Iris Dement Sings in her Mama’s Opry
With a woman it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. A woman looks at it like that.
-Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
Who can say just how songs and the love of music is passed along from generation to generation? This may be a rhetorical question, but the answer just may be found in the persevering flow of the spirit of the mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and lovers in all of our lives for generations. In the earliest time of Americana culture stories and songs were as much a part of the family as Sunday dinner and church gatherings. When the modern era came along, we lost such traditions to radio, the long playing record, and celebrity culture. Often, in the past, it was the role of mother to keep this tradition alive and in so doing, kept her own spirit alive as well. Tin Pan Alley and the Hit Parade ended this important part of an American and, in many ways, an ancient tradition.
Someone forgot to tell this to mother Flora Mae and daughter Iris Dement back in the early ’60s. It may be because growing up as a child and also as a mother, Flora Mae didn’t have much time to sit still for outside entertainment other than Sunday church and the Grand Ole Opry. With 14 children, Iris being the youngest, Flora Mae must’ve been worn out from all of the child-raising, keeping herself busy enough to create the need to entertain herself with the rooted-earth music of her childhood. And that she did, remembering all of those country and gospel songs she grew up on, singing them to herself while she hung the clothes on the line under the Arkansas and California skies. But, as in those days over a century ago, when the song making tradition was still a part of the family quilt, there was always someone there to hear. Little did she know, her youngest daughter, Iris, was listening, absorbing and singing along.
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 humming 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
It not hard to imagine a little girl taking in the good natured songs of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers while she danced and played in the grass beside her hard working mother. Of all of the lyrics she has written, there is none so touching as “Mama’s Opry,” when Flora Mae reveals to young Iris her hidden desire to one day sing at the Grand Ole Opry.
I’ll never forget her face when she revealed to me
that she’d dreamed about singing at the Grand Ole Opry
Instead singing at that more famous Opry, Flora Mae gave her daughter her own Mama’s Opry, where Iris Dement still joyfully performs.
The 1991 album, Infamous Angel, now a classic, has the distinction of being one of the best break-out albums released in the country-folk genre. With “Let the Mystery Be”, Iris comes off as a philosophical hillbilly mystic who’s listened the songs of A.P. Carter while waiting out some Arkansas dust storm in a hermits tavern. Filled with story songs of hometown, heartbroken love, passionate romances, repentance, redemption, and gospel homages to a hymn-singing, praying, devoted, aging mother, the themes of this album are common to any ambitious country singer-songwriter but on Mystery, these songs are executed naturally and authentically, with the feeling of someone who knows the terrain first hand. And as always, the church-gospel influence is skillfully woven through every tune. This becomes never as clear as it does on the title song “Infamous Angel,” told from the perspective of a repentant home-bound prostitute drawn from the gospel story of the prodigal son.
Her two follow up albums, My Life and The Way I Should, a bold switch to more topical and controversial songs, were solid albums to come in the aftermath of what could have been an overshadowing debut. Then, in 1996, after five years, she disappeared. No new albums, no tours. Only an occasional appearance on tribute albums, like her cover of Merle Haggard’s “Big City” on Tulare Dust or appearances on “Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion.” Just enough to tease her audience. In 2000 her role in the independent film, The Songcatcher, as an Appalachian woman was a part she could wear like a dress with a perfect fit. She blended so well that it took a while to figure out that it was Iris and not a local mountain lady hired to lend authenticity to the film.
During the years following her divorce in 1994, Iris experienced what happens to many songwriters, poets, and other artists who build their art on reflecting the life around them – a period of depression. This led to a long dry spell for her songwriting and a disappearance from the public eye. She married songwriter Greg Brown in 2002 and after what can best be described as a heroic battle against the black dog of depression, she re-emerged. In 2004, she showed up with her friend and mentor, John Prine, on an album of duets, In Spite of Ourselves. The title song gave her the challenge of singing such lines as, “you ain’t been laid in a month of Sundays, I caught you once smelling my undies.”
Most important, 2004 was the year she returned to the studio for an album of southern gospel songs titled Lifeline. It is a natural extension of her spare but rich recording career, especially paying tribute to her roots and her mother, Flora Mae. At first glance, as is the case with many artists, when a new album is needed, it’s common to record either an album of covers or a gospel album. But, Lifeline is not just any gospel album. Carefully selected, not commonly covered gospel songs, Lifeline is clearly, like its title, an homage to the message of hope embedded in her spiritual journey, which is centered in the voice and songs she once heard her mother sing in her childhood. This is not just an album to fill the years between the release of songs of new material. However, most of the music industry didn’t get the title or the underlying story of Iris’ missing years. In this case, Lifeline is not just a reference to an old gospel song, but a virtual outcry from the hardship and emotional years of loss and the reach out for the lifeline of spiritual and artistic renewal. So, this often-passed-over album, generally reviewed as a four-star album, but discounted because of the lack of original material, is a return to her roots and, most important, to the voice of her mother, singing under the blue California skies of her childhood.
Up to now Iris’ story is a living example of the power of music to renew, heal, restore, and energize the human spirit. However, as universal and important as these are to all of us, Iris Dement’s story is also a testimony to the love of music from the past to rescue one artist purely through the continuity of forgotten traditions: The beloved singing of songs from mother to daughter without intent of anything more than to make it through a busy, tedious afternoon of chores, once a tradition as common as wildflowers in spring, became a lifeline for a modern artist who has, in the last two decades, given us through Flora Mae’s voice, her own songs of life, love, redemption, and everyday salvation. Today, looking back on this story and for many of us, our own stories, we can see the women of our past and perhaps our present, who like Iris’ mother, Flora Mae Dement, symbolize the enduring waters Ma Joad spoke of at the end of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, moving like a flowing river over the trials and hardships of our lives.