DeMent didn't labor over Sing the Delta's 12 songs for 16 years. Her first two albums, 1992's Infamous Angel and 1994's My Life, blended autobiographical details from her Arkansas upbringing with a questioning spirituality. Her strong, sharp voice connected songs such as "Let the Mystery Be" and "Easy's Gettin' Harder Every Day" to old-time country music and Pentecostal gospel.
But after 1996's more political The Way I Should, DeMent stopped writing songs that met her standards. She wrote, but nothing moved her sufficiently to make her want to make a record.
"I went through just about every possibility of feelings and emotions while I was waiting for the songs to come. For the first few years, I was kinda freaked out," she says. "I kind of tortured myself for a while there. At some point, I just got really tired of that and thought it was time to get on with living and let the songs come when they come. So, that's pretty much what I did. Unfortunately, it took me 16 years to get here."
In 2002, she married fellow singer-songwriter Greg Brown, and they have a daughter. She remained active in music, touring in short spurts, singing duets with John Prine, Ralph Stanley, and others, and releasing Lifeline, an album of Protestant gospel songs in 2004. But her own songs weren't coming together.
"I felt very abandoned, since I felt called to do this," she says. "Maybe to a fault left over from my church upbringing, but I have, for lack of a better way to describe it, a real kind of spiritual approach to what I'm doing. I don't really go into my head too much. When I go to write, I feel - well, I know - that I was called to write and sing. Somebody, something, somewhere put their finger on me and said, 'You're going to do this.' "
Gradually, the songs that would become Sing the Delta came together. Lead by DeMent's piano playing - in a churchy, gospel style with a dose of New Orleans R&B - the album is remarkably coherent and unforced: sincere, insightful, overtly autobiographical, but free from solipsism, just like her first ones.
DeMent already has her next project in mind: She has written 12 songs using words from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and she promises we won't have to wait another decade to hear them. Besides, she has made her peace with the writing process: "I don't have any regrets. The world doesn't revolve around songs," she says, laughing. "They're pretty darn good and they're necessary, but there's a lot of other important stuff going on. I learned that in a big way."
Iris DeMent plays on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at World Cafe Live at the Queen, 500 N. Market St., Wilmington. Tickets: $32-$42. Information: 302-994-1400, www.worldcafelive.com.