Higher Ground — Iris Dement’s Journey to Self

She had moved to Topeka, Kansas from California’s Orange County when in her early 20s. But that was not her home, either. The DeMent family roots were embedded in the loamy ground of a small island in the St. Francis River, Indian Hill, just outside the town of Paragould in northeastern Arkansas.

Iris DeMent was working as a waitress in a Kansas City pizza parlor, after having left Topeka, when her future husband, Elmer McCall, walked into her life. She had been trying to write songs for a few years and had been singing after hours at local coffee houses. Her life was about to take a very big turn. She had driven around through small towns of the Midwest, marveling at how different it looked from where she had grown up in Long Beach and Cypress, California, where her dad had found employment at the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park.

Talking about Kansas she says, ”Something about those old brick buildings. You have a sense of the past in the Midwest… . I like the people there… . They’ve been there for years. People from California all come from somewhere else.”

She took a trip down to Oklahoma to see a brother (she was the youngest of her dad’s 14 children, the 8th by her mother). She had one of those moments that can only be called an epiphany. In the liner notes to her first CD, “Infamous Angel,” she writes, “At about six o’clock at night or a little later, I was driving along and I just saw this town where it seemed like there were no people there… . I started wondering what happened to all those people. That idea stuck with me and when I got back I started imagining this lady who might have lived there.” That lady is the narrator of DeMent’s song “Our Town.” The harmony vocal on this video from the “Transatlantic Sessions” is by the “Red Dirt Girl” herself, EmmyLou Harris:

DeMent decided to move to Nashville, not to become a performer (she had yet too little confidence for that) but to write and sell songs. Once there it became clear to her that the songs she was trying to write for the commercial market were not ones that came out of her roots and experience. “Well, I’m just going to take a break,” she says in the liner notes, “so I was just fooling with the guitar and ‘Let the Mystery Be’ popped into my head and I never went back to the other one.” Eventually, she had enough songs that came from her life and her heart to record an album, “Infamous Angel.” Nine of its eleven songs are hers. Here is “Let the Mystery Be,” the first song on the CD:

This was her witty anthem of independence. In a musical culture attuned to the platitudes of fundamentalist Christianity, as well as the evangelical roots of her own family, DeMent sweetly, but insistently, affirms her agnosticism.

After almost two years in Nashville, she returned to Kansas City, married her beau, Elmer, and continued to write and perform after the debut of her album. She was writing songs for her second album when her sickly father died. This new album “My Life” was dedicated to him. Her liner notes begin:

Sometime before I was born my dad had been a fiddler. I don’t know who told me. I just know that I have known it as far back as I can remember. Later in my life I learned that the reason I had never seen my dad’s fiddle, or heard him play, was because when he got saved, he “put the fiddle away.”

She then tells an emotional story about the conflicting emotions her dad and mom had regarding the power of music in their lives, about its distraction from religious piety, and even about the still alive belief that the fiddle was somehow Satan’s instrument.

One of the ongoing internal dialogues in DeMent’s music is between the secular life with its everyday messy challenges and trials, and the quiet, clean resignation of surrendering your fate to the Lord. Although Patric DeMent had kept his fiddle for many years in a weather-beaten box high in a closet, Iris felt its power and threat when she first discovered it:

I don’t remember the connection between “getting saved” and “putting the fiddle away”… [but] I must have concluded there was something sinful about the fiddle…. I suddenly became very nervous, shoved it back upon the shelf and got out of there as quickly as I could.

She ends the liner notes of “My Life” with an epitaph to her dad: “Patric Shaw DeMent, March 17, 1910–June 7, 1992.” Of the ten songs on this CD eight are written by her—and several feature that demonic fiddle.

Her mother’s family embraced country music with no such qualms. Her mom, Flora Mae, loved to sing: “As an adult she would sometimes do so for hours as she washed and hung out the laundry, cleaned her house and cooked dinner. She had a clear, resonant voice.” She had even dreamed of singing on the Grand Ole Opry. Though it was a dream never realized, Iris persuaded her then 74 year-old mom to sing lead vocal on Iris’ paean to her mom’s life, “Mama’s Opry.” Here are the lyrics:

She grew up plain and simple in a farming town.

Her daddy played the fiddle and used to do the calling when they had hoedowns.

She says the neighbors would come and they'd move all my grandma's furniture 'round.

And there'd be twenty or more there on the old wooden floor dancin' to a country sound.

