Listen: Iris DeMent – Workin’ on a World (2023)

True to form, it has taken Iris DeMent many years to record a new collection, but as usual, it is worth the wait.

27 February 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

Iris DeMent Is Worried About the World. So She Made Another Album

Iris DeMent said she realized, “I could succumb to making records that aren’t like who I am and what I was put here to do, or I could pull back and protect my calling.”Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

21 February 2023 | Stephen Deusner | New York Times

While writing songs for her seventh album, “Workin’ on a World,” Iris DeMent recalled a vivid memory from her childhood, when she was first struck by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was the late 1960s, not long before his assassination, and she was 5 or 6 years old. Her very large family — she has 15 siblings — had just moved from Paragould, Ark., out to California. “There were a gazillion people living in our house,” she said from her home in Iowa City. “The TV was playing, and I heard this booming voice. This was back when TVs were on the floor, so when I turned, I was suddenly eye to eye with Dr. King.”

Even as a child, she understood something important was happening. “I remember looking around our living room and thinking, ‘I hope the grown-ups are listening to this man.’”

DeMent name-checks Dr. King on “How Long,” a gospel song from “Workin’ on a World,” about the arc of the moral universe taking a long, long time to bend toward justice.

“Workin’ On A World”

by Iris DeMent

I got so down and troubled
I nearly lost my head
I started wakin’ every morning
Filled with sadness, fear, and dread
The world I took for granted
Was crashing to the ground
And I realized I might not live long enough
To every see it turn around

But then I got to thinkin’
Of the ones who came before
And all the sacrifices that they made
To open up so many doors
Doors I got to walk through
On streets paved for me
By people who were workin’ on a world
They never got to see

Now I’m workin’ on a world I may never see
I’m joinin’ forces with the warriors of love
Who came before and will follow you and me
I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged just to be
Workin’ on a world I may never see

I don’t have all the answers
To the troubles of the day
But neither did all our ancestors
And they persevered anyway
When I see a little baby
Reaching out it’s arms to me
I remember why I’m workin’ on a world
I may never see

I’m workin’ on a world
I may never see
I’m joinin’ forces with the warriors of love
Who came before and will follow you and me
I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged just to be
Workin’ on a world I may never see

I’m workin’ on a world
I may never see

SEE additional lyrics

Track listing:

1. Workin’ On A World

2. Goin’ Down To Sing In Texas

3. Say A Good Word

4. The Sacred Now

5. I Won’t Ask You Why

6. Warriors Of Love

7. Let Me Be Your Jesus

8. The Cherry Orchard

9. Nothin’ For The Dead

10. Mahalia

11. How Long

12. Walkin’ Daddy

13. Waycross, Georgia

Album credits will be added once they become available

On new tracks that sound like old hymns on the album, released on Feb. 24, she sings about the people she considers her heroes: Dr. King, of course, but also John Lewis, Mahalia Jackson and the Chicks.

“It dawned on me that a lot of what I’ve done with my songs is, I’ve tried to get what I think needs to be heard out to the grown-ups,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be of use in that way.”

DeMent, 62, has been making herself useful for 30 years now. Her philosophical 1992 debut, “Infamous Angel,” which opened with an inquiry into the afterlife and closed with her mother singing “Higher Ground,” showcased her high, keening voice, the kind you’d hear from a church pew rather than the radio.

Her lyrics sounded like down-home poetry, plain-spoken in their wisdom, and her music drew from many different styles — country, bluegrass, old-time folk, older-time church music — without falling squarely into any one genre or market.

DeMent sits at a piano with one leg tucked up underneath her on the piano bench.
“There’s love and there’s hate. There’s good and there’s evil. Which side are you on? Figure it all out now and go.”Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

Very quickly, she found herself celebrated by some of her heroes, including Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and John Prine (who even wrote liner notes for “Infamous Angel”). Just as quickly she found herself overwhelmed by the demands of the music industry.

After two follow-up albums — the melancholy “My Life” in 1994 and the scowling “The Way I Should” in 1996 — she very purposefully slowed her schedule down. “I realized that it wasn’t working for me,” she said. “I could succumb to making records that aren’t like who I am and what I was put here to do, or I could pull back and protect my calling.”

DeMent learned to take her time, typically pausing for roughly eight years between releases. It makes for a small but weighty catalog: In this century she’s made four albums, only two of which included original songs. “Lifeline,” from 2004, was a collection of old Pentecostal hymns, and for “The Trackless Woods,” from 2015, she set to music poems by the writer Anna Akhmatova — a project inspired by her Russian-born adopted daughter. (That year, her 1992 track “Let the Mystery Be” was used as the Season 2 theme for “The Leftovers.”)

During that downtime she occasionally tours, and she’s always writing, always singing around the house and playing music with her husband, the folk musician Greg Brown. And she often wonders if she’ll never release another album, if no more songs will demand to be set loose in the world.

“I don’t think it’s because I have a high standard, but I do have a certain standard,” she explained matter-of-factly, as though that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. “It takes me a long time to get 10 or 12 songs that I have faith in. I don’t always know if I’ll make another record, because I don’t know if I’ll find those 10 or 12 songs.”

