While writing songs for her seventh album, “Workin’ on a World,” Iris DeMent recalled a vivid memory from her childhood, when she was first struck by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was the late 1960s, not long before his assassination, and she was 5 or 6 years old. Her very large family — she has 15 siblings — had just moved from Paragould, Ark., out to California. “There were a gazillion people living in our house,” she said from her home in Iowa City, Iowa. “The TV was playing, and I heard this booming voice. This was back when TVs were on the floor, so when I turned, I was suddenly eye to eye with Dr. King.”
Even as a child, she understood something important was happening. “I remember looking around our living room and thinking, ‘I hope the grown-ups are listening to this man.’”
DeMent name-checks Dr. King on “How Long,” a gospel song from “Workin’ on a World” about the arc of the moral universe taking a long, long time to bend toward justice. On new tracks that sound like old hymns, she sings about the people she considers her heroes: Dr. King, of course, but also John Lewis, Mahalia Jackson and the Chicks. “It dawned on me that a lot of what I’ve done with my songs is, I’ve tried to get what I think needs to be heard out to the grown-ups,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be of use in that way.”
DeMent, 62, has been making herself useful for 30 years now. Her philosophical 1992 debut, “Infamous Angel,” which opened with an inquiry into the afterlife and closed with her mother singing “Higher Ground,” showcased her high, keening voice, the kind you’d hear from a church pew rather than the radio. Her lyrics sounded like down-home poetry, plain-spoken in their wisdom, and her music drew from many different styles — country, bluegrass, old-time folk, older-time church music — without falling squarely into any one genre or market.
Very quickly, she found herself celebrated by some of her heroes, including Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris and John Prine (who even wrote liner notes for “Infamous Angel”). Just as quickly she found herself overwhelmed by the demands of the music industry. After two follow-up albums — the melancholy “My Life” in 1994 and the scowling “The Way I Should” in 1996 — she very purposefully slowed her schedule down. “I realized that it wasn’t working for me,” she said. “I could succumb to making records that aren’t like who I am and what I was put here to do, or I could pull back and protect my calling.”
DeMent learned to take her time, typically pausing for roughly eight years between releases. It makes for a small but weighty catalog: In this century she’s made four albums, only two of which included original songs. “Lifeline,” from 2004, was a collection of old Pentecostal hymns, and for “The Trackless Woods,” from 2015, she set to music poems by the writer Anna Akhmatova — a project inspired by her Russian-born adopted daughter. (That year, her 1992 track “Let the Mystery Be” was used as the Season 2 theme for “The Leftovers.”)
During that downtime she occasionally tours, and she’s always writing, always singing around the house and playing music with her husband, the folk musician Greg Brown. And she often wonders if she’ll never release another album, if no more songs will demand to be set loose in the world.
“I don’t think it’s because I have a high standard, but I do have a certain standard,” she explained matter-of-factly, as though that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. “It takes me a long time to get 10 or 12 songs that I have faith in. I don’t always know if I’ll make another record, because I don’t know if I’ll find those 10 or 12 songs.”
For the new album, DeMent tried something that hadn’t clicked before: co-writing. “I’ve never really written with people,” she said. “John Prine and I tried to write a song together, and we have some great stories to tell but no songs. If I can’t write a song with John, then who can I write a song with? It just wasn’t my thing.” But she had better luck with her stepdaughter, Pieta Brown, a distinguished singer-songwriter in her own right. Together they penned the family remembrance “I Won’t Ask You Why” via text. “I sent her a melody and a title asking, ‘Hey, do you feel anything from this?’” DeMent said. “And about one in the morning, she sent me all the things she was feeling. Six verses in all.”
Still, despite recording that and other songs in multiple Nashville sessions with the producers Jim Rooney (who worked on her debut) and Richard Bennett (Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris), DeMent didn’t think she had enough faithful songs for an album. Brown finally coaxed DeMent into taking the next steps. “I just asked her if I could listen to those first sessions,” she said in a phone interview. “It was winter, and I spent hours driving around the tundra of Iowa listening to these songs. It seemed like she was communicating something massive and important that everybody should hear. So I called her and texted her, ‘You have a record!’”
“Workin’ on a World” is an album about DeMent’s ongoing quest to find her place, about passing the wisdom of the generation that came before her to the one that follows. On the title track she declares, “I get up in the mornin’ knowing I’m privileged to be workin’ on a world I may never see.”
“It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that song saved my life,” DeMent said. “Seeing my country embrace what it embraced in 2016 made me wonder truly and utterly how I was going to live. I don’t say that lightly. I just couldn’t comprehend it. But that song steadied me. I was singing it at home at the piano long before I recorded it. I would get up in the morning and sing it to get myself going, to get clarity. It was comforting in the way that even painful truths can carry comfort.”
The album is full of what might be called marching songs, which are meant to inspire listeners, to show them the hard road ahead and to spur them along — or, as she put it, “to fortify you in your fight against evil.” That idea is rooted deep in DeMent’s experience growing up in church, and it has inspired all of her albums to some extent, but especially the politically agitated “The Way I Should” and “Lifeline,” a collection of old hymns.
“That’s what I like about my Pentecostal upbringing,” DeMent said. “I’ve left most of it behind, but our songs were painting that picture of hell, the fiery furnace that awaited us, all the bad stuff coming down the line. So picture it. Get a really good vivid image. Then figure out what you’re going to do.
“Some things aren’t that complicated,” she continued. “There’s love and there’s hate. There’s good and there’s evil. Which side are you on? Figure it all out now and go.”