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DeMent brings Delta to two home-state shows


This article was published August 22, 2013 at 3:58 a.m.


Iris DeMent

Performing in her native state has sometimes posed peculiar challenges for Iris DeMent.

She endured being strafed by a bat during a show years ago in Eureka Springs, then her bottom nearly froze to the piano bench one April at a frigid outdoor show at a lakeside retreat outside Little Rock.

But she’s returning to Arkansas for a pair of weekend shows that will at least be in civilized environs - at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville on Friday and the new South on Main venue in Little Rock on Saturday, which will bring DeMent back to the location of her first-ever Arkansas show, when Juanita’s was housed at 13th and Main streets. The Oxford American magazine has its offices and a restaurant/club in the space. (DeMent was the subject of a profile by noted Little Rock author Kevin Brockmeier in the magazine’s music issue of November 2007.)

While the Paragould-born singer-songwriter can’t recall exactly when she last performed in Arkansas, she is quite certain when she last visited the state.

“That was in late 2011, when we rented a van and took my mama home to where she wanted to be buried,” DeMent recalls. “It was me and Greg [Brown, her husband] and our daughter, Dasha. I feel like I was kind of wrapping things up, taking her back home.”

The sad journey from the family home in Iowa to the land near the St. Francis River, which separates the eastern corner of Arkansas from the western edge of the Missouri Bootheel, inspired DeMent to write and record her first album of new material in 16 years. The album, Sing the Delta, includes a dozen songs, plus photos that their daughter took of cypress knees in the river.

DeMent, who was the last of 14 children of Patric and Flora Mae DeMent, only spent her first three years in Arkansas, but her roots obviously took a strong hold on her, even as she grew up in Orange County, Calif .,then moved to Kansas City when she became an adult. It wasn’t until she was 25 that she wrote her first song, and realized what her life’s work was to be.

She lived in Nashville, Tenn., long enough to make the necessary connections and get discovered by the likes of John Prine and Merle Haggard, who both raved about her songwriting and old-fashioned way of singing. On her 1992 debut album, Infamous Angel, she saluted her mother with a song, “Mama’s Opry,” which was followed by the traditional hymn, “Higher Ground,” on which her mother sang lead.

There were a couple of more albums - My Life and The Way I Should - before she took a break, resuming recording in 2004 with Lifeline, an album of mostly church hymns that had helped shape her musical upbringing. She recorded one of the songs, Fanny Crosby’s “Near the Cross,”at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, where she had headlined a show.

While DeMent’s previous Arkansas shows were as a solo guitarist and occasional pianist, she has a backing band this time around.

“I’m predominantly playing piano with this tour,” she says, “and it spoils me, being with such good players. It’s Dave Jacques on bass, Jason Wilber on guitar and Jon Graboff on mandolin.”

And just as her mother’s death inspired a new batch of songs, DeMent’s husband, Brown, a singer-songwriter who is often called the poet laureate of Iowa, also released an album, Hymns to What Is Left, with the dedication, “In memory of Mae DeMent 1918-2011.” The album’s first song, “Arkansas,” refers to the family trip to take his wife’s mother, and their daughter’s grandmother, home to Arkansas.

DeMent and Brown mostly keep their careers separate, as well as their touring, with one or the other staying home with their pre-teen daughter.

After her current tour, De-Ment says she may return to writing, but has something new she hopes to explore.

“There’s this Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, and I’ve been putting dozens of her poems to music,” DeMent says. “But no, I won’t be singing them in Russian !”

Iris DeMent

7:45-9 p.m. Friday, Fayetteville Roots Festival, Walton Arts Center, 495 W. Dickson St., Fayetteville Admission: $53; $33 for University of Arkansas students (admission includes various festival events on Friday) (479) 443-5600 8 p.m. Saturday (doors open at 7 p.m.), South on Main, 13th and Main streets, Little Rock Admission: $45 (sold out, but tickets on “hold” may be released at 7 p.m.) (501) 374-0000

Weekend, Pages 34 on 08/22/2013

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