By Craig Harris
NORTHAMPTON Many lists of the top 10 CDs of 2012 included Iris Dement's "Sing the Delta Out," the first album in 14 years for twang-voiced songstress, who turned the clock back to a time when values and family meant something.
With her clear-as-a-mountain-stream soprano set to an underscore of piano, bass, and drums, Dement offered a modern prayer for the American dream. She paid homage to her father ("If That Ain't Love"), a hard-working man who believed that his children came first, and her mother ("Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth" and the title track), who passed away, at the age of 93, while she was preparing the album. Dement will perform some of her newest tracks at the Iron Horse Music Hall on Jan. 19.
"So many people have asked me [why it took so long between albums]," Dement said from the Iowa City home that she shares with her husband, singer-songwriter Greg Brown. "The truth is things come to us and then they don't. You might fall in love at 19, lose that love, and never love again, or, the next day, you might meet somebody new. I see songs the same way. I don't know why I became a songwriter, in the first place; it felt like something told me to do it, so I did. From time to time, the songs would come. If I knew the magic of how to make it happen, I would tap into it more often, but I don't. I'm glad when they come and happy for what they do for people."
Born in Paragould, Ark., on Jan. 5, 1961, and raised, from the age of 3 in southern California, Dement was the youngest of 14 kids born to deeply religious Pentecostal parents. At the age of 25, she wrote her first songs.
"I rely very heavily [on inspiration]," she explained. "That quality that made my first two or three songs live is no different than what gives these songs life. The craft part has developed, but the element that makes them breathe and makes them worth listening to that's something that none of us can control."
The timeless purity of Dement's natural twang was obvious from the onset. "I grew up singing alto with my sisters and in choirs," she said. "At Sunday services, we sang three- and four-part harmonies in church."
Dement's talents were impossible to hide. Attracting the attention of Nashville-based producer Jim Rooney (Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Hal Ketchum), who had been involved with the early-1960s Boston/Cambridge folk music scene, she was still a novice when she cut her first album, "Infamous Angel," in 1992.
Under Rooney's wing, Dement blossomed quickly. "Nobody had heard of me before," she said. "I had gone to open mikes, but, when my first album came out, I had never done an actual show or played for more than 15 minutes at a time. [Rooney] did a lot of great work with respected songwriters and produced some great records. He really helped me tremendously."
Dement's experiences with Rooney continued to be reflected on "Sing the Delta," though the album was produced by her step-son-in-law Bo Ramsey and guitarist Richard Bennett (Neil Diamond, Mark Knopfler).
"[Rooney] encouraged me to use what was already there," she explained, "to be real, to be who I am, and not feel as though I have to put on some face not my own. I took that to heart and that has carried over to all of my records, regardless of who produces them. He was a huge mentor to me.
"[Ramsey and Bennett] have a similar respect for the music as [Rooney]," she continued, "but they come from different backgrounds. Bo has more of a blues and rock orientation and Richard has played everything. He actually played with Liberace. Between the three of us, we had a wide range of inspirations to draw from. At the same time, we love the music and wanted to deliver it as honestly and soulful as we could."
Married since Nov. 21, 2002, Dement and Brown have kept their musical careers and personal lives separate. "We sing around the house the way we both did when we were growing up," Dement said. "He also came from a musical family that had a church overlap. People think that we should write songs, and record together, but we don't work on music together. I'm not a collaborator."
Building her following on heartfelt musical snapshots of small town America, Dement stirred controversy with a song, "Wasteland of the Free" on her last album of new material, "The Way I Should," in 1996.
"When I was experiencing a backlash," she recalled, "it affected me. Sometimes, I felt sad. It wasn't my goal to tick people off, but, as far as the long term, I don't think it affected me much. I still go off, shut the door, and write about what I need to write about, and say things the way that I need to say them, regardless of how someone may take it. I check my heart when I'm writing. As long as I'm in the right spirit, I don't worry about it. If I end up hurting someone's feelings, or offending them, I feel at peace with myself. "
Dement's spiritual roots and love of traditional folk music remain keys to her songs. She released an album of gospel tunes, "Lifeline," in 2004, and included a song, "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray," about challenges to convictions.
"I've never really considered how my influences in folk music and my gospel roots combine," she said, "but they go together more than we think. I learned a long time ago [when I was shopping], I should buy clothes that I like. That way, I know that it's going to fit with other things that I like. I see music the same way. I can mix blues songs with my country and gospel music and know that it's going to go together because I love it. My heart is the thread."
Between albums, Dement remained busy. She sang duets with John Prine, Ralph Stanley, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris, and appeared in the 1996 film, "Songcatchers." With the release of "Sing the Delta," she's still not sure of the direction that inspiration will lead her.
"I have no idea [of the future]," she said, "but I love it when I write a good song, and I hope to have that experience a few more times. It sure is good to be back."