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For Iris DeMent, Music Is The Calling That Forces Her Into The Spotlight


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Happy Thanksgiving. For the holiday, we have a recent interview with singer and songwriter Iris DeMent, during which she performed some of her songs. She was born in Arkansas on the Delta, the youngest of 14 children. Her family moved to California when she was 3. They belonged to the Pentecostal church where they all sang. Her version of the hymn "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" was used at the end of the Coen brothers movie "True Grit." DeMent is no longer affiliated with the church. Her song "Let The Mystery Be," which about not knowing what happens after we die, is being used as the theme song on the current season of the HBO series "The Leftovers." DeMent lives in Iowa, and when I recorded this interview her, she was seated at a piano at an Iowa Public Radio studio. But we started with a recording from her latest album, "The Trackless Woods," on which DeMent has set to music the poems of the late Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. Stalin named her an enemy of the state. This poem is about staying in Russia and fighting for what she believed in. It's called "Not With Deserters."


IRIS DEMENT: (Singing) Not with deserters from the battle, that tears my land do I belong. To their coarse praise I do not listen. They shall not have from me one song. Poor exile, you are like a prisoner to me or one upon a bed of sickness. Dark your road, oh, wanderer, of wormwood smacks your alien bread.


GROSS: Iris DeMent, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've said that these poems by Anna Akhmatova spoke to you because you adopted your daughter, Dasha, from Siberia when she was 6 and you wanted to connect with the culture that she's from. How old was she when you started this project?

DEMENT: Dasha would've been maybe about 12 years old. I - yeah, the poems, I first started studying them about four years ago. And, you know, I was playing these song poems around the house while she was running around and playing and half the time, you know, with her headphones on listening to pop music. And I didn't try to pull her along into that. The extent to which she absorbed that is her story to tell and yet to be seen in the future.

GROSS: Akhmatova was accused under Stalin of being an enemy of the state. Her son was imprisoned because he was her son. She lost friends who were executed, but she didn't want to flee. She wanted to stay and fight for her country and be with her country. And she thought that her poems could bring something of value to the people in Russia. Do you have that kind of faith in your own art?

DEMENT: Well, I've not had to endure the test of it to even the slightest degree that she did. But I would have to say that yes, I do. It sounds maybe a little arrogant. I don't know, but yes, I do. I am extremely shy and never wanted to be on a stage, but the music propelled me there. When the songs started coming to me, I felt that I didn't have that option, you know, to hide and avoid my most least desirable spot in life, which is in the spotlight. So I guess that would answer your question kind of, wouldn't it? Yes, I do.

GROSS: As we've talked about places so important to you in this project for Anna Akhmatova but also in your own songs, a couple of years ago you released an album called "Sing The Delta." And the music is very inspired by the Delta where you were born and were raised till the age of 3, and then your family moved to California. You were born in Arkansas. Tell us a little bit about the music you were first exposed to.

DEMENT: Well, the music - I have a very large family. I was actually the last of 14 children. And when I was very young, my parents sold the farm and moved into town. And my dad took a factory job. And the way we wound up in California is my dad had staged a wildcat strike at the Emerson Electric plant with some other guys. And after a year of standing on the picket line, they didn't get the union. So literally, it was a last-minute thing. My dad packed up and hitched a ride out to California. And then later, my brother moved my mom and the last 10 kids out to California in the station wagon. But the music that I heard - my mom sang pretty much nonstop. Anything she was doing, she was singing. And often we'd call it banging on the piano because the only times I remember my mom playing the piano was when things had just gotten pretty tense and awful, and she didn't feel like she could bear it anymore. She would go over there, and she'd take her singing over to the piano and kind of beat out her frustrations, which was quite a thing to witness as a child, I must say. But - so I heard that southern gospel sound. You know, the first non-religious singing - you know, secular, I guess they call it - singing that I heard was these country singers who would put out a country record. You know, that's how I was first introduced to Johnny Cash. And that's how I got to hear, you know, Loretta Lynn and different ones. So what I heard was gospel church music. And it was by real people, you know, people that I knew and whose lives overlapped with mind - until I was about 5 years old, so...

