Iris DeMent’s Stunning Debut, 30 Years Later

On ‘Infamous Angel,’ her big-hearted, genre-expanding record

On December 16, 2021

I.

Iris DeMent released Infamous Angel in 1992. Nearly 30 years later, the album remains among the most singular and fully realized singer-songwriter debuts since the invention of that category in the early ’70s. The abiding strengths of the album are especially impressive — even a bit startling — because 1992 is not a moment usually associated with her intimate brand of acoustic country music. In country history, the year 1992 is most immediately affiliated with Garth Brooks, whose album, The Chase, topped both the country and pop album charts that year, and with Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart,” which fueled a line dance craze. Squeezed into a playlist alongside such hits, DeMent’s doleful, hushed “Our Town” would’ve sounded as if it were being broadcast from another planet. “People call me country,” she told journalist Ben Thompson while on tour in Britain a couple years later. “But country doesn’t call me country.”

Let’s call her country. The genre is always more expansive than what radio programs. It happened Infamous Angel is close kin to a different sort of country music that was just then having a moment: specifically, country singer-songwriters, focusing on personal, but universal, loss and hope and favoring small acoustic combos. Mary Chapin Carpenter was the most commercially successful of the group, having already scored a handful of folkie country hits, and she scored again in early 1993 with a version of “Passionate Kisses,” a song written by Lucinda Williams, whose latest album, Sweet Old World, followed DeMent’s debut by only months. Meanwhile, John Prine, whose much-lauded The Missing Years had relaunched his own career just the year before, endorsed Infamous Angel on its back cover (“[L]isten to this music… It’s good for you!”). Within the year, DeMent guested on a well-regarded covers collection, Other Voices, Other Rooms, from Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. Then, near the end of April 1994, Johnny Cash rocketed this spare, rootsy singer-songwriter thing to a whole new level of commercial and critical attention with his American Recordings. DeMent’s second album, My Life, came out only two weeks earlier. It may have been out of step with the mainstream, but Infamous Angel arrived right on time. 

The album was released on Rounder Records’ Philo label. Then when Infamous Angel looked like it had run its course, Warner Brothers signed DeMent and re-released the album the next year in all its original glory. Both of the album’s releases received praise across the board. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times gushed that her work recalled “Prine’s feel for sentimental tales of people and places,” a high bar. Critic Robert Christgau called “Let the Mystery Be” “miraculous,” and Rolling Stone named her “Hot Country Singer” for 1993. All this enthusiasm is easy to understand, but it should also be noted that many of the initial DeMent takes feel slightly off today, and sometimes just wrong. The Boston Globe, for example, hailed DeMent as a “a singer/poet of uncommon innocence,” and Entertainment Weekly loved her “unaffected, snow-pure voice.” In dozens of album reviews and concert previews surrounding Infamous Angel’s release, DeMent and her music were described as “angelic,” “simple” and, most popularly, “sweet.” Twice Billboard described her voice as “childlike.” 

The misapprehension of DeMent as a lil sweet ’n’ innocent songstress is admittedly easier to peg in hindsight. In the early ’90s, no one knew she’d soon be receiving death threats for her political protest song “Wasteland of the Free.” By the time her second album, My Life, was released in 1994, 80,000-or-so people had purchased Infamous Angel. Which of the following developments do you suppose those folks would have found most improbable? That this “simple, innocent” singer would one day fashion an album, The Trackless Woods, from the work of dissident Russian poet Anna Akhmatova? Or that, on 1999’s “In Spite of Ourselves,” she would duet with Prine about that time she caught him “sniffin’ [her] undies”?

But the mismeasure of DeMent should’ve been obvious in real time. “Innocence” and “snow-pure,” like “angelic” and “sweet,” are patronizing at best, and infantilizing at worst, particularly when applied to a woman in her early 30s at the time. “Simple” is often used to describe country music, and when the word refers to art built from common materials and with few moving parts, it isn’t wrong. As DeMent herself told one early interviewer, “Johnny Cash songs taught me to keep it simple.” Too often, though, “simple” mistakes the vernacular for an absence of sophistication. When applied to people, it’s never far away from implying “simple-minded.” 

Infamous Angel itself suggests better ways to describe DeMent. Big-hearted. Wise. Traditional, but idiosyncratic. An artist. Her twang is bracing. Her voice rings. Her sweet is almost always bittersweet, her simplicity complex. Even DeMent’s angel is infamous.


