TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Iris DeMent has her first album of new songs in 16 years. It's called "Sing the Delta." DeMent's albums in the '90s were highly praised for mixing elements of gospel, country and folk music, as well as for her direct, unadorned lyrics. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that "Sing the Delta" proves that DeMent's music is as strong as it's ever been.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "SING THE DELTA")
IRIS DEMENT: (Singing) So you're heading down a southern way, passing through the Delta sometime today. In the moon, pictures line the walls of a place I used to know and I vividly recall.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Iris DeMent possesses one of the great voices in contemporary popular music: powerfully, ringingly clear, capable of both heartbreaking fragility and blow-your-ears-back power. Had she been making country albums in the '70s and '80s and had more commercial ambition, she'd probably now be considered right up there with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.
Instead, she's lived a very contemporary life, a somewhat private life. As she recently told an interviewer, there's a lot that goes into life besides songwriting. And she's taken her time in composing songs that fit into no genre easily.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BEFORE THE COLORS FADE")
DEMENT: (Singing) Before the colors fade from view, I sit alone remembering you, and all those things you'd say and do and the thrill of being next to you. The angles of your...
TUCKER: The central tension in DeMent's music is her relationship with her faith. The youngest of 14 children, raised in a Pentecostal church and singing in the choir as a child, DeMent took her faith seriously enough as an adolescent and as an adult to question it - a subject addressed in a new song called "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THE NIGHT I LEARNED HOW NOT TO PRAY")
DEMENT: (Singing) I was laying on my belly on the middle of the living room floor. I was watching "Howdy Doody" so I guess that it was right around 4 when I saw my baby brother tumbling from the top of the stairs. He was lying limp and silent and the blood was dripping through his shiny hair. When my mom saw little brother, she said, hon, you better run and get your dad. And her voice was high and she was shaking so I knew this was bad.
(Singing) Well, we stood out by the mailbox watching her and Dad and brother drive away and I didn't waste no time but got down on my knees right there and I began to pray. Well, I prayed...
TUCKER: Losing one's faith while loving the comfort and inspiration it can provide for others and for herself - that's a vexed subject for DeMent. But to her constant credit, it never results in ponderous or pretentious or overreaching music. Listening to these new songs, you get the sense of DeMent paring every line down to its essence, deleting adjectives that merely decorate a lyric, or crossing out any verse that doesn't quite say what she wants as forthrightly as she knows in her head and her heart it ought to.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKIN' MY WAY BACK HOME")
DEMENT: (Singing) Makin' my way back home. It's been the longest time. Not since I was a little child have I felt so good and fine. The easiest thing I've ever done, I go on in through an open door. All those things that held me down, well, they just don't matter anymore.
TUCKER: DeMent co-produced "Sing the Delta" with Bo Ramsey and Richard Bennett, and their arrangements emphasize DeMent's voice and piano playing first and foremost in the mix. In the song I just played, "Makin' My Way Back Home," you can hear nice, subtle touches of pedal-steel guitar and some soft drumming.
I will confess that the first time I played the album through, it seemed pretty and a little slight to me. I now realize it's because I'm so used to big, emotional statements framed by big, emotional music, and Iris DeMent's music is the opposite of that. The songs on "Sing the Delta" only grow more rich, more emotionally complex, the more you hear them. And I plan to keep listening to these songs for a long time.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Iris DeMent's new album "Sing the Delta." You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
I'm Terry Gross.