Warrior of Love
An intimate conversation about music, faith, and our nation with Iris DeMent, one of the greatest country singers and songwriters of all time.
The lyrics hit me like a brick in the face.
Let me be your Jesus
I’ll lift you out of hell
Protect you from the heathen press
And the infidel
I’ll lead you to the Promised Land
Where everyone is white
And everything that’s so wrong now
Will be so very right
Iris DeMent sang the lyrics quietly, in her beautifully Arkansas twang, almost in a whisper. Although the song never mentioned Trump, I could see the lyrics coming out of his toothy mouth in a clipped New York accent, underneath that sprayed-down, combed-over helmet of dyed-auburn hair. The image unfolded in my head, and I could see him, telling his faithful that in his Promised Land “everyone is white.”
The song gave face to a deep fear I share with many people. For thirty years, I’d grown used to Iris spouting truth to power. A quarter century ago, I heard her tell naked truth about politicians, preachers, and the corporate greedy.
Living in the wasteland of the free
Where the poor have now become the enemy
“Let’s blame our troubles on the weak ones”
Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy
Living in the wasteland of the free
“Go ahead and shoot me if it floats your little boat. But I'll live by my conscience even if that's all she wrote. I’m going down to sing in Texas, where anybody can carry a gun.”
But here she was in 2023, sixty-two years old, blasting the world’s bastards with even fierier fervor, proclaiming in the opening of a jaunty, happy-sound song, “I’m going down to sing in Texas, where anybody can carry a gun.” Here she was singing tribute to the real heroes of our age, like the late John Lewis and the hundreds who marched with him across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday in 1965.
Six hundred strong
They marched straight into a sea of blue
Trampled by horses, tear-gassed
But all this and such
Don’t amount to much
To a great warrior of love
All these songs appear on Workin’ on a World, only the seventh album in a singing and songwriting career that now spans thirty-one years—half of Iris DeMent’s life. It’s a career I have followed loyally and fervidly since it began. Because Iris DeMent and I have eerie parallels in our lives. First, we were born only five days apart. Iris is just a smidge older than I am. Her mother was a gospel singer named Flora DeMent. My mother was a gospel singer named Flora Reece. And Iris DeMent had sealed our bond on her first album, which concluded with a duet she sang with her mother on an old hymn called “Higher Ground.” I bawled like a baby when I first heard it, half my life ago, because “Higher Ground” had been one of the last songs I heard my own mother Flora sing before she succumbed to cancer when I was eleven. The words Iris said on her first album as she introduced this duet could have been my own: “No voice has inspired me more than my mother’s. She showed me that music is a pathway to higher ground.”
Ever since, I have depended on Iris DeMent to express the inner tug-of-war I’ve endured throughout my life: the certain knowledge of the inspiration and the holiness I have always found in the simple hymns I grew up with, versus the clawing doubt of doctrine that reduced every choice in life to a simple binary: either do what we say or go to hell.
My struggle, I knew, was also Iris DeMent’s. This year’s Workin’ on a World album reflects my own feelings. It’s divided between songs of outrage against those who claim Jesus but whose actions don’t mirror His at all and songs of encouragement for all who fight the good fight. A prime example of the latter is “Mahalia,” where Iris sings, “I hear you sing ‘How I Got Over’/And straight into my heart your voice lands/So I move in a little closer/’Cause you make me feel like I can.”
After I listened to Workin’ on a World, I had a strong feeling. I need to talk to Iris. After all, I had always wanted to. I wanted to tell her my story, how I had a Flora who must have been a lot like hers. I wanted to thank her for how her music had brought me comfort and strength through half of my life.
In April, the stars aligned. A week after I saw Iris bring a standing ovation from a packed house at City Winery in Atlanta, I sat down to talk to her via Zoom from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. I told her my story about our two Floras, then she said, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’ve a hunch we could talk for about a half an hour at least about this.”