II.

DeMent’s music and reputation are bound up with the South. Specifically, she’s tied to the chunk of northeastern Arkansas that abuts the Missouri Boot Heel; the area lies within the upper delta of the Mississippi River, but is only a long hour’s drive from the Ozark Mountains. The DeMent clan lived and farmed in this singular cultural region for generations. But hard times pushed the family to resettle in nearby Paragould, Arkansas, long before Iris was born there in 1961. The family moved to California when Iris was three. Her father found work as a janitor and groundskeeper at the Movieland Wax Museum, in Buena Park, and Iris grew up in the Ozark Delta’s antithesis, the Los Angeles metro.

An Orange County kid, Iris still felt intimately connected to her family’s Arkansas roots. Much of that connection was instilled by her family in the stories told around the house — a few of which we know, because Iris has retold them herself. In an essay she wrote for My Life, for example, she shares that her father was once a fine fiddler, but put down the instrument once he found religion. Another revealing story is the one she tells on what is perhaps Infamous Angel’s most beloved track, “Mama’s Opry,” about her mother’s dreams of performing on the Grand Ole Opry program. The song is subtly complex. Flora Mae’s youthful experience of watching her folks sing and play at house party hoedowns is entangled in tender embrace with Iris’ own precious memories of singing with her mom, as well as with her own musical ambitions. “There ain’t no doubt she sure made her mark on me,” Iris sings. The clearest proof of that claim appears not on the lyric sheet, but in the way DeMent pronounces “opry” as “Op-uh-ree.” The line just sings better with that extra syllable, but it evokes better too: Even Iris’ accent is a gift from her mama.

Music, too, was an heirloom handed down to Iris. Like most teens coming of age in the early 1970s, she was a pop fan, drawn especially to singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Merle Haggard — who all just happened to be recording their best-known work about a half-hour from her house. And, thanks to her parents, Iris also grew up listening to country elders Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family. Most of all, though, the DeMents loved gospel music, playing and singing it together around the house and at Pentecostal church services at least three times a week. At home, Iris would join in as Flora Mae sang along with her favorite records. She cleverly weaves a handful of those cherished titles into a single testimony in the chorus of “Mama’s Opry.”

Iris eventually left her parents’ church. Not long after Infamous Angel was released, ahead of an appearance at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, she told Dan DeLuca that the immediate catalyst for the break was that the church wouldn’t let her sing in the choir bare-legged — she needed to wear stockings. This struck the then-17-year-old DeMent as silly: “The Bible never said anything about stockings'' and besides “I spent all summer trying to get a tan on my legs.” By then, though, she’d been questioning the church for years, particularly the doctrine that anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would go to hell. “I couldn’t understand why God would do that,” she told DeLuca.

But while she broke from Pentecostalism, she never lost faith in the gospel music she’d grown up with. She returned to two of those numbers she namechecks in “Mama’s Opry” — the Carters’ glory-bound “The Old Gospel Ship” and the spirit-sustaining standard “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted (To This World)” — on Lifeline, her all-gospel album, in 2004. That she chose to frame Infamous Angel with “Let the Mystery Be,” her sprightly agnostic anthem, and “Higher Ground,” with her mother singing lead, is emblematic of the generous way Iris thinks about her faith. Flora Mae sings strong and full-throated, with a burst of wind-shear vibrato once she really gets going. When Iris and the “Infamous Angel Chorus” join in close harmony behind her, Flora Mae feels elevated, still higher.

“Let the Mystery Be,” Infamous Angel’s indelible opening track, lets an older, wiser DeMent share some of the spiritual answers she’d found and, like “Mama’s Opry,” it’s a more nuanced song than it might, at first, appear to be. Her reading is jaunty, almost devil-may-care, as she counts off different beliefs about what happens when we die. It’s an unexpectedly ecumenical list, using homespun language to convey some fairly highfalutin theology — she didn’t learn about purgatory or animism in the Pentecostal church. 

When DeMent performs the song in concert, the line about some people believing they’re going to return after death as “carrots and little sweet peas” often draws titters from audiences. But DeMent isn’t taking a cheap shot here. The song’s point is that every belief about the afterlife, including that popular one about a heavenly reward, are “all the same” because they are all unprovable. Best to let the mystery be. 

