It’s truly remarkable that in striving for clarity, honesty, and simplicity, Iris DeMent ends up sounding so extraordinary. Those three traits are well entrenched as virtues for good songwriters to live by; but all too often they’re forgotten in the struggle for profundity, and the end product is either overembellished or muddled. In DeMent’s hands things are crystal clear. From her arresting, amazingly pure vocals to her beautifully lucid narratives, there’s little in her music that is mysterious–that is, until it begins to resonate in the head of the listener.

The 33-year-old singer was born in Paragould, Arkansas, into a large family–13 brothers and sisters–and strictly reared in the Pentecostal church. They up and moved to Orange County, California, when she was only three, but tight familial bonds and a close-knit rural mentality were in her blood. Even in the suburbs of Los Angeles, DeMent’s mother raised her on country gospel, regularly playing then-current songs by Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn alongside old hillbilly music by the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. And as DeMent writes in the liner notes to her first album, Infamous Angel (Warner Brothers), “Mom always sang.” Her mother’s voice was so important to her that she wrote a song about her (“Mama’s Opry”) and gave her the lead vocal on a rendition of the traditional gospel tune “Higher Ground.” Music surrounded her; as a child she made up little songs and played piano around the house. But she didn’t really start writing songs until she was 25.

She eventually ended up in Kansas City, where she began to perform her songs in small coffeehouses. A growing interest in making music took her to Nashville, where she focused on writing rather than singing. It was during this time she was signed to Philo Records, which issued Infamous Angel in 1992. (Warner Brothers reissued it when they signed her last year.) With one album under her belt, she returned to Kansas City.

The startling voice of that record has only become more powerful on her breathtaking follow-up My Life. This second album has the same deceptive simplicity as writer Dorothy Allison’s powerful book Bastard out of Carolina, whose young protagonist shares DeMent’s obsession with gospel music. Like that girl’s, DeMent’s tone is irresistibly conversational, her language peppered with a southern vernacular, her voice unadorned. Her songs aren’t all autobiographical, but there’s little doubt she knows her subjects and their feelings intimately.

Performing last week at FitzGerald’s, DeMent–plain dress, plain shoulder-length hair, plaintive voice–packed the house. Clearly upset that so many people had to stand, she invited some to sit on the stage, which was empty except for an upright piano and a stool. Seeing no takers, she joked, “Do I not look OK?” DeMent’s onstage banter isn’t flashy, but it’s so natural and heartfelt that it’s easy to imagine she’s an old friend. Considering her relentless touring schedule–she claimed she’d been home only ten days in the previous five months–it’s staggering that she doesn’t opt for a show-bizzy bag of anecdotes to introduce her songs. I saw her at Schubas last summer, and she didn’t repeat one story–not even a fragment.

The songs on her recent My Life are dedicated to her father, who died in 1992–she explains his importance to her in a beautifully straightforward essay in the liner notes–and while all of the tunes don’t concern his passing directly, they’re all imbued with a nagging melancholy. “No Time to Cry” is the tune most obviously inspired by her father’s death, but it’s more a song about accepting the responsibilities of adulthood: “Well, I stayed at home just long enough to lay him in the ground / And then I caught a plane to do a show up north in Detroit town / Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.” When she sang “And with a cold one in my hand, I’m gonna bite down and swallow hard,” the painful gulp of acceptance was palpable in her terse, determined delivery. It was as if she were fighting hard not to give in to her emotions.

So endearing is DeMent onstage that when she flubbed a line from “Sweet Is the Melody,” a song about working for musical perfection–“It’s so hard to make every note bend just right”–the audience consumed the mistake as something precious, her flushed embarrassment further proof of her realness. DeMent stands in stark opposition to the escapist school of star adulation. Before singing “Let the Mystery Be,” which critically examines a variety of cut-and-dried visions of the afterlife, DeMent mentioned that it was the one song she was nervous about playing for her religious mother, and that while she was relieved to find her mother didn’t mind it, she suspected that was because the song was so “peppy” compared to most of her others.

Although her music slips between stylistic cracks, folk seems to describe it best. While country is certainly her biggest influence, she eschews its conventions. At the heart of her songs are memories and stories; she makes their musical trappings seem delightfully incidental. She boldly stands for what remains good about small-town life: the friendliness, the familiarity, and the genuineness. It’s no small feat, and both in performance and on her recordings you don’t notice the achievement until it’s already passed you by.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James T. Crump.