Musical Memories: Our Town

 

A friend and I were chatting a couple of weeks ago about a shared love of authentic American music, and Iris DeMent’s name came up. I’ve never seen her perform, but remember her from appearances on early A Prairie Home Companion days, when Garrison Keillor was genuinely entertaining and gently funny, before he became infected with what I refer to as “David Letterman disease,” which presents with the same sort of symptoms, in which what was once entertaining, funny and endearing becomes nasty, bitter and off-putting. (Keillor is walking some of his worst excrescences back these days: I guess signs of impending mortality will do that to a guy, although I don’t think Letterman’s yet received the memo.)

Iris DeMent is the youngest of fourteen children, born in Paragould, Arkansas and raised mostly in California, where she began her entertainment career at churches and revival halls, singing with her siblings.

Her first album, Infamous Angel, released in 1992, features Our Town, the first song she wrote, and one which was inspired by a road trip through the often boarded-up towns of the American Midwest. It’s just as good today as it was then, and even more relevant. Here it is, Iris, accompanied by a few friends:

A love song to a way of life that’s fast becoming just a distant memory in the minds of America’s oldest citizens.

Some may also remember it from the last episode of the 1990s TV show Northern Exposure, a quirky little series about a neurotic, newly qualified Jewish doctor who’s sent to the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska as part of a scheme to repay the state for underwriting his medical education. He’s completely out of his element among the town’s eccentric residents, all of whom wormed their way into the hearts of the viewing public between 1990 and 1995, when it was one of the most popular shows on television. As often happens, the show lost its way a bit towards the end, and was cancelled after six seasons. Our Town was sung over the closing credits. And like the singer, I had “tears in my eyes.” Because, just as in the song, “our town” had become “my town.”

It always does.

Argh. As the saying goes, “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

Except when it is.

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  1. She Member
    She
    @She

    BTW, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the United States. I suspect that (in the curious way memory sometimes works), what got me going today was this Telegraph article about the demise of the small-town English high street, which is accompanied by this photo (Waterlooville, Hampshire):

    Wellington Way shopping centre in Waterlooville: 'a forlorn Waterloo cannon stands guard in a hopeless sort of way'

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    At the height of his popularity, Keillor self-deported to Denmark. Then disaster struck and he came back. I guess he had his Minnesota nice surgically removed.

    • #2
  3. She Member
    She
    @She

    Percival (View Comment):

    At the height of his popularity, Keillor self-deported to Denmark. Then disaster struck and he came back. I guess he had his Minnesota nice surgically removed.

    Yes.  He messed up in both political and personal ways.  What was so charming about the first few years of PHC was that it neither required knowledge of, nor agreement or disagreement with, either his political opinions or his personal circumstances in order to appreciate and enjoy the program.  Once he became determined to shove his political and personal circumstances to the fore, and to insult anyone who might differ with him, he lost his edge.  And much of his audience.

    • #3
  4. David C. Broussard Coolidge
    David C. Broussard
    @Dbroussa

    She (View Comment):

    BTW, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the United States. I suspect that (in the curious way memory sometimes works), what got me going today was this Telegraph article about the demise of the small-town English high street, which is accompanied by this photo (Waterlooville, Hampshire):

    Wellington Way shopping centre in Waterlooville: 'a forlorn Waterloo cannon stands guard in a hopeless sort of way'

    The same issues that struck small-town America happened in England, and Europe to an extent.  The rise of malls and then outdoor shopping centers around big box stores will kill the small Mom and Pop stores.  Then Amazon has come along and it is easy to get something delivered to your home as opposed to going to a small store someplace.  We all miss the little shops where we could purchase things, but when you balance the cost and convenience of that against Amazon, the mall, or Walmart…well people turned where the cost in $ and time was less.  Now we are starting to see some of these small towns and high streets revitalize themselves, but with restaurants, or boutiques that cater to an entirely different clientele.  I suspect that, over time, we are going to see a balance be reached, but the people shopping at the main/high streets will be the upper middle and upper classes that have the ability and desire to overspend for something that the rest of us purchase off of Amazon.

    • #4
  5. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    I was stationed in the UK from 1985 – 1993.  There were a lot of changes over that period.  I remember early on that I stayed on base to watch a movie at night, and realized afterward that I was low on gas.  All the stations were closed, and credit card pumps were not available.  I managed not to get stranded somehow.

    By the time I left 24 hour pumps were commonly available.

    I remember when the first McDonalds restaurant opened in Ipswich.  The English clientele was new to carry out fast food in paper containers.  There was McDonalds trash on the streets for blocks in every direction as there were no public trash cans.  Somehow fish & chips wrapped in newspaper had never had the same impact.