GROSS: So since you are seated at a piano at a studio at Iowa Public Radio, can I ask you to sing a song that you heard in church when you were young that stayed with you and that inspired you musically?

DEMENT: Yeah. There's a long list of them. And I actually, a few years back, put out a record called "Lifeline" that was made up of all the songs that pretty much shaped me and that I lean on still. So which one? (Playing piano) I'll do "Pass Me Not."

(Playing piano, singing) Pass me not, O gentle Savior. Hear my humble cry. While on others thou art calling, do not pass me by. Savior, oh, Savior, hear my humble cry. While on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.

And then there are two other really beautiful versus that - we'll save that for another day.

GROSS: That was beautiful. You know, I...

DEMENT: That's a pretty song.

GROSS: Yeah, and you performed it so well. My guest is Iris DeMent. And she's at the piano. And she has a new album called "The Trackless Woods." So it must have been so great to think of music as something that was really holy, as something that, like, connected you to the Holy Spirit. It wasn't just, like, pop tunes coming over the radio - not that those aren't great, not that that doesn't have a whole lot of meaning (laughter).

DEMENT: Yeah, the side of it that I came from is exactly what you're talking about. I think I had developed this notion that there was something silly about the Holy Spirit idea, if you want to call it an idea. And my deep link that I had in my mind and in my work to all that, it seemed like something that I was supposed to grow out of. I started to sort of separate myself a little bit from some of those ideas. And I started having terrible things happen. Like I couldn't remember my words - songs I'd sang my whole life. I just became paralyzed. And it took a while. It took about a year for me to realize what I had done. And yeah, pretty much when I returned to that place where I started, which is what you brought up in the beginning - that it's the spirit that moves through us - I began to be able to do what I needed to do again (laughter) with a calm. And so I learned a great lesson there. I learned to believe in it and hold onto it, whether I can explain it or not, whether anybody else can or not - 'cause I just happen to be one of those people. I'm going to go under if I don't. And, you know, on that same note, I think another thing that I learned from my parents, who had, you know, pretty difficult, challenging lives, to put it mildly - I saw my parents use music to survive. You know, they - they had to have that music. My mom had to sing. And my dad had to go to church. And he had to hear that music washing over him and through him. It wasn't a, oh, this is nice (laughter). It was a, I'm not going to make it if I don't have that. And so I felt that that's my job. That's how I think of what I do. I have to give people that lifeline, you know, that I saw my parents reach out for and that I was taught to reach out for. And so that's what I aim to do. And I guess I don't feel like I can do that without that connection to the spirit.

GROSS: There was a period of 16 years that elapsed between your albums of original songs, and it was 2012 or 2013 that you released your album, "Sing The Delta." So you were just talking about this period where you felt like you weren't connecting with that spirit. Does that explain the absence of an album of original songs from you during that period?

DEMENT: You know, I think that was - would be safe to say - some of it. A lot happened during that time. As far as musically, I continued to go out and play, and much to my amazement, I still had people that would come and listen and get something out of it. And I would, too. And I made that gospel record during that time, which was - is actually the only record of mine that I can listen, to be honest. That record means a lot to me. And there was a lot going on. I think - you know, I had a struggle for a few years with some pretty severe, you know, down-in-the-dumps kind of stuff that I was battling and just kind of trying to figure out where I needed to go next. And then, of course, in the middle of that, we also adopted our daughter, who had been orphaned until she was 6. And she came with a lot of needs, a lot of attention. And there was a lot that I had to learn about myself in order to do that job too. So I had my hands pretty full. But I feel, just on a personal level, I can see looking back how much I needed that nothingness. I learned a lot, and I feel like I - I grew a lot in myself just as a person. And my - and I can bring all that to the music now. And I don't know. I just - I guess I just accepted that it went along as that was supposed to go, and I didn't do anything wrong. You know, for a long time, I felt like I was doing something wrong because the songs weren't coming. But I'm over that now. And, you know, things have their natural timing and rhythm. And I'm a part of that natural time and rhythm. And it was as it was supposed to be.

