As she took to the stage for a rare live show in the UK, Iris DeMent admitted she was worried no one would turn up on a Monday night. Thankfully the Celtic Connections audience knows that such a trailblazing talent is one not to be missed.
Support came from her stepdaughter Pieta Brown, who had enlisted legendary folk musicians John McCusker and Michael McGoldrick to accompany her. Brown was a warm and engaging performer who told stories of her childhood and family background in music, as well as anecdotes about JJ Cale and Tom Petty. Her song inspired by Loretta Lynn was a particular highlight of her serene and atmospheric set.
Iris DeMent played most of the show at the piano, where this shy performer now finds herself most comfortable. The opening song Mornin’ Glory proved her uniquely charming vocals have lost none of their lustre over time.
The audience were welcomed into her life through the stories she told before the songs, most poignantly about her family. Sing the Delta was dedicated to her mother and written ‘to sing my way to feeling better’ – a simple purpose but one that has served her, and her listeners, well. Other songs were inspired by her adopted Russian daughter – Like A White Stone used the words of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and the Cherry Orchard was written as a response to the Chekhov play.
She also told us the story of the time she was visited by Tammy’s Wynette’s spirit while writing Makin’ My Way Back Home, which she sang with more than a hint of her idol’s devastating vocal power. Tammy’s dizzying heights and tragic ending are fates that an artist like DeMent has avoided, with her natural evasion to the spotlight. Consequently, her talent has gone under the radar, but you have to wonder if that’s the only way to stay true to yourself in the music industry.
It was a nice surprise to see John and Mike return to the stage to join Iris for a few songs. Despite only meeting the day before, the trio had an undeniable musical chemistry. Celtic Connections was made for collaborations like this and seeing musicians dive in to performing other people’s songs is what makes this festival special. The songs she played with the duo were some of her most popular like Our Town, Let the Mystery Be and These Hills, with the fiddle and pipes highlighting that lilting and beautiful melancholia at the heart of her songs.
DeMent has spoken about how she sees her music as ministry, and she made a point on Martin Luther King day of speaking out against poverty and inequality in society before playing the powerful hymns to a better world ‘Justice Rolls Like Water’ and ‘He Reached Down’. Their message of hope and unity summed up this warm-hearted evening of song.