US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Listen: Sing the Delta

By Danny Duncan Collum | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Sing the Delta
Iris DeMent (Flariella Records, 2012)

At 51, Iris DeMent is no spring chicken, but her music can seem like a time capsule from someplace long, long ago. She was born near Paragould, Arkansas, but when DeMent was very young, the family moved to Southern California, where she grew up in a transplanted bubble of traditional Southern culture and the ecstatic embrace of the Pentecostal church.

From 1992 to 1996 DeMent put out three well-received albums of original songs. But then the tunes stopped coming. According to DeMent, her mother’s death at age 93 opened a gate, and all the songs on Sing the Delta came rushing out.

DeMent’s last album, released eight years ago, was Lifeline, a collection of Southern gospel hymns sung with her deeply down-home quaver and accompanied mostly by the gospel piano she learned from her mother. Musically many of the original songs on Sing the Delta would have fit on Lifeline, but the triumphal certainty in the lyrics of the old hymns is here sometimes replaced by achingly honest doubt.

Certainly many of the best songs on this collection are rooted in DeMent’s childhood. There are tributes to her mother, who was always “telling her truth,” and her father, who went to work “wearing his name across the pocket of his shirt.” And then there’s “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” an unsparing child’s-eye view of a sibling’s accidental death that taught young Iris “not to pray because God does what God wants to anyway.”

But in the end Sing the Delta is still a religious album because most of the songs treat questions of human purpose and destiny with the gravity they deserve. The song “There’s a Whole Lot of Heaven” even makes this a sort of gospel album, with the good news, “I’ve been saved by the love of the people living right here . . . there’s a whole lot of heaven shining in this river of tears.”

This article appeared in the January 2013 issue of  U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 1, pages 50).