The first time I heard about Iris DeMent was back in 1992. A glowing review of her first album, Infamous Angel, had appeared in Melody Maker, of all places. The review lauded the refreshing intimacy and innocence of Iris’ songs, and the unique, almost childlike voice with which she delivered those songs. After reading the review I was keen to experience Iris’ music firsthand — mostly because I was intrigued to find out why a British music newspaper was championing an unknown American folk singer with midwest sensibilities and pentecostal tendencies. Iris’ songs unabashedly pondered the agnostic prospects of an afterlife, extolled the virtues of her mother’s wisdom, and paid profound tribute to her dying father against the musical backdrop of a folky acoustic guitar and gentle piano with the occasional banjo or fiddle accompaniment. Those are normally the kind of things the cynical writers of Melody Maker would trash in a heartbeat with a few acerbic lines dripping with disdain and sarcasm. Not so this time. I guess when something is so genuinely beautiful and poignant only an asshole would dismiss it — and even a predominantly punk rock reviewer for Melody Maker couldn’t avoid the allure of Iris’ raw, confessional songwriting and the charming, almost naive outlook on life she approaches it from. Even the hard-to-please “dean of American rock critics,” Robert Christgau couldn’t resist praising Iris’ debut because of songs like “Let the Mystery Be” — “an agnostic’s declaration of faith so homespun it makes the word ‘agnostic' seem absurdly hoity-toity and severe, so unfaltering it modestly conceals the tremendous intellectual effort her decision "not to know," self-evidently required.”
The first time I saw Iris DeMent was at the Birchmere back in 1992. She was a young woman in a sun dress with a beat up acoustic guitar and a nervous laugh. She had an endearing habit of stopping her songs mid strum to add one more humorous footnote to their meaning or provide one last quirky explanation about how they had been written. I was amazed how genuinely surprised she seemed by the enthusiastic reception she received, and by the end of the night everyone in the audience — Lori and I included — felt like we had just made a new best friend. I was captivated by Iris’ music and performance that night at the Birchmere, and having had the chance to see her in concert twice more over the past 26 years, I remain an ardent fan to this day.
Someone at NPR Music once wrote: “Iris DeMent makes music that celebrates humanity’s efforts toward salvation, while acknowledging that most of our time on Earth is spent reconciling with the fact that we don’t feel so redeemed.” To that end, Iris has been pretty loyal to the same playbook throughout most of her career; singing about home, marriage, family and spiritual struggle with “unaffected simplicity” and good-natured, self-effacing humor. However, every once in a while she has changed course to make some powerful observations and comments about the great big world in which we all live; outside the small, personal space her songs reside in most of the time. In 1996, she recorded a song called “Wasteland of the Free” for her album The Way I Should. The song is a blunt, heartfelt indictment of the right-wing political and social agenda she felt was dominating the US — back then. The five-minute song denounces religious and political hypocrisy and corruption, the great and growing gap between rich and poor, and US foreign policy that places a premium on oil over human rights. It seethes with anger and frustration and forces listeners to “confront the social ills produced by the profit system, compelling them to critically contrast government and media platitudes about democracy and freedom with social reality.” It was probably a difficult song for Iris to sing in front of a live audience, but one she felt compelled to perform because, as she once said in an interview, “I can’t keep quiet about these things. I don't have all the answers but if my songs make people think more deeply and figure out solutions that I'm not able to, then this is what it's for. If people get upset and it forces them to stop and think, then the song has done the job." I think that’s the philosophy that has always been at the heart of all good protest songs and art.
Lori and I caught up with Iris for a third time two weeks ago at the Ram’s Head Tavern in Annapolis. Like us, she’s looking a little older these days. She seems to prefer sitting at the piano vs. standing at the mic with a guitar — which lead to a hilarious apology to the tables positioned behind her with a “rear-facing view.” She’s still very chatty between songs, and makes no bones about her political allegiances; encouraging everyone to get out and vote in the upcoming midterm elections. “Wasteland of the Free” is a full on rocker, so I didn’t really expect to hear Iris belt that one out from the piano (although I’m sure it would have been amazing on her unaccompanied acoustic guitar), but I was hoping she might entertain us with a different song of resistance she wrote in 2017 that has only appeared as a video on her website. Unfortunately she didn’t perform that song either, which is too bad because it would have definitely provided the sing-along she was looking for at one point in the show, and certainly reiterated her call to get out the vote. If silence truly gives consent, then “We Won’t Keep Quiet” by Iris DeMent is a musical rally cry befitting the upcoming midterm elections that breaks the silence, and makes it a perfect choice for the Happy Medium Song of the Day. (Please use the comments box to share your thoughts.)