The Carters and Jimmy Rodgers played her favorite songs.

And on Saturday nights there was a radio show and she would sing along.

And I'll never forget her face when she revealed to me,

That she'd dreamed about singing at The Grand Ol' Opry.

Her eyes, oh, how they sparkled when she sang those songs.

While she was hanging the clothes on the line, I was a kid just a hummin' along.

Well, I'd be playing in the grass, to her, what might've seemed, obliviously,

But there ain't no doubt about it: she sure made her mark on me.

An' she played old gospel records on the phonograph.

She turned them up loud and we'd sing along, but those days have passed.

Just now that I am older it occurs to me,

That I was singing in the grandest opry.

And we sang Sweet Rose of Sharon, Abide With Me,

'Til I ride The Gospel Ship to Heaven's Jubilee.

And In That Great Triumphant Morning my soul will be free,

And My Burdens Will Be Lifted when my Saviour's face I see.

So I Don't Want to Get Adjusted to This World below,

But I know He'll Pilot Me 'til it comes time to go.

Oh, nothing on this earth is half as dear to me,

As the sound of my Mama's Opry

Merle Haggard first heard DeMent sing while on tour in his bus. He was listening to a multi-artist tribute album of his songs called “Tulare Dust.” His song “Big City” was the one chosen by Iris. Listening, he became fascinated by the unusual timbre and the clear sincerity of her voice.  At the first possible stop, he and Abe Manuel left the bus, went into a record store, and bought “Infamous Angels” and “My Life.” One of the songs on the latter album was Lefty Frizzell’s song to his own parents, “Mom and Dad’s Waltz.” Iris had made it her own, close as it was to her feelings for her own parents.  Haggard loved Frizzell, Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers. He sensed a kindred spirit in DeMent, phoned her, and invited her to Shade Tree Manor, his estate outside Redding, California. DeMent jumped at this; Haggard, more than any contemporary country artist, she deemed to be her mentor. They recorded several songs together and then toured. Though DeMent had grown up in California, she, like Haggard, felt rooted to another time and place. Haggard loved the way Iris would lose herself in a song; it reminded him of Jimmie Rodgers or Sara Carter of the bluegrass Carter Family.

Iris DeMent’s voice is unlike anything then being heard in country or folk music. It is not mellifluous, nor does it jump out in front of slick Nashville sidemen—it starts from deep inside her soul, but only comes to a sounding at the top of her throat. At first, it seems as if it is struggling, strained, as it slides like a Royal Crown Cola guitar bottleneck, not on but toward the note. Once it lands, it seems to split into its own harmonic in a kind of choked country version of Tuva throat singing. Seen close, her face registers not only the deep emotion called out by the lyric, but of the effort to hold that emotion in check. Here she is in that voice singing, “There’s a Whole Lot of Heaven”:

The book “In the Country of Country” is a history of country and western music, from the “Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers, to Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Nicholas Dawidoff spent years criss-crossing the United States tracing musical roots and talking to the men and women who devote their lives to playing and singing it. Much of the early, hard-to-find information about Iris DeMent is from this lively book:

Amazon.com link for In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music

In May 1996 DeMent caught even her most ardent fans flat-footed with the release of an eagerly awaited third CD, the lower-case titled “the way i should.” The modesty of the chosen font belied the tornado of passion that blew its way through the first few cuts. This was no longer the gingham Ozark-bred lass of the first two albums: “There’s a Wall in Washington” took on the senseless tragedy of life lost in the Vietnam War. More impassioned, even strident, is “Wasteland of the Free.” Here are its partial lyrics:

We got politicians running races on corporate cash

Now don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them peoples' ass

You may call me old-fashioned

but that don't fit my picture of a true democracy

and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

We got CEO's making two hundred times the workers' pay

but they'll fight like hell against raising the minimum wage

and If you don't like it, mister, they'll ship your job

to some third-world country 'cross the sea

and it feels like I am living in the wasteland of the free

Living in the wasteland of the free

where the poor have now become the enemy

Let's blame our troubles on the weak ones

Sounds like some kind of Hitler remedy

Living in the wasteland of the free

The prophet of jeremiads will eventually be smote by the faithful followers—and thus was Iris. Many of her heartland fans turned on her; they felt she had abused her country and its leaders, and she had done it using drums and electric guitars- a latter day Dylan at Newport, 1965. I’m not certain how her mentor, Merle Haggard, reacted, but the self-styled “Okie from Muskogee”, né Bakersfield, California, could not have been pleased with the firestorm greeting her. For the first time, all of the album’s 11 songs were written by her. There is no soothing balm of gospel’s sweet resignation here, nor the homilies of family kinship shining through adversity. The vision of “the way I should” is bitter and bleak.

