The Village Voice, August 9, 1994
It is axiomatic that rock and roll, like so much American popular culture – including a countercultural tradition of communes and charismatics traceable to the Great Awakening – is rooted in evangelical Christianity. The plausible exaggeration that all its rhythms come out of the black church connects neatly to the guilt complexes of such sometime secularists as Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Al Green. And if for some dumb reason the black church isn’t what you mean by evangelical Christianity, white fundamentalism has left its own anguished testament, epitomized by the fierce argument Jerry Lee Lewis had with Sam Phillips before they cut “Great Balls of Fire.” Otis Blackwell’s title, in case you didn’t know, is a Southern expletive that makes light of Pentecostalism’s defining moment, when the Holy Ghost manifested himself in “cloven tongues as of fire” and the apostles spoke in tongues. But while the argument (which can actually be heard on Jerry Lee’s Sun box, where it stands as a dumbfoundingly vivid confirmation of how much rock and roll meant to its creators) was touched off by this blasphemy, Jerry Lee’s dread of “worldly music,” as he calls it, is more general: “Man, I got the Devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian.” And there in a nutshell is a psychodrama exploited by play-acting Mr. D.’s from Mick Jagger to Glenn Danzig, a metaphor mined by every rock and roller who’s ever reveled in sin or longed for redemption.
Romantics are attracted to this schema for its primal passion, which supposedly suits both fundamentalism and rock and roll. It’s red-blooded, it’s rip-roaring, it’s got a big dick – or a fat, juicy cunt, like one of Polly Harvey’s sheela-na-gigs. And I wouldn’t deny it its portion of truth. But as someone who spent his youth in an evangelical church, as well as someone whose life was shaped but not saved by rock and roll, I’ve always felt it was tendentious and a mite condescending. There’s nothing remotely monolithic about a born-again Christianity that sheltered urban liberals equate with the rightwing bad guy of the moment. Conceived in populist individualism, it remains radically schismatic, and people move in and out of their faiths all the time, rarely with as much sturm and drang as Jerry Lee Lewis or Al Green. Usually the break is difficult, as is only to be expected, but painless drift is at least as common as chronic torture. And unless you believe music has to be primal and rip-roaring to mean something, these homely facts suit rock and roll just fine.
I started thinking about these things in connection with two artists many would say aren’t rock and roll at all – Iris DeMent, who played the Supper Club July 14, and (the other) Sam Phillips, who was at the Bottom Line five nights later. Although the singer-songwriter niche these women share is normally associated with folk music nowadays, that’s ridiculous for Phillips and not as sensible as might appear for DeMent – whose discoverer at Warner Bros. is London-based former Nashville carpetbagger Andy Wickham, whose artistic affinities are plainly with such Nashville-progressive supporters as Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and John Prine, and who is nevertheless not marketed as a country artist. It would be silly to make too much of how uncategorizable she is – “folk” is reasonable shorthand. But her work signifies under rock’s umbrella, and although the music of the white Pentecostal church remains her deepest inspiration, it’s unlikely she’d have ended up where she did without the likes of such childhood favorites as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan (both of whom, I can’t resist pointing out, are or have been born-again Christians).
I went to see DeMent in the hope that she would exceed my expectations, just as she had when she topped 1992’s understandably overrated Infamous Angel with a follow-up as consistent as everyone wished the first one was. But I expected nothing. I knew she had no jokes, no line of patter, that she just sat there strumming her guitar and singing her songs, slowly, and one reason I’m not a folkie is that I think this low-rent approach is a misguided way of overcoming what some call alienation – the distance people inevitably feel in a world where everyone’s self-expression is out there for everyone else’s empathetic delectation. Then she started to perform – I don’t know what, it was five songs before I gathered the wit to take notes – and I forgot all that. DeMent is a small, demure woman, but her supposedly “angelic” voice – memorable enough on record, where it resonates with the unaffected twang of country’s lost past – is huge live; I wasn’t surprised to learn that when she first tried out her songs in her adopted hometown, Kansas City, the open mike was turned down as soon as she opened her mouth. What’s more, she inhabits her material with a concentration that also seems unaffected – she doesn’t make with the heart-be-still intensity, just focuses on the details of songs so simple, so literal, so free of irony and metaphor that it’s hard to believe they were written in postmodern times. No wonder Harris, Prine, and Griffith are in awe of her – they need something like literature to approximate the directness this high school dropout with a G.E.D. seems to achieve, well, naturally. Authentically. You know.
Of course, art never comes naturally. Attend to DeMent’s soft speaking voice and you understand that her penetrating vocals are a miracle of post-Appalachian convention; think about “Sweet Is the Melody” and you realize that she’s led off an album called My Life with a song about the conscious discipline of sitting around waiting for the song to come. Some of her strongest lyrics are imagined fictions – “Our Town” is nowhere she’s ever lived, and the trapped housewife of “Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Every Day” doesn’t have a husband who quit his job in the fire department to become her road manager. But she is a relative natural. One reason her work seems unforced is that she’s so new at it; now 33, she didn’t start writing till she was 25 or tour till she was 31. And another is the particulars of where she comes from, with the Pentecostal faith she grew up with second only to the family that instilled it in her.
