sidetracks & detours through TRACKLESS WOODS
by Norman Warwick
It was by pure chance that Iris DeMent (right) opened the book of Russian poetry sitting on her piano bench to Anna Akhmatova’s Like A White Stone. She’d never heard of the poet before, and didn’t even consider herself much of a poetry buff, but a friend had lent her the anthology and it only seemed polite that she skim it enough to have something interesting to say when she returned it. As she read, though, a curious sensation swept over her.
´I didn’t feel like I was alone anymore´, remembers DeMent. “I felt as if somebody walked in the room and said to me, ‘Set that to music´.
So she did. The melody just poured out of her almost instantly. She turned the page and it happened again, and again after that, and before she even fully understood it, she was already deep into writing what would become ‘The Trackless Woods,’ an album which sets Akhmatova’s (left) poetry to music for the first time ever.
‘The Trackless Woods,’ DeMent’s sixth studio album, is unlike anything else in her illustrious career. Beginning with her 1992 debut, ‘Infamous Angel,’ which was hailed as “an essential album of the 1990’s” by Rolling Stone, DeMent released a series of stellar records that established her as “one of the finest singer-songwriters in America” according to The Guardian. The music earned her multiple Grammy nominations, as well as the respect of peers like John Prine, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris, who all invited her to collaborate.
Merle Haggard (right) dubbed her “the best singer I’ve ever heard” and asked her to join his touring band, and David Byrne and Natalie Merchant famously covered her “Let The Mystery Be” as a duet on MTV Unplugged. DeMent returned in 2012 with her most recent album, ‘Sing The Delta,’ which prompted NPR to call her “one of the great voices in contemporary popular music” and The Boston Globe to hail the collection as “a work of rare, unvarnished grace and power.”
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, DeMent and her husband were raising their adopted Russian daughter in their Iowa City home. When she looked back on her own childhood, though, DeMent sometimes felt like there was some intangible element that hadn’t quite clicked yet.
“Growing up, a lot of what I understood about my parents—and many of the adults in my life that were nurturing me—I understood through music,” explains DeMent, who was born the youngest of 14 children in Arkansas and raised in southern California. “I remember noticing that people seem to be most their real selves when they were in the music. My dad would cry my mom would wave her arms around when they sang church music. So I figured out at some point that there was a breakdown there with my daughter. She was six when we adopted her, and there was a whole culture that had been translated to her in those critical years that I didn’t feel like I could get through to with the tools I had. So always in the back of my mind, I had this sense of wanting to figure out how to link her two worlds, Russian and American.”
Akhmatova’s poetry proved to be that link and more, as it drew DeMent into a remarkable journey through Russian political and artistic history.
“Her whole adult working life was marked by this constant struggle to do her work in the face of the Bolshevik Revolution, World War I, World War II, and Stalin,” DeMent says of Akhmatova. “The estimates are that between 20-80 million people died during those 30 years he was in power. One of her husbands was executed, one died in the gulag, and her son was sent there twice just by virtue of being her son. She often lived in poverty and out of other people’s homes, never owned a place of her own. She wasn’t some elevated star figure exempted from suffering, she was right there in it. All of her poetry came out of that.”
Akhmatova’s struggles weren’t unique for her time in Russia, but her poetry still managed to find beauty in a world of pain and ugliness, which DeMent believes is what makes her so deeply loved by the Russian people.
“I think if you listen to her poems, you can hear all that sorrow and that burden in them,” says DeMent, “but there’s always a lightness, a transcendence somehow, a sense of victory over all that inhumanity that she was living with every day of her life.”
It’s only fitting, then, that the album opens with, “To My Poems,” a short, four-line invocation recorded sparsely and simply with just DeMent’s voice and piano as she sings: “You led me into the trackless woods, / My falling stars, my dark endeavor. / You were bitterness, lies, a bill of goods. / You weren’t a consolation–ever.”
That stark pairing of piano and voice forms the heart and soul of all 18 tracks on the album, which were recorded live in DeMent’s living room under the guidance of producer Richard Bennett and with a small backing band that drifts in and out of the arrangements. The music is firmly rooted in the American South, with timeless melodies that could easily be mistaken for long-forgotten hymnal entries or classic country tunes. “From An Airplane” rollicks with a honky-tonk vibe, while “Not With Deserters” is punctuated by a mournful slide guitar and rich harmonies, and “All Is Sold” ebbs and flows over lush pedal steel. That DeMent can make the work of a 20th century Russian poet sound like Sunday morning on a cotton plantation is a testament to her versatility and depth as an artist.