For the new album, DeMent tried something that hadn’t clicked before: co-writing. “I’ve never really written with people,” she said. “John Prine and I tried to write a song together, and we have some great stories to tell but no songs. If I can’t write a song with John, then who can I write a song with? It just wasn’t my thing.”

But she had better luck with her stepdaughter, Pieta Brown, a distinguished singer-songwriter in her own right. Together they penned the family remembrance “I Won’t Ask You Why” via text. “I sent her a melody and a title asking, ‘Hey, do you feel anything from this?‌’” DeMent said. “And about one in the morning, she sent me all the things she was feeling. Six verses in all.”

Still, despite recording that and other songs in multiple Nashville sessions with the producers Jim Rooney (who worked on her debut) and Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris), DeMent didn’t think she had enough faithful songs for an album.

Brown finally coaxed DeMent into taking the next steps. “I just asked her if I could listen to those first sessions,” she said in a phone interview. “It was winter, and I spent hours driving around the tundra of Iowa listening to these songs. It seemed like she was communicating something massive and important that everybody should hear. So I called her and texted her, ‘You have a record!’”

“Workin’ on a World” is an album about DeMent’s ongoing quest to find her place, about passing the wisdom of the generation that came before her to the one that follows. On the title track she declares, “I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged to be workin’ on a world I may never see.”

“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that song saved my life,” DeMent said. “Seeing my country embrace what it embraced in 2016 made me wonder truly and utterly how I was going to live. I don’t say that lightly. I just couldn’t comprehend it. But that song steadied me. I was singing it at home at the piano long before I recorded it. I would get up in the morning and sing it to get myself going, to get clarity. It was comforting in the way that even painful truths can carry comfort.”

The album is full of what might be called marching songs, which are meant to inspire listeners, to show them the hard road ahead and to spur them along — or, as she put it, “to fortify you in your fight against evil.” That idea is rooted deep in DeMent’s experience growing up in church, and it has inspired all of her albums to some extent, but especially the politically agitated “The Way I Should” and “Lifeline,” a collection of old hymns.

“That’s what I like about my Pentecostal upbringing,” DeMent said. “I’ve left most of it behind, but our songs were painting that picture of hell, the fiery furnace that awaited us, all the bad stuff coming down the line. So picture it. Get a really good vivid image. Then figure out what you’re going to do.

“Some things aren’t that complicated,” she continued. “There’s love and there’s hate. There’s good and there’s evil. Which side are you on? Figure it all out now and go.”

Bandcamp: Buy Workin’ on a World

On her transcendent new record, Workin’ On A World, Iris DeMent faces the modern world — as it is right now — with its climate catastrophe, pandemic illness, and epidemic of violence and social injustice — and not only asks us how we can keep working towards a better world, but implores us to love each other, despite our very different ways of seeing. Her songs are her way of healing our broken inner and outer spaces.

With an inimitable voice as John Prine described, “like you’ve heard, but not really,” and unforgettable melodies rooted in hymns, gospel, and old country music, she’s simply one of the finest singer-songwriters in America as well as one of our fiercest advocates for human rights.

Her debut record Infamous Angel, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, was recently named one of the “greatest country albums of all time” by Rolling Stone, and the two albums that followed, My Life and The Way I Should, were both nominated for GRAMMYs.

From there, DeMent released three records on her own label, Flariella Records, the most recent of which, The Trackless Woods (2015), was hailed as “a quietly powerful triumph” by The Guardian. DeMent’s songs have also been featured in film (True Grit) and television (The Leftovers) and recorded by numerous artists. Fittingly, she received the Americana Music Trailblazer Award in 2017.

Workin’ On A World, her seventh album, started with the worry that woke DeMent up after the 2016 elections: how can we survive this?

“Every day some new trauma was being added to the old ones that kept repeating themselves, and like everybody else, I was just trying to bear up under it all,” she recalls. She returned to a truth she had known since childhood: music is medicine. “My mom always had a way of finding the song that would prove equal to whatever situation we were facing. Throughout my life, songs have been lending me a hand. Writing songs, singing songs, putting them on records, has been a way for me to extend that hand to others.”

With grace, courage, and soul, Iris shares 13 anthems — love songs, really — to and for our broken inner and outer worlds. DeMent sets the stage for the album with the title track in which she moves from a sense of despair towards a place of promise. “Now I’m workin’ on a world I may never see / Joinin’ forces with the warriors of love / Who came before and will follow you and me.”

She summons various social justice warriors, both past and present, to deliver messages of optimism. “How Long” references Martin Luther King, while “Warriors of Love” includes John Lewis and Rachel Corrie.

“Goin’ Down To Sing in Texas” is an ode not only to gun control, but also to the brave folks who speak out against tyranny and endure the consequences in an unjust world.

“I kept hearing a lot of talk about the arc of history that Dr. King so famously said bends towards justice,” she recalls. “I was having my doubts. But, then it dawned on me, he never said the arc would magically bend itself. Songs, over the course of history, have proven to be pretty good arc benders.”

