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Iris DeMent possesses one of the great voices in contemporary popular music: powerfully, ringingly clear, capable of both heartbreaking fragility and blow-your-ears-back power. Had she been making country albums in the '70s and '80s and had more commercial ambition, she'd probably now be considered right up there with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Instead, she's lived a contemporary life, a somewhat private life. As she recently told an interviewer, "There's a lot that goes into life besides songwriting." And she's taken her time in composing songs that fit into no genre easily.
The central tension in DeMent's music is her relationship with her faith. The youngest of 14 children, raised in a Pentecostal church and singing in the choir as a child, DeMent took her faith seriously enough as an adolescent and as an adult to question it — a subject addressed in a new song called "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray."
Losing one's faith while loving the comfort and inspiration it can provide for others and for herself — that's a vexing subject for DeMent. But to her constant credit, it never results in ponderous or pretentious or overreaching music. Listening to these new songs, you get the sense of DeMent paring every line down to its essence, deleting adjectives that merely decorate a lyric, or crossing out any verse that doesn't quite say what she wants as forthrightly as she knows in her head and her heart it ought to.
DeMent co-produced Sing the Delta with Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett, and their arrangements emphasize DeMent's voice and piano-playing first and foremost in the mix. In "Makin' My Way Back Home," you can hear nice, subtle touches of pedal-steel guitar and some soft drumming. I will confess that the first time I played the album through, it seemed pretty and a little slight to me. I now realize it's because I'm so used to big emotional statements framed by big emotional music, and Iris DeMent's music represents the opposite of that. The songs on Sing the Delta only grow more rich, more emotionally complex, the more you hear them. And I plan to keep listening to these songs for a long time.