Dylan at 80: how Salut! Live has covered the big birthday
Cover Story: (5) From Clare to Here. Ralph McTell, Bob Fox or Nanci Griffith

Cover Story: (3) Our Town. Iris DeMent or Kate Rusby, American Midwest or South Yorkshire

May 2021 update: this was only the third instalment of our Cover Story series, one now stretching to around 70.
At the time, I was wondering aloud whether the place Iris DeMent had in mind when writing and singing about Our Town was her home town of Paragould, Arkansas, or Cypress, California, where she grew up. It was neither, as I seem to remember Bill Taylor pointing out.
DeMent based her song on some back-of-beyond Oklahoma dump whose inhabitants deserved better. I cannot find trace of the name of the town - maybe towns - that inspired her but this was how she described it in an NPR interview:


"I remember passing through this little town that was your typical dead town there in the Midwest, a lot of boarded-up windows, little white buildings with peeling paint, all the life had gone right on out of it.

"And that was the first time in my life that I felt a song coming on like it wasn't just me trying to make something happen."


On the other hand, there was never much doubt that when Kate Rusby applied her Yorkshire accent to the same song, she was talking about Barnsley. I loved both versions, leaning slightly towards Kate's, but others will and do disagree ...


Click anywhere on this caption to buy this outstanding Iris DeMent album from Salut! Live's Amazon record shelf

Confession time. I once wrote that Iris DeMent had "unusual, wailing vocals" that initially brought to mind an animal in distress.

But even that sarky putdown, way back in 1993, was in the context of a positive review. I had found, against my own expectation, much to admire in her album Infamous Angel.

DeMent, I concluded, suggested "a likeably unpretentious woman who can write with affection about real people and places, and think up real tunes".

One such song and tune was Our Town and that is the subject of this instalment of the new Salut! Live series, Cover Story. Put simply, do we prefer DeMent's superb original or the cover, also superb, by Kate Rusby?

[I wrote in 2017 that] I could and should research more deeply but have never been sure whether DeMent's simple tribute to her home town was inspired by Paragould, Arkansas, where she was born, or Cypress, California, where she grew up. The answer, incomplete, is in my introduction to this item.

Rusby, on the other hand, can only be singing - surely - about her beloved Barnsley. She makes it sounds as if she wrote it.


If I am honest, I am torn. DeMent's rendition of her own song tugs at the heart strings. There is nothing to fault.

But then Rusby would tear at the heart strings if she put the South Yorkshire yellow pages to music.

The YouTube audience heavily favours DeMent - [now] approaching five million visits against 500,000 or so for Rusby.

So I shall sit on the fence [the 2021 update is that I very slightly favour Rusby]. Two fabulous versions of the same wonderful song. Feel free to say what you feel.



Click anywhere on this caption to buy Kate Rusby's album Sleepless, containing her gorgeous version of Our Town at Salut! Live's Amazon record shelf


Bill Taylor

A good song but everything about Kate Rusby's version - her voice, the arrangement - is better than the original.

Jeremy Robson

Rusby's version wins by intergalactic proportions. TBH I thought De Ment's voice was awful.

Colin Randall

This is from Bill Taylor via Facebook bag offers a fairer comparison (when the piece first appeared I could only embed a live version by Iris). I have now substituted the studio version ...

From Bill: Is this what you're looking for? I still very much prefer Kate Rusby's interpretation.

Enid Buhler

Via the Salut! Live Facebook group

An apples and oranges comparison - so totally different.
The original is excellent, Iris DeMent has a remarkable voice and the accompaniment is outstanding.
Having said that, if I have to choose, then it must be Kate Rusby's version. I adore Kate Rusby. There is something so natural, so uncomplicated, yet so expressive, so emotive in her interpretation of the song. Of any song, for that matter. Simply heartwarming.

Brian Appleby

I prefer Kate’s vocals but I prefer the arrangement and backing on the original.

John Crosby

Kate’s version is an excellent cover. I like it a lot. However, you’ll never convince me it’s better than the Iris original. DeMent is a musical goddess to me (and I heard her version on first release on Philo, so it burrowed in to my internal earworm library long before Kate recorded hers).

Peter Obermark

Via Messenger

Great piece --I love both versions, but I like Kate Rusby's voice a bit more than Iris's. So interesting the way the essential theme/meaning of a song can transcend cultures and countries--the suffering of neglected and rural communities is a universal one in the post-modern world. Thanks for reminding me of what a great song this is--I haven't listened to it in a long time.

Sharyn Dimmick

I like both of them. Rusby's vocal is prettier and more supple, and I prefer her arrangement, but she leaves out the cemetery verse and part of the poignancy of the song is that the singer is leaving her parents' graves behind and that they died before the town died.


Both are excellent, if you want to hear another outstanding version it’s covered a little more up tempo by Trampled by Turtles, a bluegrassy folk band from Minnesota.


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