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Off the Beaten Tracks: Flavour of DeMent

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FOR simple songs straight from the heart, Iris DeMent’s debut album Infamous Angel is hard to beat. Her delivery is unspoilt, unadorned, often childlike in its charm and the quality of her writing is up there, in my view, with the best in country music.

Iris Luella DeMent was born the youngest of 14 children to a farming family in Paragould, Arkansas, on January 5, 1961. Her mother Flora Mae had entertained dreams in her youth of going to Nashville to be a professional singer but marriage and her burgeoning family put paid to that.

When not busy making children, she and husband Pat shared a love of music and the Pentecostal church. ‘I remember noticing that people seemed to be most their real selves when they were in the music,’ Iris recalls. ‘My dad would cry and my mom would wave her arms around when they sang church music.’

The family moved to southern California when Iris was three and two years later she made her first public appearance on stage as one of the ‘Little DeMent Sisters’. It was a disaster. She forgot her words and stood there tearful and tongue-tied as the audience laughed. That put her off performing until adulthood. She threw herself into religion and awaited the calling from God which the Pentecostal church taught was bound to come.

‘For a long time when I was growing up I made it my job to try to get my school friends saved,’ she told National Public Radio in the US. ‘I thought, “Could there be any other priority?” I mean, if my friends are going to burn in the fiery furnace, how can I be thinking of anything else? I can’t eat my lunch. So I took that really seriously, and I remember one day asking somebody at the church, “Well, I need some New Testaments to give to all the kids at school. That’ll help them stay out of the fiery furnace,” and I remember the person I asked kind of smiled at me like, “Oh, cute little kid”, and I realised, “You don’t believe this stuff”. So there was a lot of little things like that along the way that started heading me into another direction.’

By the age of 16, Iris had decided to leave the Pentecostal movement although she maintained her faith while not affiliated to any church. She drifted through life searching for a revelation. It happened when she was 25 and driving through a boarded-up town in the Midwest. ‘All the life had gone right on out of it,’ she said. ‘And that was the first time in my life that I felt a song coming on like it wasn’t just me trying to make something happen. I just started seeing all these visions of the life that had gone on there. It came out just exactly as it is now. Our Town is one of those rare songs for me that I didn’t have to fool around with or change. It was just there, and it was my first song.’

Realising that music was her calling, Iris wrote more tracks and overcame her shyness to sing backing vocals on Emmylou Harris’s 1990 album Brand New Dance.

By 1992 she was ready to record Infamous Angel for the Rounder/Philo label. Its first track, the lovely Let The Mystery Be, tells of her doubts about the afterlife.

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they they all came from
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain
And so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.

Next up isthewistful These Hillsfollowed by two love songs, Hotter than Mojave in My Heart https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaKEzrKXiZU and When Love Was Younghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0cwQpCsqbE The latter provides my favourite moment of the entire album when she catches her breath before delivering the final beautiful note.

Our Town comes next.

Now I sit on the porch and watch the lightning-bugs fly
But I can’t see too good, I got tears in my eyes
I’m leaving tomorrow but I don’t want to go
I love you my town, you’ll always live in my soul.

In 1995, Our Town would provide the soundtrack to the closing moments of the excellent US TV series Northern Exposure

One of only two cover versions on the album is Fifty Miles of Elbow Room, which was written by Herbert Buffum in 1930 and performed by, among others, the Carter Family. Sweet Forgiveness  is not to be confused with the Bonnie Raitt track of the same name.

Now we come to Iris’s love for her family. After You’re Gone is addressed to her dying father and includes the lines

I’ll miss you, oh how I’ll miss you
I’ll dream of you and I’ll cry a million tears
But the sorrow will pass and the one thing that will last
Is the love that you’ve given to me.

In the lyrics booklet accompanying the album, Iris says she visited Pat after he had suffered a stroke. ‘He was in bad shape. One side was completely paralysed. It was very strange for me because I had never seen him have a sick day in his life. I took the train home and walked in my apartment and After You’re Gone came to me right away.’

In Mama’s Opry, Iris sings about her mother’s thwarted ambitions. She says her parents have always been the most important people in her life. ‘I started to think about what it was about my mother that struck me the most . . . her love for music. I remembered her telling me that she was sure she could have gone on to be a singing star at this place called the Grand Ole Opry.’  

On the final track, Higher Ground, Flora Mae at last achieves her ambition to sing on a record, taking the lead vocals. The song was written in 1898 with words by Johnson Oatman Jr and music by the prolific gospel composer Charles H Gabriel.

I want to scale the utmost heights
And catch a gleam of glory bright
But still I’ll pray ’til heaven, I’ve found
Lord, lead me on to higher ground.

In his sleeve notes, John Prine writes about how he was listening to a tape of the album ‘while frying a dozen or so pork chops in a skillet. Well, Iris DeMent started singing about Mama’s Opry and being the sentimental fellow I am, I got a lump in my throat and a tear fell from my eye into the hot oil. The oil popped out and burned my arm as if the pork chops were trying to say, “Shut up, or I’ll really give you something to cry about.” Of course, pork chops can’t talk. But Iris’s songs can. They talk about life, love and living. And Iris has a voice I like a whole lot, like one you’ve heard before . . . but not really.’

Iris would go on to release half a dozen more solo LPs and perform some popular duets with Prine including thisthis and this, but for me at least has never surpassed her delightful debut. It is one of the most cherished albums in my collection and I hope it strikes a chord with some of you.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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