DeMent, the last of 14 children, born in Arkansas and raised in Southern California, grew up immersed in gospel music and traditional country. She was somewhat of a late bloomer as an artist, writing her first song at the age of 25. Her first release, Infamous Angel, initially issued on Rounder in 1992 before being picked up by Warner Bros., immediately established her as a promising and talented artist. Its 1994 follow-up, My Life, earned a Grammy nomination in the Contemporary Folk category and her 1996 album The Way I Should, which addressed political as well as personal themes, brought her a second nomination.
Along the way, several of DeMent’s songs became cultural touchstones. “Let The Mystery Be” found its way to MTV Unplugged as a duet by David Byrne and Natalie Merchant; “Our Town” was played over the farewell scene in the series finale of Northern Exposure. And, the legendary Merle Haggard, who invited her to sit in as his piano player touring with his band The Strangers, subsequently covered two of her songs, “No Time To Cry” and the gospel-tinged “The Shores of Jordan.” DeMent has recorded and toured extensively with John Prine, singing four duets with him on his 1991 acclaimed release “In Spite of Ourselves” and had a minor role in the motion picture Songcatcher as well as contributing a song to its soundtrack.
In 2004 she recorded an album of gospel songs, Lifeline: “I took a bunch of old church songs I love…songs I’ve sung since as far back as I can remember, and sat down at a worn out, warbly piano with some tape rolling.” One of the songs caught on that tape was her rendition of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, the song the Coen Brothers, in 2010, chose to run over the closing credits of their remake of the classic western “True Grit.”
As with Lifeline, in 2012 DeMent released her latest album, Sing The Delta on her own label, Flariella Records. Co-produced by Richard Bennett and Bo Ramsey, Sing The Delta was lauded by fans and critics alike: The Boston Globe called it “a work of rare, unvarnished grace and power”; Rolling Stone noted “these artisanal songs of love and doubt wear their homeliness proudly; the effect is like finding a bountiful farm stand in the middle of nowhere.” And, as in her earlier releases, Sing The Delta was well-received by the folks at NPR, among them Ken Tucker who said “the songs on Sing The Delta only grow more rich, more emotionally complex, the more you hear them.”
And now, 23 years after the release of her debut album “Infamous Angel“, DeMent is preparing for the August release of her latest work: “The Trackless Woods“, a collection of 18 poems written by the late Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and set to music by DeMent. Rest assured there will be more to come on that!
DeMent continues to tour extensively, singing the songs she loves: “My mom, who sang all the time, straight up to the end, said to me one day, not long before she died: ‘singin’ is prayin’. Even though I’m not religious in the way I was brought up to be, I understand what she meant. That’s what it feels like for me. We’re always linked to things bigger than ourselves but when I’m singing is when I most know that. It’s a good place to go…as often as possible!”