“I learned from this project that I don’t have just one voice, I have lots of voices, and they’re all connected somehow,” says DeMent. “Something happened on this record because the music wasn’t tied to a place from my past or my family history, but it was linked to my daughter by way of her cultural history. I realized writing these songs that I’m linked in some way to another world, as well, and I can hear it in the music, in the way I sang and the choices I made.”
DeMent is quick to credit Akhmatova (and the translators whose work formed the album’s lyrics, Babette Deutsch and Lyn Coffin) for the album’s beauty and magic.
“All of the poems, particularly Babette’s translations, just felt like songs to me from the get go,” says DeMent. “The first four or five I did, the melodies came while I was reading them the first time. That still mystifies me. My gut sense is that they were songs, already. I think she wrote them that way, and Babette picked up on that. They flowed like that. I don’t think there’s any getting around that the music was already in the poems.”
There’s no getting around that the music is in DeMent, too. Twenty-three years after her debut, she’s creating some of the most poignant music of her career, bridging two seemingly disparate worlds with every note.
Iris DeMent makes music that celebrates humanity’s efforts toward salvation, while acknowledging that most of our time on Earth is spent reconciling with the fact that we don’t feel so redeemed. Grounded in hymns, early country songs, gospel and folk, DeMent’s work is treasured by those who know it for its insight and unabashed beauty.”
She has an affinity not only with the music she loves but also with all those draw from and give back to that music. We celebrated the life of the late John Prine (left) on these pages in an article that can still be found in our easy to negotiate archives, (just type in his name at point of entry), Although we celebrated his songs, his humanity and his achievements it barely disguised the sadness of our loss, and judging from what she wrote at the time of his death Iris felt that way about him, too.
She wrote on her web site at https://www.irisdement.com/videos
´Like so many of you, I am deeply saddened by the passing of John Prine. It is my prayer that all the love he gave to this world will be returned ten-fold to his family — the ones he cherished the most — and that that love will help sustain them through their grief.
Having known John for some 30 years now, a flood of memories are swirling around in my head. And as John had a way of making even the most mundane seem special, any one of those memories would be justified in retelling but for now, the quality about John that keeps coming to the forefront of my mind might best be summed up by something Nelson Mandela once said: “It never hurts to think too highly of a person; often they become ennobled and act better because of it.”
We all know that John ennobled the characters in his songs. Any of us lucky enough to have seen one of his shows, knows he also did this for his audience. I, for one, happen to know he did it at truck stops and Dairy Queens, too. John was one of the all-time great ennoblers of others.
Some years ago, I placed a call to my now dear friend, Reverend Samuel E. Mann and I told him I wanted to join his church but that I did not take the Bible literally and I didn’t want to say I believed a bunch of things I didn’t so I could be part of a group. To which, Sam replied: “We do not believe in a magic Jesus. Jesus lived his life loving and caring for ‘the least of these’ — that was the miracle. And it was enough!”
John Prine was, without a doubt, one of the greatest songwriters this world will ever know. Many people more qualified than me have written about why that is. And many more will follow. Greatest or not, here’s what it comes down to for me and here’s why he rests on my heart’s mountain top: Because he cared enough to look — at me, you, all of us — until he saw what was noble and then he wrapped us up in melodies and sung us back to ourselves.
That was the miracle of John Prine. And it was enough´.
Iris DeMent is probably right that there are musicians and academics more ´qualified´ to work out what made Prine´s songs great, but whatever they eventually reveal none of those people could summarises John Prine and his music more eloquently than does Iris in her description above of the miracle of John Prine.
However, in the same way as John found the noble elements of human beings Iris has, over the course of half a dozen significant albums somehow has found poetry found the poetry and the peace even in often turbulent times, and somehow seems to speak (or sing) the sense of so many of the issues troubling us today.
Of Let The Mystery Be in particular, or of Iris DeMent in general, there are some words I found on line that perfectly capture, in a way that I myself could not have done, and express perfectly .my own sentiments about the song and its singer-writer. I can´t fully attribute the writer as the site (Just A Song) didn´t seem to carry his or her name. Whoever, and wherever, he or she is I salute them, and hope those of our readers not aware of, or who have lost touch somehow with, the music of Iris DeMent will feel inspired to follow some of our relevant links.
Look out, then, for more major features coming up in Sidetracks And Detours before the end of the year on songwriters of the stature of james Taylor and John Prine.
The primary sources for this article was the iris DeMent web site at https://www.irisdement.com/videos
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.
As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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