A few years ago I was driving from Liverpool in the North West of the UK down to Ealing in West London to visit my son and his wife. As is normal when you drop off the M40 motorway onto the A40 ‘Western Avenue’ the traffic comes to a complete standstill. No need to be angry as these natural pauses in life can be a good thing, a time to reflect. Its not often I turn the radio on but on this very rare occasion I did and I fell into the middle of ‘Let The Mystery Be’ by Iris DeMent. My inner voice screams “Who is that singing?,” and as the song comes to the end DJ Stuart Maconie back announces, “That’s Iris Dement and Let The Mystery be from the great lost country album Infamous Angel“.
How come I don’t know about this album, given that I use to live in Nashville? This is my lucky day I have just become DeMented. I rush into my son’s house and garble a greeting whilst also requesting the directions to the local record store. Within one hour of first hearing Iris DeMent on the radio I’m at Sounds Original, 169 South Ealing Road and I own a second hand, or pre-loved, copy of Infamous Angel for the sum of £5.00 ($9.00). My life is temporarily complete.
This is a remarkable debut record, released by Warner Brother in 1992. Its one of those recording that makes you sit back in awe. Infamous Angel was Iris DeMent first release at the age of 31; she didn’t start writing music until she was 25, a classic late bloomer. I’m guessing the production work by Jim Rooney contributes much to this recording. Rooney was a pioneer in the genre that would be come Americana working with artists such as Hal Ketchum, Nanci Griffiths, Bonnie Raitt, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine (who, not surprisingly, is one of DeMent’s biggest champions). Rooney works perfectly with DeMent on exposing her gift for poignant, confessional songwriting and a voice that makes raw beauty seem like a brand new thing. DeMent invokes the elemental magic of the Carter Family while sounding as fresh and modern. So what’s the problem here, why does the album need a rescue?
Maybe the problem is the release date of the album. 1992 is when the Americana boom starts. To a large extent this genre inflicted irreparable and unwarranted damage to Infamous Angel and sent it spiraling into obscurity. The music business was happy to create a niche for the country music’s most fiscally dependable demographic e.g. the white, male Baby Boomers (me). In the early 1990s, radio programmers coined a new, related usage: “Americana” which became a nickname for the weather-beaten, rural-sounding music that bands like Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo were making. It was warm, twangy stuff, full of finger-plucked guitars and gnarled voices like car wheels on a gravel road.
Americana was like a John Ford Western film full of huge landscapes, grand narratives and all American heroes with a grandiose swagger. Along the way, a handful of artistic traditions founded in rebellion, such as the blues, Appalachian folk, outlaw country, etc. got elided into the relatively conservative format that is Americana. In her book It Still Moves: lost songs, lost highways and the search for the next American music (1992), Amanda Petrusich hits the nail on the head when she states: “It sometimes seems like the Delta’s legacy is most present in modern hip-hop” rather than Americana “where its basic tenets are still being perpetuated, even if the form has altered dramatically”. Time was when working-class heroes really were “something to be”. Most critics, including me, suspect that Shania Twain and Garth Brooks are as unlikely to outsell the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers 50 years from then. Someone will one day write a book setting forth clearly why the stars and the technology aligned between 1927 and 1967 to produce a flood of sublime popular music, and why this flow began to evaporate in the subsequent 40 years. I feel for Petrusich here, for she shows us with nods and winks that she agrees with this proposition.
Artists like Iris DeMent aren’t supposed to exist anymore in this post Americana cynical world. She sings un-ironically about her family, forgiveness, and other real-life mysteries. DeMent is accompanied on this great debut by little more than acoustic guitar, upright bass, piano, and an occasional fiddle. This album’s concerns are largely family and tradition, and many of these songs deal with memories of her life and loves. This album explores various themes such as religious skepticism, small-town life, and human frailty. The Carter Family influence is revealed in a spirited cover of the classic Fifty Miles of Elbow Room as well as Mama’s Opry, a tribute to her mother, who also sings lead on Higher Ground. These are all wonderful songs, but DeMent’s greater talent is the ballad. She delivers an astonishing display of balladry on this album, including When Love Was Young, Sweet Forgiveness and After You’re Gone, a tribute to her dying father that is so profoundly affecting that I am often rendered nearly helpless and close to tears listening to it.
The critics of this album believe that it does not address the big issues in life, the grand narratives. I would completely contest this; have a listen to Let The Mystery Be. A track that is almost beyond existential comprehension as it addresses the ending of our own life with what might or might not happen. When I finish listening to this record I feel incredibly somber but refreshed by DeMent’s charming, almost naïve, outlook on life. That naïveté isn’t an act either, DeMent claims in her liner notes that she’s never thought of herself as a great singer. She couldn’t be more wrong, and listeners can thank heaven that she changed her mind, for this is an album to be cherished and played as long as one has life to listen.
Should you buy this record on Record Store Day Australia? Indeed yes, you should and don’t even bother looking at the sticker price. When you own this record become evangelical and share it with anyone you can!