“I believe in love, and I live my life accordingly,” DeMent vows, revealing a call-to-action beneath the song’s passive title: Love one another. She returns to this fierce ideal throughout the album. Love can’t cure a hard world in “Sweet Forgiveness” (“I say we all deserve a taste of this kind of love”) or in “Infamous Angel” (“Come on home to someone who loves you and knows you needed to roam”), but it can help us to share burdens and to lighten hearts. The message has kept returning throughout her career, from “My Life” on her follow-up (“My life, it don’t’ count for nothin’ … but I made my lover smile”) to the angry “Wasteland of the Free” to her retelling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in “He Reached Down,” Lifeline’s sole DeMent original. 


III.

DeMent didn’t write her first song until she was 25. She was living in Topeka, Kansas, at the time, and on her way down to Oklahoma to visit family, she passed a lonely looking little town off to the side of the highway, invented a world, and eventually finished a song with a Thornton Wilder-alluding title, “Our Town.” Because of the origin stories she’s shared behind “Mama’s Opry,” “Let the Mystery Be” and others, DeMent is considered an autobiographical songwriter. But DeMent’s real writing superpower may be the empathy she feels for lives she’s only observed or imagined. A number of Infamous Angel songs are like that, filled with details from lives not her own: For instance, the middle-aged woman in a dying relationship in “When Love Was Young,” among the most aching vocal performances of her career, has grown children who’ve moved away. Iris’ soaring half-yodel on the final notes is the epitome of bittersweet. The narrator in “These Hills,” who’s already buried her parents, isn’t Iris either, which isn’t to say she doesn’t share a way of feeling the world with the character. “I don’t feel so all alone when I see the dandelions blowing,” she sings, still sounding awfully lonesome. It’s a lovely image: dissolution and diaspora tangled with hope for rebirth.

Not too long after writing “Our Town,” DeMent moved to nearby Kansas City, Missouri, and began singing at open mics, most regularly at a bar called The Point. Once she had written several songs that she felt were good enough to keep, she moved to Nashville. Things moved fast after that. She met producer Jim Rooney, who had produced Nanci Griffith’s breakthrough albums and had recently scored several radio hits, at the height of Garthmania no less, with Hal Ketchum. Rooney helped Iris get several dates at the famous songwriter showcase, the Bluebird Café, in 1990, and in ’91, she provided backup vocals on Emmylou Harris’ Brand New Dance. Rooney and DeMent asked Harris to return the favor on “Mama’s Opry” when the Infamous Angel sessions began.

DeMent was certainly inexperienced at this point in her career. Outside of church, she had been singing in front of audiences for only a few years, had done little studio work and only occasionally had performed with a band. Rooney later recalled that she was understandably a little anxious early on and that he coaxed a relaxed performance out of her by explaining she was only laying down guide vocals for the band. “When DeMent came back to do the final vocal tracks,” vreported, “Rooney simply informed her that she already had.”

However it went down, it worked. The band Rooney had assembled was an all-star lineup, including the session masters Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin and Roy Huskey Jr. on heartbeat bass. On the title track, Jerry Douglas guests on Dobro. DeMent’s road-weary narrator has sewn all her wild oats, for nothing but empty fields. Like the prodigal son, she determines she should return home to the ones who still love her — despite all the damage she’s apparently done, all the hurt she’s caused. Douglas has his Dobro chase her and her infamy down the street to the train station, all of them weeping and shouting hallelujah.

The arrangements always center the songs like that. The playing leans toward bluegrass, no drums, and mostly foregoes hot picking for ruminative moods that support Iris’ words and highlight her bracing soprano. The sprightly rhythm and nifty round of brief solos on “Hotter Than Mojave in My Heart,” for example, are more swoony than steamy, but Iris sounds randy enough for everyone involved. On “After You’re Gone,” a song DeMent wrote when her father was in a bad way after suffering a stroke, Pete Wasner’s piano barely plays, chording along and there-there-ing her shoulder; she tries to convince herself she can make it without her father. She crawls through the melody, holding each note long and tight. The poignancy is in the way you can tell she doesn’t believe a word she’s singing. 

“Nothing good ever lasts,” she sings in “Our Town.” She believes that. Clinging to her lover, she believes it. Her voice flutters. She keeps right on loving.

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