We could have, but we skipped that so I could talk to her about her life and her new album—how it came to be and why. That conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
Chuck Reece: You were one of thirteen kids, is that right?
Iris DeMent: Well, I’m the last of fourteen.
CR: Your family left Arkansas when you were only three, is that right?
CR: So, did you grow up primarily in California?
ID: Yes. Orange County. I don’t know much history you want here, but when my folks left Arkansas, my parents had moved off of the farm just before my sister Zelda was born—a couple years before I was born. They built a little house in town—the town of Paragould, Arkansas—and my dad took a factory job. So, what took us out to California is that my dad had been involved in staging a wildcat strike at the Emerson [Electric Company] plant in Paragould, and had spent a year on the picket line there. They didn’t achieve getting a union, and there was just a lot of bad blood in the town, and within the family. And my mom and dad decided to move in response to that, to move out to California.
I think my folks, my dad in particular, could see the writing on the wall, that there just really wasn’t a future, at least in terms of financial, hopeful opportunities for the rest of us kids. So, that’s how we wound up out there.
CR: You graduated from high school in Orange County?
ID: I didn’t graduate, but I did drop out of high school in Orange County. Yeah. I got my GED. I made it through tenth grade, and my dad retired around that time, and they moved to northern California. So, I stayed in northern California with them for about a year, and then wound up going all over the United States, and settled in Iowa.
CR: You have been settled in Iowa for a good long time now, right?
ID: Well, my husband [the respected singer and songwriter Greg Brown] is from Iowa, so I made the transition from Kansas City, Missouri, up to Iowa City, where I’ve been for maybe ten years now.
CR: I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s a wonderful town.
ID: Iowa City is. Yeah. The folks on the right started calling it the Republic of Iowa City.
CR: Sounds kind of like where we live, in Atlanta, which is a very big blue dot in the middle of a big red sea.
ID: I was just in Atlanta.
CR: I know, and I was at the show. It was wonderful. I’ve seen you three times, and this was the best one. You seem to be much more comfortable on stage than you did when I first saw you like 25 years ago.
ID: Depends on what night you catch me.
CR: Oh, really?
ID: Yeah. I don’t think “comfortable” is the word I would ever use, but sometimes I am more at ease than other times. Maybe it’s because of the kind of songs I write and sing, but I just always feel. ... There’s always an edge, an element of danger and risk that I never feel removed from.
“The world that I came out of, it was very wrapped up in fundamentalist religion and beliefs. I think for me, I’ve spent a good part of my life, to use the metaphor, peeling the onion away, to find out what was at the heart of that, what was of value and what I needed to keep.”
CR: It was a marvelous show. I mean, from start to finish, I enjoyed it so much. One of the things that I have always related to closely when I listen to your music is the way that it sort of wrestles with the faith that you grew up with. And the way I’ve always perceived it was that you had difficulties with that faith, but somehow you never lost your affection for it. Would that be a fair statement, or not?
ID: The world that I came out of, it was very wrapped up in fundamentalist religion and beliefs. I think for me, I’ve spent a good part of my life, to use the metaphor, peeling the onion away, to find out what was at the heart of that, what was of value and what I needed to keep. And I just always, I guess, instinctually understood there was something in the middle.
I’m still actually trying to peel things away and identify that core. I think occasionally I have managed to achieve that in some songs—I will give myself that—and then put those out in the world. But there’s just an awful lot that was very troubling. And the older I get, I recognize it as even being more troubling than I knew. The rise of evangelical nationalism, next to global warming, I think, is one of the main threats we face right now, and it’s bone-chilling to me. It’s loaded territory, to put it mildly.
But meanwhile, there was something at the heart of that which I would call the gospel—the good news of love and justice, the message that Jesus taught us. Jesus and a lot of other folks, I might add. But that message is there, and I don’t know of anything more valuable and more worth holding onto than that. So, I’m always trying to find my way to that. And there was something about the delivery of that, when you get away from all of the sickness—I’ll just call it sickness—that was there. There’s something really honest and real and meaningful. I mean, it comes through the music.
