In one of the critical lines from Sing the Delta, Iris Dement sings, “When it all goes dark and I start losing vision…I gotta go back to telling my truth.” It’s a sentiment that she tucks away in one of the later verses of “Mama Was Always Telling Her Truth,” a heartfelt tribute to her mother, and it’s indicative of what makes DeMent such a distinctive and deeply empathetic songwriter. Her songs, whether they draw from her relationships with her tight-knit family or recount her struggles with matters of faith, are an unobstructed reflection of her personal truths. DeMent’s extraordinary writing on Sing the Delta, her first album of original material in 14 years, conveys a one-of-a-kind perspective that, somehow, manages to be as unassuming and humble as it is powerful and authoritative.
Like the best country songwriters, DeMent trades in an economic use of language without ever sacrificing the complexity of her ideas. But for the occasional colloquialism (when describing her mother, she notes, “When it came to her feelings/Wasn’t no back burner on the stove,” and, elsewhere, she makes reference to a “frog in a gunnysack”), DeMent says precisely what she means to say in as direct a manner as possible. But while the songs on Sing the Delta may be deliberately plainspoken, they’re also filled with moments of real revelation, from finding parallels between what’s been promised in the afterlife and common day-to-day experiences on “The Kingdom Has Already Come” to seeing the value in immediate, firsthand connections on “Livin’ on the Inside.”
That notion of being fully engaged and present in the world recurs throughout the album, and it’s what gives DeMent’s songs their strong humanist bent. She challenges evangelical views of salvation on “There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven,” singing, “Well, I’ve been saved by the love of the people living right here,” and on the title track she finds herself transported back to her childhood home via her lover’s slowly drawled singing. DeMent weaves autobiographical details seamlessly into her narratives, reminiscing about her father’s dedication to his family on “If That Ain’t Love” and exploring how a harrowing event from her childhood impacted her religious views on “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.” What makes DeMent’s songwriting so exceptional is the way she uses first-person details to create authentic contexts for her songs. Compared to something like Miranda Lambert’s CMA-winning “Over You,” which uses a tragic backstory as shorthand for substance the song itself otherwise fails to provide, DeMent’s songs use their autobiographical elements as means to far greater ends.
DeMent’s complicated relationship with her religious upbringing, in particular, has always figured prominently in her work, and those issues continue to drive much of Sing the Delta. Each of the songs on the album is structured as a hymn in the Southern gospel tradition, and most of the DeMent and co-producer Bo Ramsey’s arrangements are grounded in DeMent’s spirited church-piano style playing. The use of these conservative conventions is ultimately a smart, subversive production choice, as they play against DeMent’s challenges to traditional religious tenets on songs like “The Kingdom Has Already Come” and the stunning album closer “Out of the Fire.”
To that end, Sing the Delta, much like Patty Griffin’s Children Running Through and Lizz Wright’s Fellowship, could best be described as an album of “secular gospel” music. DeMent’s fully invested performances are lived-in and soulful, heightening the intensity of the experiences she’s singing about. Over the course of Sing the Delta, DeMent confesses, wails, and testifies, and there’s simply no one else in popular music who tells their truths with such urgency or clarity.