Iris DeMent and the Lost Soul of Liberalism

By Stephen F. Noll

She sang in-between speeches at the first Clinton inauguration — “like crackers in the meatloaf,” she later modestly told reporters. “How could a nice girl like that get invited to the Rose law firm victory party?” I said to myself. “Must be the Arkansas connection” (she was born there). Then I thought again. It’s more than that: folk singer Iris DeMent represents the lost soul of liberalism.

The L-word has seldom been heard in the public square since Walter Mondale promised to raise taxes. At the moment, President Clinton is up in the polls, but he is doing it in the guise of a conservative. It would be the supreme irony of the election year if the President’s pretensions were exposed by a candidate who may actually be a reincarnation of an earlier populist liberalism — Pat Buchanan!

Bruce Feiler has commented recently in The New Republic that country music is becoming the principal fare of college-educated suburban cowboys, most of whom are conservatives: “While most pop music was still focused on sex, drugs, and other forms of license (“I Want Your Sex,” to pick one example, or “Losing My Religion”), country pounded out tales of love, heartache, family ties and middle-aged renewal.” Liberal boomers, on the other hand, frequent folk revivals by Joan Baez, who, like some musical witch of Endor, summons back the spirit of the Movement.

It’s hard to classify Iris Dement’s sound. She has that Baez-like voice with a rough-hewn country idiom. Discovered and promoted several years ago by Time Warner, Miss DeMent has produced two albums: Infamous Angel (1992) and My Life (1994). The lead number in the most recent album, “Sweet is the Melody,” includes a marvelous allegory of her own poetic inspiration:

The dance floor’s for gliding and not jumping over ponies,

Where boots and gold bracelets [i.e. notes] come and meet as they should.

It’s for celebrating a Friday night romance,

Forgetting the bad stuff and just feeling good.

DeMent is able to do just that: compose a song that delights as it touches some common sentiment of the heart.

Iris DeMent comes from a Pentecostal family from Paragould, Arkansas. When Iris was three, Patrick DeMent took his wife and fourteen children west where he got a job as janitor at the Movieland Wax Museum and Palace of Living Art in Anaheim. She relates that her father had given up fiddlin’ when he was saved. When the young Iris asked him later to play the fiddle for her, he tried a few bars, stopped, and said: “I’m sorry, honey, I can’t do it. My fingers have gotten too wide to play.” The gift and wideness of heart, it seems, passed to her.

“My own ways of thinking do not always coincide with those of the church I grew up in or the religion adhered to by my father,” she now says. Her agnosticism, however, is not of the studied nor the angry kind but flows from old-fashioned American pragmatism. In the beguiling number, “Let the Mystery Be,” DeMent sings:

Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory

And I ain’t sayin’ it ain’t a fact,

But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to purgatory

And I don’t like the sound of that.

My guess is her fundamentalist brethren may have threatened her with worse than purgatory. DeMent’s liberality gives them their due but rests content in the dictum: “I believe in love and I live my life accordingly.” Trite though this sounds, she manages to convey in her lyrics a credible portrait of a life of affection, forgiveness, and friendship.

Iris DeMent seems to be the real thing, a living liberal icon, unlike the posturers in the White House. Her home life was obviously not idyllic, yet she evinces in her songs a touching love of her parents and siblings. After dropping out of high school, she left home and worked as a housecleaner and waitress. She lived with her boyfriend Elmer, a fireman from Topeka, and upon achieving modest fame and fortune, she married him.

She is one of the petites bourgeoises whom the feminists say they speak for but who have been devastated by the social policies and attitudes of the sexual revolution. In “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day,” she puts herself into the world of today’s real woman, who is more likely to be a K-Mart checker than a law partner:

I’ll drop the baby off at school at nine,

And bust the lights to get to work on time,

Where I’ll be starin’ at the clock,

Just waitin’ to knock off another day.

It’s a song worthy of the Solomonic Preacher himself, the father of existentialism before it became a credit course.

The same Preacher counseled enjoyment of the wife of one’s youth before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl broken. Liberalism at its best is rooted in the sentiments of youth and age (hence the appeal to save school lunches and Medicare). My wife and I, once teenage but now graying sweethearts, keep replaying “Hotter than Mojave in My Heart” to celebrate thirty-some years of romance:

Well, baby, I could stay this way forever

Just passin’ time at ninety-nine degrees,

‘Cause lovin’ you’s my favorite kind of weather

Oh, forever let the flame burn down in me.

For every paean to love, DeMent has a song haunted by decay and death. She follows “Hotter than Mojave” with a number about a couple where the flame has burned down: “I never dreamed today would come/ When love was young.”

She is unabashedly nostalgic, lamenting the death of a small Texas town or phoning up her brother to check out childhood memories. She expresses no interest in inaugurating a New Covenant or a universal health plan. Acknowledging that her life is “only a season, a passing September that no one will recall,” she is content to “give joy to my mother,” to “make my lover smile,” and to “give comfort to my friends when they’re hurting.” Such small mercies ring truer than the billion-dollar compassion industry of corporate liberalism.

Like many first-generation liberals, DeMent feeds off the tradition of the Bible. (Who else but a born fundamentalist can use the word “sweet” unself-consciously?) But as liberalism substitutes religious feeling for the truth claims of Scripture, so her religious lyrics have a derivative quality about them. In “Mama’s Opry,” she depicts herself as a young girl singing along to her mother’s gospel records:

And we sang “Sweet Rose of Sharon,” “Abide with Me”

Till I ride “The Gospel Ship to Heaven’s Jubilee”

And “In That Great Triumphant Morning” my soul will be free

And “My Burdens Will Be Lifted” when my Savior’s face I see…

In this chorus, DeMent reveals herself to be an unpretentious postmodern, reproducing her parents’ faith in inverted commas. She can sing other people’s gospel songs, but the most she can say in her own words is that she wants to “dance the shores of Jordan till the angels carry me.” But on what basis, Iris, can you hope that the angels will carry you – or that there are any angels — unless the biblical faith is true? I fear for your art that without new well-springs of faith, your music will get slicker but less magical.

On that magical night in January of ’93, the President-elect, and Mrs. Clinton too, must have tapped their feet to Iris DeMent’s songs, even shedding a wistful tear for hootenannies past. For her part, she stills like Bill “better than the other guy” (I guess that’s Bush), and she sees the Democrats and their agenda — feeding the poor, caring for the sick and elderly — as more Christ-like than the Republicans, “except for abortion.” That’s a pretty big except. This time round, Democrats might do well to get her on the podium early, before Pat Buchanan wins her over.

For Miss DeMent herself, I would pray only that she would withstand the blandishments of the Warners and Turners of the media world, stick with Elmer, and come to a mature appropriation of the faith of her late father, who would, I suspect, love nothing better than to hear her singing in her Mama’s Opry on that great triumphant morning.


Dr. Noll is academic dean and Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. He has just published Angels of Light, Powers of Darkness: Thinking Biblically about Angels, Satan and Principalities (InterVarsity Press, 1998) Council and of a study of the Christian teaching on marriage and on sexuality, Two Sexes, One Flesh (Latimer Press, 1997). He is the editor of Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council.

“Iris DeMent and the Lost Soul of Liberalism” was posted 8 December 1998.