GROSS: On your album "Sing The Delta," the album that was your first original - your first album of original songs in 16 years - you have a song called "Go On Ahead And Go Home." And it's home in the sense of death, not in the sense of - you know, it's about crossing over. It's not in the sense of, like, going back to your house.


GROSS: Is there something specific that inspired this song?

DEMENT: Well, one of my older brothers passed away. And that very much led to that song. And it was my - my sendoff to him, my attempt to honor his life.

GROSS: It's a beautiful song. Would you play that song, "Go On Ahead And Go Home," for us? Like, an excerpt of that song that you wrote for your brother?

DEMENT: I would love to.

GROSS: Thank you.

DEMENT: (Playing piano, singing) Go on ahead, and go home. Go on ahead, and go home. Boy, you've done your best, time you took your rest in the sheltering loam. Go on ahead, and go home. Go on ahead. Go home. The spirits of the dead will meet you up ahead, and you won't be alone. Go let your momma see you smile. Go let your momma see you smile. Your momma's gonna wait however long it takes, but it's sure been a while. So let your momma see you smile. Go let your momma see you smile. She's standing in the sun saying, boy, your works been done by long, long, mile.

GROSS: That's Iris DeMent at the piano, performing for us her song "Go On Ahead And Go Home." And that song was recorded on Iris DeMent's recent album, "Sing The Delta." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is singer and songwriter Iris DeMent. She has a new album called "The Trackless Woods." So your parents were Pentecostals, and you grew up in the Pentecostal church. What were some of the things you witnessed when people would feel, like, overcome by the spirit?

DEMENT: Well, you would see people dance; they call dancing in the spirit. People would - they called it being slain in the spirit - you would fall over. People would talk in tongues. I have a memory that I not long ago checked out with some of my sisters because I thought maybe I imagined it, but I can remember sitting on the pew on Sunday night - and we were in church a lot, at least three times a week. But I can remember a young fellow going into a trance-like state and leaping, like, over the backs of the pews and going over my head a time or two. And that was one of the more extreme expressions. So...

GROSS: Was it the kind of church where everybody sang as opposed to there being a separate group of singers?

DEMENT: We had both. I mean, there was lots of - there was the congregational singing. We had a choir. And then there would be different groups, you know. And my sisters had a group - the Big DeMent Sisters. And when I was five, you know, there was a - the Little DeMent Sisters were formed and, you know, I messed up the first performance, which I don't think I ever quite got over. But one thing that I remember, even as a child, is music. I was talking earlier about my discomfort with performing. I didn't like that side of it. Even at a very young age, I felt the music really deeply, and I felt very grown up in the music. I didn't have a sense of myself as being a little kid. I felt this big stuff going on in me. And I remember that first performance, I forgot my words. And I remember the audience beginning to laugh, but they weren't laughing - they laughing in that way that I realized they thought I was cute, and it really troubled me because I didn't - it wasn't that I was embarrassed so much that I'd forgotten my words. I probably would of just gotten right on with it there, you know? But it was that awareness that, oh, this is a performance, you know, and this is something for you to, you know, I don't know, have an - a minimizing opinion of me or of - it felt really weird.

I didn't like that, and I really shied away from performance after that for a long time. I would, you know, I would sing in church, and I'd take a solo now and again. But I found myself waiting till everyone would leave the home so I could really sing, you know. And there's like 10 kids in the house so it - I had to wait around a long time to get a little quiet. But it was always very private, and I always felt very protective of it. I didn't want to be a show to somebody.

GROSS: Your mother sang at church, right?

DEMENT: She sang at church. She was - she sang in the audience, and she sometimes did solos. My mom had that same thing I have. It was always very hard for her to get up and sing. She'd get very nervous and rattled and - but yes, she did. And her and my dad, they've had - they'd have knock-down drag-outs every time they'd do a duet together because my dad had a very different approach to the music.

You know, he knew how to read, and he had the timing. And he was a beautiful singer, too - and musician. My mom was very instinctual, and she'd go off in - on her own beat and everything, which was beautiful, but she wasn't a group singer. She wasn't a group anything, to tell you the truth. But - so it was funny to watch them try to pull that off. And somehow, they managed a long life together.

