Some say you rest in the arms of a savior if in sinful ways you lack. Some say that they're coming back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas. I think I'm going to let that mystery be.
GROSS: That's a great song. That's Iris DeMent singing her song "Let The Mystery Be," which is now being used as the theme song on HBO's Season 2 of "The Leftovers."
So is there a story behind your song "Let The Mystery Be"?
DEMENT: Not really. Isn't that disappointing? I mean, you know, we talked a lot about my religious upbringing. And - well, we didn't get a whole lot into how I kind of ventured away from that. When I was 16, I quit going to church because - you know, when I was a little kid, we would - you know, like, I can remember standing on the street. I was, like, the kid on the sidewalk with my tambourine trying to get other little kids saved. That was - you know, I was that little girl.
GROSS: Were you doing that on your own, or were you asked to do that?
DEMENT: Well, it was groups. I mean, we would often do that before Sunday night service, go out into the neighborhood. The preacher would preach a little sermon. And you know, a group of us - you know, it might be my mom and different people in the church and a couple little kids. I would be one of them. And we would sing, you know, and try to get the kids in.
I remember one day standing on the street and seeing these kids on their bicycle who looked like me and realizing, wow, an hour ago I was on - in front of my house riding my bike, and I look just like you. And now you're across the street, and this thing - this religious belief has kicked in that's made me feel like you and I are a universe apart. And I didn't like that; that bothered me. Even when I was a kid, something felt a little ajar there.
So - but for a long time, when I is growing up, I decided OK, you know, if this story's true that everybody that doesn't think and act and carry on like we do is going to the fiery furnace - by the way, my parents didn't say that to me, but the church did. So I went with that story wholeheartedly, you know? And I made it my job to try to get my school friends saved. I thought well, could there be another priority? I mean if - you know, if my friends are going to burn in the fiery furnace, how can I be thinking of anything else? I can't eat my lunch. So I took that really seriously.
And I remember one day asking somebody at the church - well, I need some New Testaments to give to all the kids at school. You know, that'll help them stay out of the fiery furnace. And I remember one - the person I asked kind of smiled at me, that thing I was talking about earlier, like, oh, a cute little kid. And I realized, you don't believe this stuff - you know? And so there was a lot of little things like that along the way that started heading me into another direction.
And by the time I was 16, I didn't believe that story, you know, that there was all this separation between me and all these other people in the world just because they didn't claim Jesus Christ as their personal savior. I didn't buy it. And I have to say, it wasn't my choice to not buy it because it meant having to leave the church, and I loved going to church. I loved the music. I loved, you know, the community and the family. So it was actually a very sad day for me to have to own up to that in myself and know that if I was going to live with any personal integrity, I had to leave. So that's what I did.
And music to me was tangled up in the church. I didn't know what to do with myself. So I mean, that's probably why I didn't start writing till I was 25. And you know, and then...
GROSS: That's really old to start writing. I mean...
GROSS: ...Most people who write songs start writing in their teens.
DEMENT: I know. And I'm not kidding you, too. When I say start writing, I mean I didn't write two lines until I was 25.
GROSS: So what happened?
GROSS: What happened when you were 25 that got you writing?
DEMENT: Well, I dropped out of high school, and I went back to school when I was 23. I'd followed a boyfriend of mine back to Topeka, Kan. I got my nerve up to apply to a college - Washburn University, which was very intimidating, you know, because I hadn't been to school since 10th grade. I didn't have any confidence in myself on that level.
But I got in, and I had this wonderful English Comp 101, I guess it was, the beginning level of English. And my dream from the time I was a kid - I really wanted to write stories. And I was in that class, and she would give us these assignments to write short stories. Well, my grammar was a mess. My spelling was bad. But she would write these beautiful notes every time every time I'd turn in a story. And that - I get - I hadn't thought about in a long time. I get a little choked up. She was so kind to me and so - just little simple teacher notes, you know? But her red pen - you know, she'd say these really kind things and - you know, you have an imagination. You got the - and it encouraged me. She didn't criticize what I didn't know how to do.
And so I just sunk myself into that class. So at the end of that semester, I signed up for the next semester. And something had happened, and I suddenly couldn't focus on school because all I wanted to do is write songs.
GROSS: Would you play that first song that you wrote, "Our Town"? Maybe just play a verse of it.
GROSS: And you want to introduce it for us, tell us what you were thinking when you wrote it?
DEMENT: Well, I remember that when I wrote this song, I hitched a ride. I didn't have a car at that time. And I was living in Topeka, and I hitched a ride with somebody I worked with who was going down to Oklahoma. And my brother that I talked about earlier was living in Oklahoma at that time. And I remember passing through this little town that was, you know, your typical dead town there in the Midwest - a lot of boarded-up windows, little white buildings with peeling paint - and all the life had gone right on out of it. And that was the first time in my life that I felt a song coming on. Like, it wasn't just me trying to make something happen. It felt very different. And I just started seeing all these visions of the life that had gone on there.