    The thing I miss the most was the feed store my Dad patronized when I was small.  It had a delicious sweet musty smell.  Now there is only a vacant lot.

    Oh well, one can’t go back.

    • #5
  6. Painter Jean Moderator
    Painter Jean
    @PainterJean

    Percival (View Comment):

    At the height of his popularity, Keillor self-deported to Denmark. Then disaster struck and he came back. I guess he had his Minnesota nice surgically removed.

    At our previous residence north of the Twin Cities, I sometimes took my daily walk on a street where there was a mailbox with “Keillor” written on it. One day a young kid was out getting the mail as I passed, and I asked him, half-jokingly, “Any relation to Garrison?” He looked at me with a sour expression and said, “Yes”. He then told me what the relationship was, but that was so many years ago that I don’t remember now what it was – cousin? Perhaps an uncle? What was remarkable was the kid’s look of distaste. Maybe it was for a stranger asking him a question he was perhaps frequently and annoyingly asked, but given that this was during the time when Garrison Keillor was at his most insufferable, I rather think it was distaste for his famous relation.

    • #6
  7. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    David C. Broussard (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    BTW, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the United States. I suspect that (in the curious way memory sometimes works), what got me going today was this Telegraph article about the demise of the small-town English high street, which is accompanied by this photo (Waterlooville, Hampshire):

    Wellington Way shopping centre in Waterlooville: 'a forlorn Waterloo cannon stands guard in a hopeless sort of way'

    The same issues that struck small-town America happened in England, and Europe to an extent. The rise of malls and then outdoor shopping centers around big box stores will kill the small Mom and Pop stores. Then Amazon has come along and it is easy to get something delivered to your home as opposed to going to a small store someplace. We all miss the little shops where we could purchase things, but when you balance the cost and convenience of that against Amazon, the mall, or Walmart…well people turned where the cost in $ and time was less. Now we are starting to see some of these small towns and high streets revitalize themselves, but with restaurants, or boutiques that cater to an entirely different clientele. I suspect that, over time, we are going to see a balance be reached, but the people shopping at the main/high streets will be the upper middle and upper classes that have the ability and desire to overspend for something that the rest of us purchase off of Amazon.

    RE the bold: Your prediction ties into the report I saw today that Macy’s will shutter 150 stores nationwide, but will increase its high-end stores (Bloomindales and another I forget), planning to cater to a higher-income, higher-spending clientele.

    • #7
  8. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    I used to play The Prairie Home Companion for my kids when they were small.  At that time I would take them with me on business trips to Virginia, and he perfectly entertained us all for those long stretches.  We loved them. Must have been the early year productions.  

    • #8
  9. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    @She,

    Thanks for this note.  Your diverse comments all resonated with Kate and me.  

    You also gave us that beautiful song of grieving to listen to. I started to read the lyrics of Our Town aloud to Kate but she had to stop me, too sad.

    • #9
  10. She Member
    She
    @She

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    I used to play The Prairie Home Companion for my kids when they were small. At that time I would take them with me on business trips to Virginia, and he perfectly entertained us all for those long stretches. We loved them. Must have been the early year productions.

    The episodes from the early years are timeless and lovely.

    • #10
  11. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Iris DeMent often sings with Tom Russell, who IMO is one of the best singer-songwriters working today.

    A couple of examples: Love Abides and When Irish Girls Grow Up.

     

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    At the height of his popularity, Keillor self-deported to Denmark. Then disaster struck and he came back. I guess he had his Minnesota nice surgically removed.

    At our previous residence north of the Twin Cities, I sometimes took my daily walk on a street where there was a mailbox with “Keillor” written on it. One day a young kid was out getting the mail as I passed, and I asked him, half-jokingly, “Any relation to Garrison?” He looked at me with a sour expression and said, “Yes”. He then told me what the relationship was, but that was so many years ago that I don’t remember now what it was – cousins? Perhaps an uncle? What was remarkable was the kid’s look of distaste. Maybe it was for a stranger asking him a question he was perhaps frequently and annoyingly asked, but given that this was during the time when Garrison Keillor was at his most insufferable, I rather think it was distaste for his famous relation.

    I heard he had a strained relation with his family from the beginning, though I don’t remember any details. But Garrison strayed from his upbringing.  His brother, Steven, is a decent historian and writes well, unlike his brother.  It’s not great writing and not great historical work, but it’s decent. I have one of his books.  I don’t know what kind of relationship he has with his brother, though.

