I first heard Iris DeMent's Our Town on WXPN about 25 years ago or so. It was love at first sound. And, since it was the CD era, I headed to a record store to buy Iris DeMent's debut CD, Infamous Angel, immediately. And I played it over and over and over again (like I've been known to do with my new favorite songs and artists).
Our Town was the first song that Iris DeMent ever wrote. She was 25, and apparently she was inspired to write it by a drive through a boarded up small town in Missouri. It was, of course, on her amazing first album, which also included the often covered Let the Mystery Be, along with other sweet and thoughtful songs about small town life, love, and her mama (along with a song that her mom actually sings). It's an amazing album.
Her subsequent albums are terrific, too. Some dig deeper into religion, particularly Lifeline, which includes 12 gospel covers and one spiritual original - - although it's hard for me to tell whether she's religious or particularly skeptical of the strong religious beliefs that seemed to be central to her upbringing. Maybe the answer to that question is in The Night I Learned How Not to Pray, which is included on her 2012 album, Sing the Delta.
I've seen Iris DeMent three times: The first time was in the Philly area (the Keswick, maybe?) in the mid 90s, when she opened for John Prine. I had already listened to Infamous Angel about a thousand times, so I knew that she would be amazing. But I was simply blown away by how good she was. With her quirky - - and absolutely not classic - - voice, her shy but charismatic personality, and her beautiful songs, it was among the best opening acts I have ever seen. So good that I had to buy her CD again, this time for the folks who came to the show with us. And then, of course, John Prine came out, which is always amazing, and Iris joined him on stage for a few songs, which was over-the-top great.
The second time I saw Iris DeMent was just a few years ago at World Cafe Live in Wilmington. She was the headliner; Jason Wilber, John Prine's lead guitarist, was the opener. And then I saw Iris again last year when she again opened for John Prine, this time at the King's Theatre in Brooklyn. She spent most of that show at the piano, playing songs that were on her latest album, The Trackless Woods, which is an album of songs for which Iris wrote the music, using the words of Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. I don't know, but I assume that she was inspired by Anna Akhmatova in part because Iris and her husband have a Russian-born daughter. I confess, though: The Trackless Woods is my least favorite Iris DeMent album, but, still, she was great. And her duets with John Prine, including the now iconic In Spite of Ourselves, are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
Iris DeMent is in the "must see" category for me. If she's in town, I'm going to see her. But for now, let's enjoy a couple versions of Our Town, the first one from Iris DeMent's appearance in Nashville in the early 90s, and the second one, a duet with Emmylou Harris, a few years later.