Singer Iris DeMent; Santa Fe Symphony
James A. Little Theater, Jan. 15
For her sixth album, The Trackless Woods (2015), Iris DeMent set poems by the late Russian writer Anna Akhmatova to the same haunting yet rollicking country-gospel-inspired music she’s become known for since the release of Infamous Angel in 1992. At a concert on Jan. 15 at the James A. Little Theater, DeMent explained that after she and her husband, singer Greg Brown, adopted their daughter from Siberia a decade ago, a well-meaning friend lent her a book of Akhmatova’s poetry. Though it took DeMent two years to look at the book, once she finally did, she was so enchanted that she turned several of the poems into songs, and “Where I’m from, 10 of anything makes an album,” she told the rapt audience.
DeMent played piano and sang alone on stage for more than an hour, joined for two songs at the end by her stepdaughter, singer-songwriter Pieta Brown, who also opened for DeMent. DeMent’s girlish wail of a voice has an almost hypnotic quality, powerful enough to get you seriously thinking about mortality and what kind of life you’ve led. Many of DeMent’s songs are about salvation and redemption, and the strong love she received from her mother. Flora Mae, she told the audience, lived to the ripe old age of ninety-three-and-a-half, at which point she started rounding up to ninety-four to make herself sound more impressively old. DeMent was her mother’s eighth child — and her father’s fourteenth — a biographical detail that proves her old-timey, familyband style of playing and storytelling is far more than persona. DeMent’s and Brown’s onstage patter drew an enviable, nearly idyllic picture of rural lives spent immersed in music and surrounded by both amateur and professional musicians. The audience, the median age of which skewed upwards of fifty, greeted their stories with warm appreciation.
DeMent sang “When My Morning Comes Around” in honor of David Bowie, a song about the peace and forgiveness of death. Brown also sang a tune for Bowie, telling the audience that she had more than one poster of the late glam-rocker on her walls when she was a teenager. The tributes must have been just two of thousands offered by musicians that night. The closing number was DeMent’s most well-known song, “Let the Mystery Be,” an upbeat tune that neatly summarizes most of DeMent’s favorite themes as well as her lack of emphasis on a specific religion, despite the overtly spiritual dimension of her body of work.
“Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where/They all came from/Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go/When the whole thing’s done/But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me/I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”