And so when I got down to my brother's house - and I remember asking him if I could borrow his guitar, and I'd promised I'd bring it back on my next visit, and he was nice enough to let me. And when I got home from that trip - it might've been a day or two later - I remember sitting down on the floor. And I had had all those images, you know, in my mind I guess my brain had been working on on the trip. And next thing you know, this song came out, and it came out just exactly how it is now. It's one of those rare ones for me that I didn't have to fool around with or change. It was just there, and it was my first song.
GROSS: Would you play a bit of that song for us?
(Singing) And you know the sun's setting fast. Just like they say, nothing good ever lasts. Go on now. Kiss it goodbye. But hold on to your lover 'cause your heart's bound to die. Go on now. Say goodbye to our town, to our town. Can't you see the sun setting down on our town, on our town? Goodnight. Up the street beside that red neon light, that's where I met my baby on a hot summer's night. He was the tender, and I ordered a beer. It's been 40 years, and I'm still sitting here. But I could see the sun setting fast. Just like they say, nothing good ever lasts. Go on now, and kiss it goodbye. But hold on to your lover 'cause your heart's bound to die. Go on now, and say goodbye to our town, to our town. I could see the sun has gone down on our town, on our town. Goodnight.
GROSS: Thank you. That's Iris DeMent playing for us. And that's the first song that she wrote, "Our Town."
When you realized you could write songs, did you think, like, where is that coming from?
DEMENT: Well, no, I didn't because, you know - I probably sound a little like a broken record just talking to you. It's almost surprising me a little to be reminded of how much my present life and my working life was so tangled up in that church, spiritual experience from so long ago. But I had always been taught, you know, growing up that you're supposed to get a calling. They would call it that in church. You know, pray for your calling. Pray for your calling.
And a faith healer - we had believed - you know, had a lot of faith healers in our church. But this woman came through once, and she was a faith healer. And I'd never seen a woman preacher or, you know, woman faith healer. And she was very - you know, I'm not sure now that I'm adult what all she was up to, but as a kid, watching her move and what she was doing, I was really impressed.
And I really remember thinking that was what I wanted to be. I want to grow up, and I wanted to do that. I saw her, and I began to pray that God would give me the gift of healing. I wanted to be a healer. And I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed, and I was quite a serious prayer (ph). And it never happened. And here I was. You know, I'm leaving the church, and I still hadn't got my calling. So I was pretty disillusioned, you know, into my mid-20s, whatever. I was - there was a deep part of me that was very saddened, you know, and let down because I'd believed that that would happen. It never did.
And when that song came to me, it was as if somebody else walked in the room. And I can still remember - like, it wasn't, like, an auditory thing but it was, like, a message. I heard, there you have it, Iris. And I knew what that meant. I knew that meant, that's your calling. That's what you're going to do. And I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. There was no ounce of doubt. In even all those years I wasn't writing, there wasn't an ounce of doubt of that. I can't even explain that to you, but I knew that that was that thing I had been waiting for.
DAVIES: That's singer and songwriter Iris DeMent speaking with Terry Gross in 2015. We'll hear more of her interview and performance after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, "SHENANDOAH")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with singer and songwriter Iris DeMent.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So I'd love it if you'd close with a song, if you'd play us a song. And how about a song from your latest album, "The Trackless Woods," which features poems by the Russian writer Anna - and I'm not sure whether it's Akhmatova or Akhmatova. You say you've heard it both ways, so I've just said it both ways.
GROSS: So hopefully we're covered.
DEMENT: That's a good plan.
GROSS: And for people just tuning in, she was a Russian writer who was declared an enemy of the state by Stalin and suffered a lot as a result of being a dissident. But she wanted to stay and do her songs. And the song that I'd like you to do to close is called "The Last Toast." Would you say a few words about this poem before you sing it for us?
DEMENT: Well, I love all these poems on this record. I can't even hardly quite get over it still that - they've just come to mean so much to me. I guess you could call it - she might've been meaning to sound a little more humor maybe than what - how I delivered it, but I don't know that I have - I think the song pretty much speaks for itself. So maybe I'll just jump right into this one. (Singing) I drink to the house already destroyed. And my whole life, too awful to tell. To the loneliness we together enjoyed, I drink to you as well. To the eyes with deadly cold imbued, to the lips that betrayed me with lies, to the world for being so cruel and rude, and God, who didn't save us or try.
GROSS: Iris DeMent, thank you so much.
DEMENT: Thank you.
DAVIES: Our interview with Iris DeMent was recorded in 2015 after her album "The Trackless Woods" was released. Our thanks to Iowa Public Radio, where this interview was recorded. Since our interview, Iris DeMent tells us she's continued to work on writing new songs for an album she hopes to record in the future. And these days, she's doing what everyone else is - sheltering in place - and making a lot of masks while doing it.
She also wrote this about her friend John Prine. Like so many of you, I'm deeply saddened by the passing of John Prine. It is my prayer that all the love he gave to this world will be returned tenfold to his family, the ones he cherished the most, and that that love will help sustain them through their grief.
(CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY")
DAVIES: Monday on FRESH AIR, actress Zoe Kazan. She's now co-starring in the HBO series "The Plot Against America" based on the Philip Roth novel. Her other films include "Ruby Sparks," "The Big Sick" and "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs." Zoe Kazan is the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, who directed the films "On The Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" and who testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "INDEPENDENCE DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.