GROSS: My guest is Iris DeMent. Her latest album is called "The Trackless Woods." After we take a short break, we'll hear a duet she recorded with her mother and DeMent will sing one of her early songs, which is now the theme for the HBO series "The Leftovers." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with songwriter and singer Iris DeMent, who's joining us at the piano, with her guitar by her side, from a studio at Iowa Public Radio. Her latest album is called "The Trackless Woods." One of her early songs, "Let The Mystery Be," is now being used as the theme of the HBO series "The Leftovers." Her music is influenced by the Pentecostal Church, which her family belonged to and sang in. She was born in Arkansas on the Delta and was the youngest of 14 siblings. When we left off, we were talking about how DeMent's mother loved to sing but had to do it her own way, which made it difficult to sing duets in church with DeMent's father.

You recorded a duet with your mother that's on your first album, "Infamous Angel." And I'd like to play that duet. It's of the song "Higher Ground." Do you want to introduce this recording for us?

DEMENT: It's funny that you moved into that because I just remembered I was talking - what I was saying about my mom, how she just had to do things her own way, I brought her in - that was my first record. And that was her first time to go to Nashville. And it had been my mom's dream to go off and be a singer in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry way back in the day. And keep in mind, my mom was born in 1918, so we're going way back there. And she never made it - married my dad and had a bunch of kids instead. But when I did my first record, I brought her to Nashville, and we got in the studio. And I wanted her to sing that song with me. And the original plan was that she would harmonize with me, which was - I don't know, it just - the producer - everybody thought, well, that's how this should go. It's my record. So we get in there, and we did that a bunch of times. And, oh, it was just awful. It was awful. It just wouldn't work. Mom couldn't get with it, and we decided to just to give up on it. We didn't say that, but we stopped. And we starting to leave the room. All the players were leaving. And my mom grabbed the lyrics. She said, let's get on in there, and she told the piano player what key to play it in, and we - she did the song. And we just followed her. And at the end - I don't know if you can hear it - but at the end, she says, now, that was my key.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DEMENT: So - and it was great. I was so happy, you know? And I'm her kid. You know, she's gone now, but it felt so right to be in there and have mom being mom and me being the kid. I loved it. And she sang beautifully and - but there again, it's that thing. She just had her own deal all the way around. And it wasn't a hateful thing. It was like, if I'm going to be here, I got to be the thing I am. And the timing and everything - I've got to do it my way. It's a beautiful thing to witness. And that's what she did and...

GROSS: So let's hear the duet with my guest, Iris DeMent, and her mother recorded in - this is from a 1992 album, which would've made your mother around 74 at the time?

DEMENT: Probably, yeah. That sounds about right.

GROSS: OK, here we go.


IRIS DEMENT AND FLORA DEMENT: (Singing together) I want to scale the utmost heights and catch a gleam of glory bright. But still I'll pray until heaven I've found. Lord, lead me onto higher ground. Lord, lift me up and let me stand by faith on heaven's table land. A higher plain than I have found, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground. Lord, lift me up and let me stand by faith on heaven's table land. A higher plain than I have found, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Now, see, that was my key.

GROSS: So that's Iris DeMent duetting with her mother on Iris DeMent's 1992 album, "Infamous Angel." So did her voice influence your voice?

DEMENT: Oh, God, yes. In fact, I, you know, I won't do it, but I can mimic my mother's voice almost to the T. And I've been doing that since I was a kid. But, you know, so much of that was that my mom, you know, I was aware that the thing she loved and really, really wanted in life didn't happen. And she didn't see, you know, the avenue to get to the place she wanted to go.

GROSS: Which was singing...

DEMENT: And then there was...

GROSS: Singing professionally?

