Iris DeMent: Ass-Kicking, Outlaw Country Singer Talks Growing Up in OC

Categories: interview, tonight
iris dement-001.jpg
Iris DeMent
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Maybe it'd be a little crass to start this out by talking about what an ass-kicker Iris DeMent is. But if outlaw country means telling it like it is, then Arkansas-born and Orange County-raised Iris DeMent is still on the run and free at age 51. Her new album Sing The Delta--her first originals in sixteen years--is about to release on her own Flariella label and she says she feels like a kid again: "You do it for the joy of it and make the music the best you can and go out and sing, and if people want it, so be it," she says. "If you're willing to talk to me, I'll talk back."

And she does, with a voice straight from one of those mysterious and powerful 78 RPM records that taught a young Bob Dylan what folk music really was. If there is something most special within the many special things about DeMent's music, it's the fearless and even agonizing way in which she pours her true self into her songs. Lots of people cry when she plays something like "My Life," which starts with the line "My life, it don't count for nothin' ..." and stares alone into a lonesome universe.

Loss and love are the twin poles of the DeMent discography and maybe the DeMent life. If songs like "Wasteland Of The Free," which called out lopsided CEO pay and "politicians running races on corporate cash / don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them people's ass" long before Occupy--possibly not coincidentally, it was on the final album of her major-label career--are the political, then songs like "The Night I Learned How Not To Pray" (in which "God does what He wants to, anyway") are the personal. But at the heart of both is the heartbreak of a person trying to make sense of the insensible on the way to making right out of wrong.

"Unlike my husband, who I really envy because he can write anywhere, I have to have a place," she explains. "I have a cabin out where we live in the country, and pretty much everything on the new record was written there. I have to have a total sense of privacy. When I go to that place where I feel like I'm really hooked into something, I feel ... I don't know except RIGHT. I feel right in the world. Life feels more doable."

She was just a toddler when her family moved to Valley View and Ball in 1963, currently home (like so many intersections) to a shopping plaza and a Starbucks. But back then there were strawberry fields. Her father had just lost his job in Arkansas--after a year-long strike, his company shut down and its workers were spit out into the world. He'd end up working as a janitor at Buena Park's Movieland Wax Museum. (He'd bring the museum's Rolls Royce home to wash on the weekends.) She remembers Orange County now as the place where she grew up on Merle Haggard and church music, and where her family (of fourteen kids) was all together.

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