OK, so many will never have heard of her, and those that have may struggle with her voice and her accent, but in ‘Sing the Delta’ Iris DeMent has produced a glorious album that well repays the time to get familiar with it. The songs are a mix of gospel, folk and country. Her self-taught piano playing is straight from church, her extraordinary voice, sounding sometimes like that of an innocent child and then all tired and bluesy, soars and swoops and then rests alongside the melodies and draws from you the time required to get familiar with the album.
It’s an album for grown-ups, full of beautiful songs of family, and place and wistful longing. Songs of memory and faith and bereavement. And it’s her first album of new material in 16 years. The incredible thing about all her albums is that at first her accent is almost incomprehensible, but if you stick with it and repeat the listening, snatches of lyrics make their way through and are all the more beautiful for having taken their time to unfold.
Her family features strongly and the faith they all grew up in. Indeed if you ever attended a Mission Hall you will recognise the piano rolls and runs of the type that accompanied the hymn-singing of my teenage years. I can see Mrs Boles, playing by ear, and the Dillon brothers, faces red with effort, and arms counting time for the congregation until they point to the heavens as they and we strain to reach the heavenly conclusion of something from Sankey.
There is so much to recommend on this album. In ‘If That Ain’t Love’ she juxtaposes beautifully a memory of her dad praying for her in a shed with hearing Aretha Franklin singing Precious Lord on her car radio and being overcome with the beauty. On ‘Mama Was Always Tellin’ Her Truth’ she writes of how when it came to her mother and her emotions there ‘wasn’t no backburner on the stove’
Faith lost and maybe found is a consistent theme. In ‘The Kingdom Has Already Come’ she sings
Stopped in the church to pray
It was the middle of the day
And I don’t even know if I believe in God.
But I laid my soul on the table
And I left that place believing I was able
To open the curtains
My fears had drawn
This is followed by ‘The Night I Learned How Not to Pray’ narrating a family story told her by a friend in which the youngest boy in the family dies in an accident. And when God doesn’t answer prayers the narrator loses faith and can’t speak of the event for 41 years. The melody and instrumentation of the song belie the heavy content of the song.
But for me the most wonderful thing about this collection of songs is its affirmation of life and relationship and place and this world, in contrast to a faith and religious tradition which encourages escape. The most uplifting song on the album is ‘There’s A Whole Lotta Heaven’ where DeMent sings,
I’ve been saved by the love of people living right here,
And there’s a whole of heaven shining in this river of tears…
You can take the streets of gold if you really want them
and the mansions so dear
but I’ll take the whole lot of heaven that’s shining in this river of tears.
As a friend said, ‘the best worship album of the year’. I think it may very well be the best. Full stop.