Bending inward, DeMent reaches agilely under the slippery surface of politics. She grapples with loss on the deeply honest

“I Won’t Ask You Why,” while encouraging compassion over hate in the awe-inspiring “Say A Good Word.” Album closer “Waycross, Georgia,” encompasses the end of the journey, thanking those along the way. As she approaches subjects of aging, loss, suicide, and service, an arc of compassion elevated to something far beyond words is transmitted. The delicate fierceness encompassed in the riveting power of her voice has somehow only grown over time.

Stalled partway through by the pandemic, the record took six years to make with the help of three friends and co-producers: Richard Bennett, Pieta Brown, and Jim Rooney. It was Pieta Brown who gave the record its final push.

“Pieta asked me what had come of the recordings I’d done with Jim and Richard in 2019 and 2020. I told her I’d pretty much given up on trying to make a record. She asked would I mind if she had a listen. So, I had everything we’d done sent over to her, and not long after that I got a text, bouncing with exclamation marks: ‘You have a record and it’s called Workin’ On A World!’” With Bennett back in the studio with them, Brown and DeMent recorded several more songs and put the final touches on the record in Nashville in April of 2022.

The result is a hopeful album — shimmering with brilliant flashes of poignant humor and uplifting tenderness — that speaks the truth, “in the way that truth is always hopeful,” she explains.

Reflecting on the lyrics of the song “The Sacred Now” (“see these walls/ let’s bring ‘em on down / it’s not a dream; it’s the sacred now”), DeMent is reminded of Jesus saying the Kingdom of God is within you and the Buddhist activist monk Thich Nhat Hanh saying the rose is in the compost; the compost is in the rose. On Workin’ On A World, Iris DeMent demonstrates that songs are the healing and the healing arises through song. 

Folk veteran Iris DeMent shows us the ‘World’ she’s been workin’ on

February 24, 20234:46 PM ET

Heard on All Things Considered

“I really believe that I have been given an ability to deliver my songs,” says the folk and country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. “Not everybody’s going to get them, but there’s people that get them – and they need them.” For over 30 years Dement has been one of the most distinctive and spiritually searching voices in roots music, work that has netted her a couple of Grammy nominations, though never quite making her a household name. Her newest album, Workin’ on a World, is out today.

DeMent, born in Arkansas and the youngest of 14 kids, says she mostly grew up in the church, where she learned to ask a lot of questions about their faith by watching her mom – a questioning nature that shows up in her songs all the way back to her 1992 debut, Infamous Angel.

“Everybody is wondering what, and where they all came from / everybody is worried about where they’re all gonna go when the whole thing’s done,” she sings on “Let the Mystery Be,” “but no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me / I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”

DeMent is as authentic as they come, says country music historian and Hall-of-Famer Marty Stuart. “You can listen to most artists and tell who inspired them or where they tipped off from,” he says. “There are very few artists that are so original that that is almost nonexistent. What I hear, when I hear Iris, is just a total original.”

Stuart produced a song that’s been an introduction for many to DeMent’s work, a quirky duet from the late ’90s that she sang with her longtime collaborator, the late, legendary John Prine. DeMent remembers when Prine faxed her the lyrics to the now-famed song, “In Spite of Ourselves.”

“I saw the words and … I came out of the Pentecostal church and I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I mean, like, my heart started racing. I can’t do this.”

Here’s what Iris wound up singing:

“He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays, I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies / He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done / drinks his beer like it’s oxygen / He’s my baby and I’m his honey / I’m never gonna let him go…”

DeMent says, with a smile, that – not atypical for a clutch of Prine lyrics – “of course, everybody loved it.”

Prine died after contracting COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, joining a growing group of figures in DeMent’s life that are no longer physically here but who still show up in the music.

“John was so present when he was here. Like a few other people I know … my mom [is] in that category … they were so here,” DeMent says. “I don’t want to be all spooky about it, but I feel like I carry him and that’s just a wonderful feeling.”

You can hear those presences guiding her within the songs of Workin’ on a World, all written at home, in Iowa City – the title track, which begins the record, was penned right after the 2016 election.

“I got so down in trouble, I nearly lost my head / I started waking every morning filled with sadness, fear and dread,” she sings. “I sing that song and I get fortified,” DeMent says. “I feel like a part of this human family that’s been here a really long time and some number of us is going on, and I’ve got work to do.”

Fellow songwriter Ana Egge was excited when DeMent showed her these new songs last year. She says they speak to the influence DeMent has on musicians like her.

“I remember one time, she said, ‘Ana, do you think anybody ever asked Johnny Cash who Johnny Cash should be?’ ” Egge says. “She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ She said ‘Be who you are, figure that out, and keep figuring that out.’ “

DeMent says that, even at 62, she keeps figuring it out.

“For some weird reason, the kind of culture we live in makes it even more difficult to remember what we know,” Dement says. “I think I write in a way that’s what I’m trying to do for myself, and I use them for myself in that same way and then I send them (my songs) out into the world.”


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