"People call me country," singer Iris DeMent told journalist Ben Thompson for The Independent while on tour in Britain in 1994, "But country doesn't call me country."
Country music has long misaligned its women as second class to the masculine, cowboy image of artists the industry tends to favor, denying female artists country radio play or just ignoring them altogether. Iris DeMent started her carer in the early '90s, predating country music's pop renaissance led by Shania Twain and The Chicks, coming up in what was essentially no-(wo)man's land.
Not that the country music genre didn't already have successful women before her; The Judds were already a top-charting act for the decade prior and singers like Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire were gaining their own ground before DeMent released her debut album Infamous Angel in 1992. Still, few of her mainstream peers were singing their own material as DeMent, who was highly indebted to the popular singer-songwriter style of the '70s, did.
Born as the 14th child to Pat and Flora Mae DeMent of Paragould, Arkansas, Iris grew up in a musical family whose cornerstone was mother Flora Mae's dream of moving to Nashville to sing in the Grand Ole Opry. The family moved to the suburbs of Los Angeles when Iris was three, settling in what could be the direct antithesis of their home in the Ozarks.
Iris however still felt connected to her Arkansas roots even in the blistering California sun, and became enmeshed in a multitude of different genres; the chill Laurel Canyon folk of James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, country legends like Merle Haggard and even gospel music.
All these influences are evident on Infamous Angel and, 30 years since its initial release, the album plays as a masterful amalgamation of DeMent's life experiences and inspirations. Dement's love of her mother is all over the album, especially on the one-two punch of songs that close the album.
"Mama's Opry" is dedicated to Iris' upbringing when her parents would throw parties to give Flora a space to perform and give her a semblance of her dream of the Opry stage. Fiddle strings fly higher as the guitars plunk along in a tender tribute to DeMent's quiet upbringing, "her eyes, how they would sparkle as she sang those songs."
The final track "Higher Ground" actually features Flora on lead vocals after a spoken-word introduction by Iris. "No voice has inspired me more than my mother's. She showed me that music is a pathway to higher ground." Flora's voice is high and warbly compared to Iris's deeper drawl, but hearing the two in harmony shows the vocal cadence unique to the DeMent lineage that the two share.
When she first arrived on the scene, country music critics would often ascribe notions of purity and innocence to Dement's music, a particularly sexist insult for a woman who was over 30 when she debuted. But many of her songs like "Let the Mystery Be" and "Wasteland of the Free" off her 1996 album The Way I Should address topics like religious skepticism and crooked politicians for which she received hate mail and death threats from angry conservative country fans. But as shown by Nashville's repeated aversion to female country stars, breaking out of the country music machine is sometimes the best opportunity for women to find greater success.
DeMent got the seal of approval from legendary singer-songwriter John Prine, who is quoted on the back cover of Infamous Angel, "Listen to this music, it's good for you!" and the two became frequent collaborators. That's Dement's warble opposite Prine on his famous duet "In Spite of Ourselves."
Iris DeMent has also seen crossover success by inspiring artists of all genres. 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant covered "Let the Mystery Be" with the Talking Heads' David Byrne for her MTV Unplugged album, and Johnny Reznik of the Goo Goo Dolls has said that he titled their hit "Iris" after seeing her show advertised in a local newspaper.
Perhaps a nod from the Grand Ole Opry would've brought DeMent's fame to greater heights, but her mama's opry seemed to give her all she needed.
The following are a few of Iris DeMent's songs mentioned in the article that are most integral to her legacy.
"Our Town" from Infamous Angel
"Let the Mystery Be" from Infamous Angel
"Mama's Opry" from Infamous Angel
"In Spite of Ourselves" with John Prine
"Wasteland of the Free" from The Way I Should
READ MORE: 'In Spite of Ourselves' The Story Behind John Prine and Iris DeMent's Sweet and Funny Duet
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