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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Singer Iris DeMent made her debut in 1992, with an album titled "Infamous Angel." Rolling Stone magazine later called that collection, quote, "an essential recording of the 1990s." DeMent went on to perform with the likes of John Prime, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Merle Haggard. But it's been 16 years since the Grammy-nominated artist put out a CD of original tunes. Now, her full-throttled soprano is back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'SING THE DELTA')

IRIS DEMENT: So you're heading down a southern way, passing through the Delta sometime today. In my mind, pictures line the walls of a place I used to know, and I vividly recall...

MARTIN: That's "Sing the Delta." It's the title cut off Iris DeMent's new album. The reference to the Delta is the Arkansas Delta, where her family's from. DeMent says this is the song that made it clear to her, it was time to go back into the studio.

DEMENT: That song, I wrote at a time when my mom was kind of slipping away. She was 93 and becoming ill, and things weren't looking good. And that song, I think, just came out of like, a realization I had one day; the degree to which she had embodied a whole culture, and passed that onto me. And that was that part of the country, the Arkansas Delta. You know, they took us out to California when I was 3 years old. But my sense of home was always that part of the country. And a lot of what I had stamped on me musically, and Sunday dinner-wise, religion - and everything else, was a direct outgrowth of that region of the country.

MARTIN: You mention religious faith, and the imprint that it made on you. Let's listen to a little bit of another song here. This is called "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray." Let's take a listen.

(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'm guessing 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...

MARTIN: This is a literal story? This is what happened?

DEMENT: That is a story that was told to me by someone I knew quite well; who had told me one day that they had become an atheist when they were really young. And I asked them why. And that story - more or less, that version of it - was told to me, and really made an impression on me; and I carried it around for a lot of years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NIGHT I LEARNED HOW NOT TO PRAY")

DEMENT: (Singing) ....and that was the the night I learned how not to pray, 'cause God does what he wants to, anyway...

MARTIN: What was the religious tenor of your household?

DEMENT: It was full Gospel - fundamentalist, I guess you'd call it. You know, there was hell and there was heaven, and the in-between was just kind of preparation to get to the better place...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: To one or the other.

DEMENT: ...when you died. Yeah, that was everyday life. Your primary focus was staying out of the bottom side ...

(LAUGHTER)

DEMENT: ...of the afterlife. And I have zero regrets about having been brought up that way. In fact, I can't even put into words how grateful I am for it. I mean, there was some - useless things and some - I suppose somewhat damaging things, that I got from it. But I also - wow, I don't know how to put it into words. There was this sincerity in there as well, and a really good message that came through, you know, about the - what's going on underneath the waters of life. And my parents just gave me a gift I can't even put a figure on, you know.

MARTIN: Hmm. I wonder if singing is something that is a discipline for you; is a practice that you - that you do every day?

DEMENT: Singing, for me, is - it's - you know, my mom, who sang straight up till the day she died - literally, come to think of it - told me one day, she said, you know, Iris, singing is praying; and praying is singing. She said, there ain't no difference.

So I think even though, you know, I've left the church and moved away from a lot of the things that didn't do me any good, I continue to pray. And that is singing, for me. That's as close as I get to praying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THAT AINT LOVE")

MARTIN: Family seems to be something that's important to you, in particular. And I'd like to play another song that may speak to that. It's called "If That Ain't Love," and this is the story of a hardworking father. Let's take a listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THAT AIN'T LOVE")

DEMENT: (Singing) My daddy worked at the Movieland Wax Museum. He was the guy who kept the cobwebs off Sophia Loren. Every morning at 5, he'd get up and go to work, wearing his name across the pocket of his shirt...

My dad wasn't a big talker; he wasn't a showy person. But he was very devoted to us kids. And I remember my dad coming home from work - and my mom always had all the food on the stove, you know. And I remember my dad coming in, and he'd look at that food and he'd say, May, have all the kids eaten? And I knew that my dad would not touch that food (pauses) until we had all eaten, you know. So he was really quiet about what he did. So that's how that song came about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THAT AIN'T LOVE")

MARTIN: When you set out to write a song, do you already have the story in your head?

DEMENT: Um - I think maybe the answer to your question is, I come out - very much out of that country tradition of writing. And it kind of revolves around what they call the hook line, for better or worse. So I think I'm hooked on the hook line.

MARTIN: (LAUGHTER)

DEMENT: I tend to - there's like, this line. And somewhere in my brain, the story just revolves around it, whether I know it or not. I know that I have never written a song - with the exception of the last song on this record, "Out of the Fire" - without a hook line to start with, which I am a little embarrassed to say. It...

MARTIN: Huh.

DEMENT: ...seems like I should be able to do something other than that. (LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I wonder how "Out of the Fire" came to be, then, if it was exception...

DEMENT: Well, you know, that's a song that almost didn't get on the record 'cause, you know, I was kind of just plinking around, on the melody of that song, in the studio when we - recording "Sing the Delta." And Bo Ramsey, one of the producers on this record, kept coming over and saying, what's that? And I'd say, oh, that's nothing; I'm just fooling around. And after about a week of that, he said, what the heck is that?

MARTIN: (LAUGHTER)

DEMENT: And then he said, you have got to finish that. And just - you know, his confidence in it, stirred me to complete my first song that did not have a hook line. And it was really scary. It's weird, isn't it? But, you know...

MARTIN: It was scary just because the way it came to you was so different?

DEMENT: Because - because it was more like, free-floating. I didn't know what the song was about. I had to just trust a feeling inside, that it was right.

MARTIN: Well, that sounds like the perfect song to conclude our conversation with. Iris DeMent, without a hook line:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF THE FIRE")

DEMENT: (Singing) On a gravel backroad, down deep in the fall. So long ago, how well I recall...

MARTIN: Well, if I may say, I think writing without a hook line worked out for you.

DEMENT: Thank you.

MARTIN: Iris DeMent - her new CD is called "Sing the Delta." She joined us from member station WSUI in Iowa City. Iris, thanks so much for talking with us. It's been a pleasure.

DEMENT: Thank you. I enjoyed talking to you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF THE FIRE")

MARTIN: You can listen to more music from "Sing the Delta," at NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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