Just to sum it up, I have, through my music, I think, spent most of my life trying to identify and preserve, and translate, and put out into the world what I feel that was at the heart of that onion, that needs to be preserved. I don’t know how well I’ve done that, but I’ve tried.
CR: I always saw parallels in the things that you were wrestling with through your songs and what I was wrestling with in my life. I remember half our lives ago, when Infamous Angel first came out, and I heard “Let the Mystery Be,” that’s kind of where I was getting to in my own evolution—away from that fundamentalist teaching of my birth. I was acknowledging that there is a mystery there to life. There are things that I can’t understand, but I feel this force for good, and it’s mysterious, and maybe I’m better off if I just let that be what it is.
ID: Yeah. One thing I was thinking about earlier today—about my religious upbringing, and you might relate to this—is it seemed that anything that caused you to feel fear was presented to me, in the church, as the voice of God talking to you. Right?
CR: Right. Right.
ID: So, one of the ways that translates today, with gender fluidity, is “Oh, if you’re uncomfortable with that guy in his dress, or whatever, that’s God talking to you.”
ID: I don’t even know how I got off on this here with you, but I see it happening today. I hear that speech coming from the religious right, and it’s familiar to me. It’s like, if you’re afraid of the thing, then it’s wrong, and God would have you avoid that thing.
ID: That’s how the world was presented to me. There was just such a narrow, rigid view of what God approved of, what got His approval. Any unknown was frightening. Your fears were always validated, is what I’m trying to say. I just see so much of what’s being enacted today just coming out of fear and the belief, in fundamentalist religion, that if you’re afraid of it, it’s God talking to you. It’s not just your fears that need to be visited and addressed. It’s like it was handed down from above.
CR: The more I matured, I began to see what I was being told in the church as extremely binary. The way I talk to people about it today, I say, in terms of the religious instruction that I received as a kid, I would ask, “Okay, why do we do this? Or why do we say that?” And the answer was pretty much always a form of, “So you won’t go to hell.”
CR: So, I got to this place, as soon as I graduated from high school and went off to college, I just got away from religion, period. But there were parts of it that never left me, particularly the music. A time when I particularly related to what you were doing in your career was when you put out Lifeline [a 2004 album filled with hymns Iris grew up with]. When that record came out, I was like, “I love all those songs. I can’t not love them. I grew up with all of them.” I heard the record and I was singing along with every single song on there. Those songs were things I grew up singing in church, and I could feel that you had a love for that stuff, too. But I was never quite sure of what your intention was in making that record. Was it just to express the kind of love I’m describing? What motivated you to do that one?
ID: During that time, I was going through a really dark depression that went on for several years, and I observed, somewhere in there, that the only songs I was singing around the house were those old church songs. I’m singing around the house, and they are helping me get through one of the darkest times in my life. And I thought, “There’s something in here that someone else may need as well.” So, that was, in a nutshell, what led me to go sit in a little room and record. For most of those songs, I essentially was recording in a little room by myself. And then we brought players in on a few. I called it Lifeline. I mean, I saw my mom do that. I saw my mom go to those songs the exact same way I was going to those songs.
I don’t know, a lot of it is beyond the (lyrical) content. It’s the life force underneath there. And for my mom and different people who brought those songs to me, I think even they recognized the limitations. There’s always limitations, but there was something real and sustaining in there that drove my mother to deliver them to me. It was a lifeline to her, and when I sing those songs, it’s not a religion for me, it’s my mom and my loved ones reaching out to me through the ancestors, saying, “You can do this.” And if you listen to the songs that I chose, they’re pretty basic things. You could take Jesus and God out of there, and I think they’d apply to anybody of any faith, or non-faith. That would be an interesting exercise there, to listen to those songs and peel them back that way.