DEMENT: Yeah, she wanted to be a professional singer. And then my dad showed up at church one day with six kids. His wife had died, and they knew each other. They knew each other when they were kids. And she knew she was supposed to marry him and help him raise those kids and then, of course, she went on and had eight more. So her hands were more than full. And I think, you know - well, there's no doubt about it, I mean, there was this merging of my great love for music that went way back to the time I was a child. And my desire to bring her out into the place in the world that she had wanted to go to. So I always felt like every step of the way in my musical life, my mom was walking with me. I was bringing her along with me, and that's how I wanted it. I don't have any regrets about that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is singer and songwriter Iris DeMent, who is also performing for us today in the studio. And she has a new album called "The Trackless Woods." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Iris DeMent. And she has a new album called "The Trackless Woods," which is her musical settings for poems by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. We've been talking a lot about church and the music you grew up with from the church and in the church. And, you know, so much of your music seems connected to that music, that church music that you grew up with. And this is an interesting twist on that, your song "Let The Mystery Be." And that is now the theme song of the second season of the HBO series "The Leftovers." And that series is about people who have just inexplicably vanished off the face of the earth, and some people think it might be the rapture or some other godly or mystical or just mysterious superstitious thing that happened. No one really knows. But you didn't write this for the series. This is from years ago. And it sounds to me like a song from - by somebody who is now secular and saying, I don't know about the answer. I'm not sure if there is a God, but I'm content to live with the mystery.

DEMENT: Yeah. I wrote that about 25 years ago. And yes, that is true. But I think, you know, nowadays, the thing - for where I am now maybe, the way I would describe it is I have - I don't know about God and all that stuff, and I'm not, you know, connected to a particular religion. But I like to think of it as my friend - my preacher friend Sam Mann talks about it - it's the - what always was, what is and always will be. You know, you can maybe sum that up and call it God if you want to; I don't know. But I feel that, and I tie my music up with that.

GROSS: Would you sing some of "Let The Mystery Be" for us?


(Singing) Everybody is wondering what and where they all came from. And everybody is worried about where they'll go when the whole thing's done. No one knows for certain, so it's all about the same to me. I think I'm going to let that mystery be. Some say once gone, you're gone forever, and some may say that you come back. Some say you rest in the arms of a savior if in sinful ways you lack. Some say that they're coming back in a garden, bunch of carrots and little sweet peas. I think I'm going to let that mystery be.

GROSS: That's a great song. That's Iris DeMent singing her song "Let The Mystery Be," which is now being used as the theme song on HBO's season two of "The Leftovers." So is there a story behind your song "Let The Mystery Be"?

DEMENT: Not really. Isn't that disappointing? I mean, you know, we talked a lot about my religious upbringing, and - well, we didn't get a whole lot into how I kind of ventured away from that. When I was 16, I quit going to church because - you know, when I was a little kid, we would - you know, like, I can remember standing on the street. I was, like, the kid on the sidewalk with my tambourine trying to get other little kids saved. That was - you know, I was that little girl.

GROSS: Were you doing that on your own, or were you asked to do that?

DEMENT: Well, it was groups. I mean, we would often do that before Sunday night service, go out into the neighborhood. The preacher would preach a little sermon, and, you know, a group of us - you know, it might be my mom and different people in the church and a couple little kids. I would be one of them. And we would sing, you know, and try to get the kids in. I remember one day standing on the street and seeing these kids on their bicycles who looked like me and realized wow, an hour ago I was out in front of my house riding my bike, and I look just like you. And now you're across the street, and this thing, this religious belief has kicked in that's made me feel like you and I are a universe apart. And I didn't like that; that bothered me. Even when I was a kid, something felt a little ajar there. I couldn't figure that out. So I guess if you want to say is there a story behind "Let The Mystery Be," it might go back that far. So - but for a long time, when I is growing up, I decided OK, you know, if this story's true that everybody that doesn't think and act and carry on like we do is going to the fiery furnace - by the way, my parents didn't say that to me, but the church did. And I - so I went with that story wholeheartedly, you know? And I made it my job to try to get my school friends saved. I thought well, could there be another priority? I mean if - you know, if my friends are going to burn in the fiery furnace, how can I be thinking of anything else? I can't eat my lunch. So I took that really seriously, and I remember one day asking somebody at the church well, I need some New Testaments to give to all the kids at school. You know, that'll help them stay out of the fiery furnace. And I remember one other person I asked kind of smiled at me, that thing I was talking about earlier, like, oh, a cute little kid. And I realized you don't believe this stuff, you know? And so there's a lot of little things like that along the way that started heading me into another direction. And by the time I was 16, I didn't believe that story, you know, that there was all this separation between me and all these other people in the world just because they didn't claim Jesus Christ as their personal savior. I didn't buy it. And I have to say it wasn't my choice to not buy it because it meant having to leave the church, and I loved going to church. I loved the music. I loved, you know, the community and the family. So it was actually a very sad day for me to have to own up to that in myself and know that if I was going to live with any personal integrity, I had to leave. So that's what I did. And so yeah, I mean, the actual day I wrote that song, I couldn't tell you anything about it. But sure, all of that whole history leading up to it, I didn't understand the world, you know, the nonreligious world. And music to me was tangled up in the church. I didn't know what to do with myself. So I mean, that's probably why I didn't start writing 'til I was 25. And - you know, and then...