    • #12
  13. She Member
    She
    @She

    Lunchbox Gerald (View Comment):

    I remember when the first McDonalds restaurant opened in Ipswich.  The English clientele was new to carry out fast food in paper containers.  There was McDonalds trash on the streets for blocks in every direction as there were no public trash cans.  Somehow fish & chips wrapped in newspaper had never had the same impact.

    The municipal services in England, once you get out of the obvious tourist traps, and even when there are public trash cans, are just appalling.  Filthy, in fact.

    The thing I miss the most was the feed store my Dad patronized when I was small.  It had a delicious sweet musty smell.  Now there is only a vacant lot.

    I miss Campsey’s Seed & Feed in Claysville:  A Claysville Institution is No More.

    D.M. Campsey Seed and Feed Inc., a fourth-generation family business in Claysville, shut down at 5 p.m. Thursday [in 2015] with Mary’s retirement. She owned the store and adjacent mill that was in her husband, David’s, family for 145 or 150 years “” depending on the source “” but couldn’t find a buyer to extend the run.

    The building still stands empty.

    As you say, it had that smell.  And a couple of cats (good mousers, both).  And stuff to buy that no one else bothered to keep on the shelves and in small quantities which were very useful to someone like me.  Onion sets.  Seeds.  Custom-ground livestock feed which they’d deliver.  All gone now.

    There’s a place a couple of miles away which opened a few years ago and which I patronize.  The guy who runs it (also from a family who’s been in the area for a couple hundred years) is very nice and very helpful, and he’s kind enough to deliver when I need it.  But his feed is shipped to him in bags, and he doesn’t do the seed business.  It’s a purpose-built, quonset hut style building, and it’s just not the same.  (Although there is a lovely cat….)

    I miss Sprowls Country Hardware, too.  That was almost next door to Campseys, and had also been around forever.  You could buy anything from a washing machine to a wood chipper, from a fly-swatter to a flower pot, and upstairs you could buy sofas and mattresses.

    My first experience of the small town of Claysville, which, although it’s only a few blocks long on old Rt. 40, in the old coal-mining days was quite wealthy and in which you could find almost everything you needed in life, was in 1986, when I was charmed to see the sign–when entering Claysville–for “Marshall Little, Dentist,” and the sign–just before exiting Claysville–for “Fred Large, Doctor.”

    Dr. Little and Dr. Large.

    They’re both gone now.  I never met Dr. Little, but Dr. Large was a lovebug and a real character.  He was discharged as a Lt. Col. from the US Army Medical Corps after WWII, and–in addition to his solo medical practice–served as the mayor of Claysville for almost three decades.  The hospital I worked for bought his practice together with his accounts receivable (I think it was the last time we did that) and we spent quite some time trying to square his accounting methods into the new system.  Since he was often paid in honey, pigs, and chickens, this was harder than you might think.  Although, perhaps he had it right all along.

    My town.

    • #13
  14. She Member
    She
    @She

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Painter Jean (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    At the height of his popularity, Keillor self-deported to Denmark. Then disaster struck and he came back. I guess he had his Minnesota nice surgically removed.

    At our previous residence north of the Twin Cities, I sometimes took my daily walk on a street where there was a mailbox with “Keillor” written on it. One day a young kid was out getting the mail as I passed, and I asked him, half-jokingly, “Any relation to Garrison?” He looked at me with a sour expression and said, “Yes”. He then told me what the relationship was, but that was so many years ago that I don’t remember now what it was – cousins? Perhaps an uncle? What was remarkable was the kid’s look of distaste. Maybe it was for a stranger asking him a question he was perhaps frequently and annoyingly asked, but given that this was during the time when Garrison Keillor was at his most insufferable, I rather think it was distaste for his famous relation.

    I heard he had a strained relation with his family from the beginning, though I don’t remember any details. But Garrison strayed from his upbringing. His brother, Steven, is a decent historian and writes well, unlike his brother. It’s not great writing and not great historical work, but it’s decent. I have one of his books. I don’t know what kind of relationship he has with his brother, though.

    He doesn’t seem to have led a perfect life (far from it, in fact).  Nevertheless, I’m not so much onboard with the #MeToo accusations, which came after some of his other romantic complications.  Still, when compared to a number of other celebrities, his transgressions may seem–while not to be celebrated–in retrospect, rather banal.

    I object far more to his taking a lovely, non-political, memory of small-town American life, turning it political, and overlaying it with nasty and divisive rhetoric.  It’s such a poisonous, rotten, thing to do.

    • #14
  15. Dotorimuk Coolidge
    Dotorimuk
    @Dotorimuk

    Nice piece.

    Iris’ first two albums are so good. The second one, “My Life,” came after her father’s death, and will tear your heart out.

    Then she went woke. Ugh.

     

    • #15
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