For an artist who considers herself more of a songwriter than a vocalist, Iris DeMent has been singing an awful lot of other people's songs lately.
In fact, since her last album, The Way I Should, was released nearly four years ago, she's recorded nothing but covers.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, since DeMent has an unfailing instinct for choosing well-suited material. Her performances have never been less than stirring, particularly her soaring version of Johnny Horton's overlooked Whispering Pines on the Horse Whisperer soundtrack and her feisty take of Merle Haggard's Big City that appeared on the fabulous Tulare Dust (HighTone) tribute disc.
More recently, DeMent's proven to be an excellent duet partner. Her pairing with John Prine resulted in four of the best tracks on his In Spite Of Ourselves, which she's been reprising on tour with Prine for most of the past year.
However, all the guest appearances she's been making -- singing with Steve Earle and Loudon Wainwright and contributing songs to tribute albums -- haven't brought DeMent any closer to completing her next record than she was three and a half years ago.
Overdue album "I would've liked to have put out three records between then and now, but I just don't have the songs," allows DeMent with an uneasy chuckle from a tour stop in Ottawa. "The downside of being a writer is that if I haven't got 10 songs, I don't make a record. I just have to wait for them."
Throughout her career, the late-blooming Paragould, Arkansas, heart song specialist has never been exceptionally prolific, releasing only three albums since she composed what she considers her first real song, Our Town, at the age of 25.
Even in Lucinda Williams terms, going four years without a single new tune can reasonably be called a dry spell. No one whose livelihood depends on their creativity likes talking about writer's block, but there comes a time when you must accept that there's a problem and deal with it.
"I hate to dwell on it. I guess it's been a fact with me for so long now that I don't like to say it out loud because I'd rather not think about it. Either the songs come or they don't, I don't have much say in the matter."
It might sound as though DeMent is avoiding the issue, but like Townes Van Zandt and Bukka White, she subscribes to the "sky song" theory of composition, believing that she doesn't so much write songs as transcribe what mysteriously falls from above.
The approach has worked so far, although waiting for miracles requires some patience. Between her second album, 94's My Life, and 96's The Way I Should, DeMent confides, "I didn't write anything at all for two years.
Doing nothing "I always have pieces of songs lying around, and I do right now. Eventually, I think those pieces will turn into my next record -- it might take a week, a month or even a couple of years. I just have to let things fall into place.
"So I sit around at the piano and I stare out the window a lot," she laughs. "I'm really good at doing nothing at all and enjoying it -- that's the truth!
"I've been fortunate to have people believe me when I tell them I'm really working on songs. Whether it's real work or not, it makes more sense to me than washing dishes."
firstname.lastname@example.orgIRIS DeMENT, with BLUE RODEO, COLIN JAMES, BLUE MOUNTAIN, SPIRIT OF THE WEST and TARA MacLEAN, performing on the Stardust Picnic mainstage at Fort York (100 Garrison), Saturday and Sunday (July 8 and 9), 2 pm. $38 each day. 870-8000.