Hank Williams, one of DeMent’s heroes, said of his own composing facility, “I pick up the pen and God moves it” – a kind of divine Ouija. One of Merle Haggard’s four wives, Bonnie Owens, (also an ex-wife of Buck Owens) says of Merle’s writing, “It’s amazing to me the things that come out of Merle’s mouth when he’s writing… . He’d say later, ‘Bonnie, I don’t ever remember saying these words. It’s like God put them through me.’ ”

DeMent has never had an easy time composing her own songs. Sometimes they just sit there and stew for a long time. And though she hangs on to the religious roots in her music, her agnostic/pantheistic view, stretching all the way back to “Let the Mystery Be,” may have caused the god of musical inspiration to turn a deaf ear on her. In 1999, she teamed with John Prine for four songs on his album, “In Spite of Ourselves.”

In fact, her personal life took a few hairpin turns in the late 90s and especially after the election of George W. Bush. She and longtime amanuensis-hubby, Elmer McCall, divorced. DeMent battled depression. She kinda went below the radar and somewhere along the way, she crashed. It is not easy to find details about this period of her life but I did read that after “Dubya’s” election she appeared on stage at a venue, apologized to the audience and said she could no longer perform, given the current political landscape. I don’t know how long this lasted, but the eight-year recording drought came to an end with the release of “Lifeline,” her fourth CD in 2005. It contains a baker’s dozen of mainly traditional gospel songs done with her most ever restrained instrumentation: acoustic guitar, dobro, and upright bass. She plays piano on several cuts and has electric guitar on one other; otherwise it is all within the scope of traditional Bluegrass instrumentation.

All 13 of the songs evoke the consolations of gospel music, praising a God who looks over us and consoles us. There is only one song that she wrote, “He Reached Down.” It invokes a God who is truly immanent. Here are a few of its lyrics:

a certain man one day did go

down to jericho

falling among thieves along the way

well they stripped him and they fled

leaving him for dead

he reached down, he reached down

and touched my pain

well he reached down, he reached down

got right there on the ground

well he reached down, he reached down

and he touched my pain

There is a fascinating ambivalence in DeMent’s view of God. Perhaps the balm and solace she finds in this old gospel music harkens back to a time with her mom and dad and their singing these songs of suffering. But she also knows we have to be in the real world and fight for what is right.

In this video version of “He Reached Down”, done a few years after the “Lifeline” CD, she features a larger ensemble and includes those demonic fiddles—two of them:

“Lifeline” was an attempt to re-connect with the spirit of the music that had been in her first two albums. It began to lead her back into a performing life. There was a new beau, singer-songwriter Greg Brown, whom she married in 2002 and slowly, but steadily, she started to write new songs.  Two years after their marriage DeMent and Brown adopted a 5 year-old Serbian girl.

DeMent stated performing again in 2007, but sporadically; she sang at Cal State Long Beach this past September, and will appear in Providence, Rhode Island in early December. She says she has nearly enough new songs for a fifth album and hopes to be in a recording studio in early 2010.

The photo above and the other two group ones are from Vanity Fair’s November, 2006 Country and Western Music Portfolio. Here is a 22 photo slideshow of current C/W stars. The fact that Iris DeMent is not included, while her music soulmates are, is a comment on the insistent buzz-cult of celebrity as well as, perhaps, DeMent’s independent spirit, going her own way:

Vanity Fair slideshow link

I heard Iris DeMent in performance at the Troubadour in West Hollywood shortly after the release of “My Life.” Her plane had been delayed and the audience waited patiently for almost two hours. She arrived, unpacked her guitar onstage, tuned quickly and sang the songs from the CDs. But as indulgence for our long wait, she continued for another hour, off the playlist, with those old-timey songs—just Iris, her acoustic guitar, and an audience of rapt Hollywood sophisticates, pulled deep into the “roots music” that swirled around the room, enveloping all of us in its soothing embrace.

Here she is, alone with her acoustic guitar, on Scottish TV, singing the first song from “My Life,” “Sweet is the Melody.”

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