CR: I’ve always thought that “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is just one of the most beautiful songs ever written, period. Where do you stand on matters of faith these days?
ID: I don’t know where I stand. Some days I don’t think it would be a stretch to call me an atheist or an agnostic. But I don’t really get all tangled up in that. I don’t care what your religious beliefs are: I think that song just applies. There’s something ancient, even if you call it the ancestors, there’s some continuity thing here going on, that everybody who gets through very many days is leaning on.
ID: So, that’s the element in those songs that I was connecting to when I was using them to stay afloat—and why I decided to pass them on to others for the same reason. But sadly, some of those things I’ve kind of steered away from performing live. It’s all become so cluttered up in a really ugly, nasty, violent way to such a degree, that I feel like those songs are even being ripped away from me. I don’t know, I don’t want to be identified with that movement. I don’t want to be linked to that in any way, shape, or form. So, I’ve been trying to figure it out, as I have since I was seventeen when I left the church because the preacher told me I had to wear nylons. I’m still trying to figure out, how can I continue to own these songs? It’s tricky.
CR: It is. I grew up playing the piano in church, and I’ve played some guitar, although I’m bad out of practice these days, but those songs still come out of my mouth and my fingers, and I can’t help it. When I think about my dad and my mom, I hear a song, more than things they said to me.
ID: Yeah, me too, very much.
CR: What you’re describing and how the kind of faith that you and I were brought up in is being swallowed by these truly evil forces, it’s hard to come to terms with. I’ve heard you struggling to do that for a long time. I listened back through all of your records getting ready to talk to you. I think of that song “Wasteland of the Free,” over 25 years ago, where you were calling out preachers and politicians for the same things that we’re seeing now. You could see it happening even back then, but it just gets worse.
ID: It’s been going on forever. I’m reading a book called Arc of Justice that came out in 2004. It’s a wonderful book, by the way, if you haven’t read it. It’s by Kevin Boyle. It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
It revolves around this family, this couple, the Sweets, a Black family moving into a white neighborhood in Detroit, in the 1920s. A mob shows up at the house, and one of the Black folks defending their home shoots and kills somebody on the street—a white person of course. It becomes a big national story, and Clarence Darrow ends up representing this Black family. The writer just goes into a lot of history around that time and earlier, and I’m just repeatedly struck by how familiar everything is, like the events of today and what was going on then. It’s just stunning to me. A lot of the elements that are coming close to running the show right now, it’s the same folks, the same way of thinking, the same policies, and so forth.
CR: And some of these people believe they’re acting on a religious faith very similar to the one you and I grew up with.
ID: Therein lies the rub, right? The book is disturbing me in that way. I don’t know how Jesus got dropped into this. He doesn’t fit there. He’s kind of in a movie that He never belonged in.
CR: I want to move on to talking about the Workin’ on a World record with you. I’ve always felt like you were never shy about making bold statements about what you believe is right and what you believe is wrong. But this record seems particularly in-your-face about that.
ID: The title song, “Workin’ on a World,” definitely marks the beginning of my awareness of how threatening the moment is. I guess you’d call that song the launcher (for the whole album).
CR: The whole record feels pointed to me. One of the things that I noticed in looking at the credits was there was a fair amount of co-writing, which is not something I saw much of on the earlier records.
ID: Well, out of thirteen songs, two were co-written with (my stepdaughter) Pieta Brown, and one, my husband wrote the lyrics and I wrote the melody.
“The folks with the microphones don’t seem to be invested in what we share. So they get a lot of attention, and they’re gaining a lot of ground. What’s alive and beautiful just seems to be under attack around the clock, so we have to push back around the clock.”
CR: That’s “Let Me Be Your Jesus.”
CR: My jaw hit the floor the first time I listened to that song, I was like...
