On Thursday, October 23rd, Iris DeMent, one of the great voices in contemporary popular music, returns to the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, performing songs that span her twenty-two year career along with songs from from her most recent album Sing the Delta, a masterpiece sixteen years in the making. DeMent’s legendary voice sounds as if it comes from the previous century, but her songwriting has as much in common with Joni Mitchell as Hank Williams. This is one of only three California performances that also includes shows in Napa and Berkeley. Supporting DeMent on this tour is Pieta Brown, daughter of legendary troubadour Greg Brown.
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 in Paragould, Arkansas, the last of fourteen children in her family. Her parents were farmers, but after hitting hard times in 1964, they sold the farm and moved west to California. DeMent’s parents passed on to her their love of music: Her mom sang around the house and at church, and as a young man, her dad had played fiddle at dances around Arkansas. For a family that saw its share of hard times, music was a necessity of life, not just a pastime. Her older sisters formed a gospel group called The DeMent Sisters and eventually recorded an album. She grew up listening to traditional country and gospel music, which influenced her roots-folk sound, though she was twenty-five years old when she wrote her first song. While living in Kansas City, she taught herself to play the guitar. Her songs drew directly upon her own life and the people within it. Eventually, DeMent moved to Nashville, where her performances led to a recording contract.
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. Her album of gospel songs, “Lifeline”, which included her rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” was later used in the closing credits of the Coen brothers’ film True Grit.
This rare performance is a family affair. Opening the show is her step-daughter Pieta Brown. Brown grew up in rural Iowa and Alabama and was exposed to traditional and rural folk music through her father. With a voice reviewers alternately describe as “rich,” “dark” and “dreamy,” and a musical style that ranges from haunting to rocking, Brown has released six critically acclaimed albums.
“When Pieta sings you’re aware of something effortless and natural, like rain on earth,” Mark Knopfler observed, while Don Was called her “a great singer-songwriter who possesses major star-power magnetism,” and DeMent described her as “the best poet I’ve heard in a long damn time.”
Brown is no stranger to superstar collaborations. She’s toured with Knopfler and shared the stage with John Prine, Brandi Carlisle, JJ Cale, Emmylou Harris and Amos Lee, just to name a few.
Her latest album, Paradise Outlaw (Red House), is Brown’s most emotionally resonant compositions, and some of her most expressive performances, to date. It was recorded at Bon Iver mastermind Justin Vernon’s April Base studio in Wisconsin, with a supporting cast that includes Vernon, Amos Lee, David Mansfield and her father.
“Paradise Outlaw came from a radically different place. I was thinking a lot about freedom, experimentation, poetry, folk songs, bending forms and voices. I also wrote and delivered half the songs on the banjo, which was completely new for me,” says Brown.
As Pieta puts it in the album’s dedication, “In the preface to a super cool book of photographs of the Beats called Paradise Outlaws, John Tytell says it well: ‘The notion of paradise may be one of our ultimate fictions, but it still motivates action in the world. While the way the Beats saw the world made them outlaws, they also shared a view of art that was unelitist, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian.’ That makes a lot of sense to me. I feel like my songs come from the same beat streets and off-kilter countrysides, and the same worlds where peace, love and freedom will always be worth exploring. So to all my fellow paradise outlaws, thank you for the hopeful illusions, the grit, the grace and above all, the songs and music that carry me through.”
Tickets are available online at MinersFoundry.org, by phone (530) 265-5040, or in person at the Miners Foundry and at BriarPatch Co-Op.