GROSS: That's really old to start writing. I mean, most people...


GROSS: Who write songs start writing in their teens.

DEMENT: I know. And I'm not kidding you, too, that when I say start writing, I mean I didn't write two lines until I was 25.

GROSS: So what happened...

DEMENT: And...

GROSS: What happened when you were 25 that got you writing?

DEMENT: Well, I dropped out of high school, and I went back to school when I was 23. I'd followed a boyfriend of mine back to Topeka, Kan. I got my nerve up to apply to college at Washburn University, which was very intimidating, you know, because I hadn't been to school since 10th grade. I didn't have any confidence in myself on that level. But I got in, and I had this wonderful English Comp - 101, I guess it was, the beginning-level of English. And my dream from the time I was a kid, I really wanted to write stories. And I was in that class, and she would give us these assignments to write short stories. Well, my grammar was a mess, my spelling was bad, but she would write these beautiful notes every time I'd turn in a story. And that I get - I hadn't thought about in a long time. I get a little choked up. She was so kind to me and so - just little, simple teacher notes, you know? But her red pen, you know, she'd say these really kind things and - you know, you have an imagination. You got the - and it encouraged me. She didn't criticize what I didn't know how to do. And so I just sunk myself into that class. So at the end of that semester, I signed up for the next semester and something had happened, and I suddenly couldn't focus on school because all I wanted to do is write songs. And this door just flew open after that. And they just started coming really quickly and intensely. And I mean, the first song within the first week that I started writing was that song "Our Town," that you talked about earlier. So when it happened, it just happened all of a sudden. I just couldn't picture my life - you know, if something didn't happen that, you know, came to me, a work to do that felt meaningful and purposeful. I just had - I was one of those people - I just didn't know if I was going to be able to live. I didn't know if I could go on. And there came those songs.

GROSS: Would you play that first song that you wrote, "Our Town?" Maybe just play a verse of it?


GROSS: And do you want to introduce it for us, tell us what you were thinking when you wrote it?

DEMENT: Well, I remember that when I wrote this song, I hitched a ride. I didn't have a car at that time, and I was living in Topeka. And I hitched a ride with somebody I worked with. He was going down to Oklahoma, and my brother that I talked about earlier was living in Oklahoma at that time. And I remember passing through this little town that was, you know, your typical dead town there in the Midwest - a lot of boarded-up windows, little white buildings with peeling paint and all the life had gone right on out of it. And that was the first time in my life that I felt a song coming on, like it wasn't just me trying to make something happen. It felt very different, and I just started seeing all these visions of the life that had go on there. And so when I got down to my brother's house - and I remember asking if I could borrow his guitar, and I'd promised I'd bring it back on my next visit, and he was nice enough to let me. And when I got home from that trip, it might've been a day or two later, I remember sitting down on the floor. And I had had all those images - you know, my mind - I guess my brain had been working on on the trip. And the next thing you know, the song came out. And it came out just exactly how it is now. It's one of those rare ones for me that I didn't have to fool around with or change. It was just there, and it was my first song.

GROSS: Would you play a bit of that song for us?