Despite talk of DeMent’s “hardscrabble” rural roots, she’s a California girl – her family emigrated to Orange County from Arkansas when she was three, and the father she adored worked not as a farmer but as a janitor-gardener in a movie museum. But there were plenty of other displaced Southerners around, many of them at a church where worshipers spoke in tongues every Sunday, where celebrants danced with the Holy Spirit, where musical get-togethers with other Pentecostal congregations (sometimes even Assemblies of God) were a social staple. Yet though her now deceased dad had put away his fiddle for the Lord, the family was so musical that what they too called “worldly music” was always tolerated, and early on Iris absorbed the albums her older siblings brought home. Some of her 13 brothers and sisters remained devout, even formed gospel groups; others retained their beliefs but stopped going to church; others left the faith, as she eventually did. For Iris the crux was that she didn’t believe all non-Christians were going to hell; she just didn’t believe it, that’s all. Her falling away was not without conflict, but her parents never rejected her, and she still loves and respects them keenly. She misses her religion sometimes, especially the music. But she doesn’t feel any guilt or uncertainty about her decision. Her large and unique talent isn’t merely a function of her circumstances. Nevertheless it’s no conceit to suggest that the spiritual tenor of her kind, humble, clear-sighted songs derives from the fellowship of the church. Her music is her way of maintaining a link to an upbringing she’s thankful for.
Sam Phillips is also a California girl – grew up in Glendale, never left L.A. But even among born-again Christians, there are many kinds of California girl. The daughter of an an accountant, Phillips was raised secular upper-middle class in a rocky marriage that held in the end. The music in her house was Broadway shows and especially jazz; Randy Newman and Joan Armatrading she took out of the library. She came to Jesus via her older brother, who discovered fundamentalism as a boy and stuck with it, which Sam hasn’t. Sure she started out as Christian singer-songwriter Leslie Phillips and married countercultural rock Christian T Bone Burnett. But she’s so sick of disavowing Jerry Falwell that these days she calls herself a “Christian atheist,” praises Catholic mystic Thomas Merton, and dedicates “Baby I Can’t Please You” to Rush Limbaugh. Struggled for rather than breathed like air, Phillips’s Christianity never evinces the bedrock cultural assurance of, say, the Maybelle Carter songs DeMent covers – she’s a permanent seeker, and even when she moralizes she does so with a puzzle or a question mark. Nor is she arrogant enough to nail the fine sarcastic dudgeon T Bone could muster at will back when he was hungry. In fact, for all her political dread and literary talk, this Walker Percy fan has written only one indisputably superb lyric – “Lying,” which kicks off 1991’s Cruel Inventions (Virgin) by warning how hard the truth comes to her.
Since Phillips is billed as a singer-songwriter, this confused many of us. So did her strong, strange vocal attack – Tanya Tucker as detached new waver, say, with Lennonesque pretension where the sexy cornpone used to be. And in my case, so did her admirers’ frequent allusions to the Beatles. Maybe I would have gotten the idea sooner if Cruel Inventions were half as catchy as the new Martinis and Bikinis, but it was only after I heard her roll out the nifty if predictable hooks at the Bottom Line that Martinis and Bikinis fell into place for me – as a smart, solid pop record that fills the same kind of need as Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, which also doesn’t get across on words. If Phillips’s (and producer Burnett’s) Revolver extrapolation is less arresting than Sweet’s Voidoids homage, it’s still fun to sing along with her titles, and Sweet’s girl problems merit less sympathy than Phillips’s metaphysical riddles. Still, she does take ordinary tropes very seriously – in the titles of the new album alone I count one rain, one sky, one road, one wheel, one circle (plus the “circle of changes” that hooks “The Same Changes”), and two fires (plus the “fire burning underneath” in “Signposts”).
Phillips worries about the media, the ecology, the money changers in the temple, her real feelings. At some level she’s still combating a spiritually desiccated suburban affluence I’ve never believed was as uniformly arid as concerned rock and rollers claim it is. Where DeMent’s cover from nowhere is Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock’s secularly Christ-centered “God May Forgive You” – “God may forgive you but I won’t/Jesus may love you but I don’t” – Phillips kicks off her encore with Cole Porter’s flirtatiously sinful “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” complete with smoky glances at T Bone, who favored a cheerfully unreadable “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” himself. Nevertheless, her troubled faith pervades her music as deeply as DeMent’s does hers. A lot of things in this country come out of evangelical Christianity. And if you want an axiom that applies across the board, say they’re all as different as they are the same. Just like rock and roll.