ID: Yeah, with your history, you understood that well, I’m sure. My husband grew up in the fundamentalists. His dad was an Open Bible preacher here in the Midwest. He was born in Iowa, and his dad and mom, they pastored little churches throughout Iowa and Missouri. I think they were in Kansas for a little while. And his dad, he left the church because he started preaching the Bible as metaphor, and you can imagine how well that goes over in a fundamentalist church, and they ran him out, and he became a Bahá’í.
ID: Talk about an open mind.
CR: That’s a transformation.
ID: I never met his dad, but he was a person who was clearly able to look things in the face and make honest assessments and be willing to take another course if needed. I really respect that in people.
CR: What connotations does that word “faith” have for you these days? If I listen to your album, it seems to me you have a lot of faith in the idea that good comes when people treat each other kindly. Like when I hear that “Say a Good Word” song, it just blows me away. It expresses this essential part of being human. But fewer and fewer people seem to be adherent to it.
ID: Yeah. It does seem to be that way. I mean, I feel foolish to even challenge you on that, but I do sometimes think some of the folks with the microphones give us the impression that there’s more of them than there really are. Americans are more or less pretty close to agreement on major issues: abortion, gun control, living wages, access to healthcare, clean water. From everything I’ve read (in the polling), people on both sides of the aisle seem to have a lot in common.
But the folks with the microphones don’t seem to be invested in what we share. So they get a lot of attention, and they’re gaining a lot of ground. What’s alive and beautiful just seems to be under attack around the clock, so we have to push back around the clock. I don’t know what else to do. And I sometimes think, “Gosh, I’m not good at this. I didn’t see myself coming to Earth with this task.”
CR: But the times call on people like us, who think differently than the folks with the loudest voices, to keep pushing back.
ID: We’re good at griping, and rambling through statistics and stuff, but we’re not particularly skilled, it seems to me, at building up the troops. I’m trying to figure that out, and that’s what I was trying to do in my songs. And if I do say so myself, I do feel like I got there on a number of these songs, trying to accomplish that. But, in my day-to-day life, I haven’t quite figured that one out yet, and I’m still working on it.
CR: Me, too, and I think it’s particularly difficult living in the South. I’ve lived in this region my whole life, except for two different occasions of living in New York City. There’s so much reconciliation that needs to happen here. The struggle for a lot of white Southerners has to do with the Lost Cause mythology. We were taught—literally in the public schools—a false version of history, and it’s hard to really come to terms with how much you don’t know.
A couple of months ago, my wife Stacy and I were in Montgomery, and I went to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice that the Equal Justice Initiative built down there. If you go through the Legacy Museum, it’s like, “Oh my God, there is so much I never knew about the history of the slave trade in this country.” And we’re all reckoning with that, but now we’ve got a bunch of people who are pushing back and saying, “Oh, no, we don’t want our children to learn about that.”
ID: When I was listening to you just then, I thought of that old metaphor about your life being a tapestry. But the things that you don’t get educated about are threads that were never woven in. Then, when you’re presented with that thread, how do you figure out how to weave that into this thing that’s already been woven?
ID: It’s this intricate design that’s your life—who you think of as you and your people—and it’s like suddenly, they’re saying, “Oh, these threads over here need to be put into that picture.” And when you think about it, just on a basic logistics level, that’s difficult. And I’m not making excuses for people. It’s got to be done, man. It’s just got to be done. But I do recognize the psychic challenge of doing that. It destabilizes your perception of yourself and your life. Reality was altered by these threads that were taken out. And when that attribute is reintroduced, it shifts everything.
CR: It really does.
ID: Very few of us humans are so brave as to do that. That can be a discouraging thing to sit with. But it can be done. Big things happen as a result of a very small group that can push things forward. So, lest we lose hope here, that’s true, too.
Chuck Reece is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Salvation South, the weekly web magazine you're reading right now. He was the founding editor of The Bitter Southerner. He grew up in the north Georgia mountains in a little town called Ellijay.