(Singing) And you know the sun's setting fast. Just like they say, nothing good ever lasts. Go on now, kiss it goodbye. But hold on to your lover, 'cause your heart's bound to die. Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town. Can't you see the sun setting down on our town, on our town, goodnight. Up the street beside that red neon light, that's where I met my baby on a hot summer's night. He was the tender, and I ordered a beer. It's been forty years, and I'm still sitting here. But I could see the sun setting fast. Just like they say, nothing good ever lasts. Go on now and kiss it goodbye. But hold on to your lover 'cause your heart's bound to die. Go on now and say goodbye to our town, to our town. I could see the sun has gone down on our town, on our town, goodnight.

GROSS: Thank you. That's Iris DeMent playing for us. And that's the first song that she wrote, "Our Town." When you realized you could write songs, did you think, like, where is that coming from?

DEMENT: Well, no, I didn't because, you know, I probably sound a little like a broken record just talking to you. It's almost surprising to me a little bit to be reminded of how much my present life and my working life is so tangled up in that church, spiritual experience from so long ago. But I had always been taught, you know, growing up that you're supposed to get a calling. They would call it that in church - you know, pray for your calling, pray for your calling. And a faith healer - we believed - you know, had a lot of faith healers in our church - but this woman came through once, and she was a faith healer. And I'd never seen a woman preacher or a woman faith healer. And she was very - you know, I'm not sure now that I'm adult what all she was up to. But as a kid, watching her move and what she was doing, I was really impressed. And I really remember thinking that was what I wanted to be. I wanted to grow and I wanted that. I saw her, and I began to pray that God would give me the gift of healing. I wanted to be a healer. And I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed. I was quite a serious prayer, and it never happened. And here I was, you know, I'm leaving the church and I still hadn't gotten my calling. So I was pretty disillusioned, you know, into my mid-20s, whatever. I was - there was a deep part that was very saddened, you know, and let down because I'd believed that that would happen. It never did. And when that song came to me, it was as if somebody else walked in the room. And I can still remember, like - it wasn't like an auditory thing, but it was like a message. I heard, there you have it, Iris. And I knew what that meant. I knew that meant that's your calling. That's what you're going to do. And I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. There was no ounce of doubt. And even all those years I wasn't writing, there wasn't an ounce of doubt of that. I can't even explain that to you, but I knew that that was that thing that I had been waiting for.

GROSS: Iris DeMent's latest album is called "The Trackless Woods." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Iris DeMent. She's a singer and songwriter whose music is very influenced by the Arkansas Delta. She was born on the Delta. Her parents were from the Delta. But when she was 3, the family moved to California. But her parents were very deep into the Pentecostal church and the Assemblies of God, so she grew up with a lot of music that was very rooted in the Delta. And you can hear that in the songs that she sings. She has a new album called "The Trackless Woods." So I'd love it if you'd close with a song, if you'd play us a song. And how about a song from your latest album, "The Trackless Woods," which features poems by the Russian writer Anna - and I'm not sure whether it's Akhmatova or Akhmatova - you say you've heard it both ways, so I've just said it both ways, so hopefully we're covered.


DEMENT: That's a good plan.

GROSS: And for people just tuning in, she was a Russian writer who was declared an enemy of the state by Stalin and suffered a lot as a result of being a dissident, but you wanted to stay and do her songs. And the song that I'd like you to do to close is called "The Last Toast." Would you say a few words about this poem before you sing it for us?

DEMENT: Well, I love all these poems on this record. I can't even hardly quite get over it still that they've just come to mean so much to me. I guess you could call it - she might've been meaning to sound a little more humor maybe than what - how I delivered it, but I don't know that I have - I think the song pretty much speaks for itself, so maybe I'll just jump right into this one.

(Singing) I drink to the house already destroyed. And my whole life, too awful to tell. To the loneliness we together enjoyed, I drink to you as well. To the eyes with deadly cold imbued, to the lips that betrayed me with lies, to the world for being so cruel and rude, and God, who didn't save us or try.

GROSS: Iris DeMent, thank you so much.

DEMENT: Thank you.

GROSS: Iris DeMent's latest album is called "The Trackless Woods." Our interview was recorded in October. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Peter Guralnick, the author of a new biography of Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Ike Turner and Howlin' Wolf, and our interview with John Kander, who co-wrote the songs for "Cabaret," and "Chicago," and has a new album of his demo recordings and lesser-known songs, check out our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.