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Iris Dement Still 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. 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 the story and songs was as much a part of the family as Sunday dinner and church gatherings. As 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. 

 She grew up plain and simple in a farming town
 Her daddy played the fiddle and use to do the calling
 when they had hoedowns
Someone forgot to tell this to mother and daughter, Flora Mae and Iris Dement, back in the early '60's.  One reason may be, growing up as a child and as a mother, Flora Mae, didn't have a lot of 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 her 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 old 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 the in the good natured songs of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers while she danced and played in the grass beside her hardworking mother. Of  all of the touching lines in her song, “Mama's Opry,” there's none as touching as the revelation of this family-devoted-church-going mom, taught to shun all forms of vanity, to her young daugher Iris in the lines:
 I'll never forget her face when she revealed to me
 that she'd dreamed about singing at The Grand Ol' 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, Let The Mystery Be,' 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 AP Carter while waiting out some Arkansas dust storm. 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 on 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 always, that 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 from sight. 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. Her 2000 role in the independent film, The Songmakers, as an Appalachian woman was a part she could wear like a dress with a perfect fit. She blended so well, it took a while to figure out that it was Iris and not a local mountain lady hired to give 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 layed 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, 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, a 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 underderlying story of Iris' missing years.  In this case, Lifeline is not just a reference to an old gospel song, but a literally titled 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.

So, a few months ago, it was a rare and pleasant surprise to see the name Iris Dement showing up on the September schedule of San Diego's Belly Up. Touring now with no album in support, she's being met with gratitude from her loyal audience with sell out performances at small, intimate venues. There is also the added gospel news of an upcoming album of new material in 2010.
 Iris' story up to now is a living example of the power of music to renew, heal, restore and energize the human spirit. But, as universal and important as these are to all of us, the story of Iris Dement, is also a testimony to the love of the music of 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.

Terry Roland a West Texas kid raised on the beaches of Southern California whose mother once sang him to sleep to "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Kawliga."


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