The Popdose Guide to Nanci Griffith
Nanci Griffith is arguably the most important folk-music artist of her generation. That statement is risky not so much because there are so many other contenders for the throne, but because we live in an era when the term “folk music” itself has lost considerable meaning — falling victim to record-biz economics and radio-industry pigeonholing. Indeed, during the most successful period of her career Griffith shifted (or, on occasion, was shifted) from indie-folk to country to pop and back to folk — pardon me, I meant “Americana” — based as much on the demographic-targeting whims of industry marketers as the evolution of her music. Griffith herself describes her music as “folkabilly,” which fits about as well as anything else.
Whatever you call it, Griffith created a body of work between 1985 and 1994 that stands with the greatest music of that era in any genre. She built her career as a singer-songwriter who blended the social, the political, and the confessional in the best folk tradition, resulting in songs that were covered by some of the top artists of the day. At the same time, she became a skilled interpreter of other songwriters’ works — again, in the best folk tradition — and helped introduce talents such as Pat Alger, Bill Staines, Julie Gold and even Lyle Lovett. Eventually she would achieve a career peak by releasing a star-studded covers album that at once confirmed and celebrated her place in the folk pantheon.
Griffith commanded a sizable cult following for many years. She provoked the wrath of a healthy share of detractors as well — particularly in her home state of Texas, oddly enough, where some critics have questioned her persona as a literate and wounded romantic, her literary pretensions, and her choices of homespun clothing — even the authenticity of her singing voice. Granted, that voice has always been something of an acquired taste, with a distinctive twang that can sharpen the edges of her more pointed lyrics or boost the sentimentality of her ballads. The latter tendency, toward preciousness and even sap, hasn’t served her particularly well over the last decade, as she has struggled with health issues and depression and has recorded only a couple albums of new songs. But even if her later work hasn’t maintained the quality of what came before, on her most recent albums she has shown flashes of the wit and perceptiveness that long ago secured her legacy.
Nanci Griffith was born in 1954, in the small town of Seguin, Texas, about 25 miles northeast of San Antonio, and grew up in Austin. She was onstage by age 14 at clubs and folk festivals all over east Texas, inspired by Loretta Lynn and mentored by such scenesters as Carolyn Hester and Kate Wolf. She kept playing while she attended the University of Texas, and then as a sideline to her day job as a kindergarten teacher; finally, shortly after marrying fellow folkie Eric Taylor, she went full-time as a musician in 1977. She won a songwriting competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival (where she had been singing around campfires since her teens), then was signed by the tiny BF Deal label for her first album.
The resulting debut really wasn’t such a BF deal, but then, it wasn’t intended to be. There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, recorded live to tape in Austin, is on one level a souvenir of her live act from that era. On another level, it is the sound of a singer searching for her voice, a writer just beginning to discover her muse. The title track (download) was her first calling card as a songwriter, and even here she — and the song — are works in progress: A more nuanced and fulfilling version would appear later on her first major-label release, Lone Star State of Mind. Still, the song introduced many of Griffith’s most endearing qualities, including her passion for storytelling and her acumen for depicting the intimate details of relationships. (A little-known fact, even among Griffith fans: The “John” referenced in two verses was her high school boyfriend, who died in a motorcycle accident after taking her to the senior prom.)
Generally speaking, Griffith treads carefully here, only occasionally exhibiting the vocal maturity called for on songs like “I Remember Joe” and relying too often on increased volume to get her key points across. (One exception is the album closer, “John Philip Griffith” [download], a tribute to her grandfather that reveals her burgeoning gifts as a storyteller.) She was still in the process of finding the subtleties of phrasing and inflection that would mark her later work.
Griffith’s debut album initially sold few copies — most of them at her gigs — but it helped her expand her touring base outside of Texas, and by the time she released her second record, she was a staple at folk clubs and festivals nationwide. Poet in My Window, initially released on another local label called Featherbed Records, similarly broadens her horizons from a musical perspective, but not too much: She wouldn’t fully blossom as a songwriter for a few more years.
Poet in My Window introduces a theme that Griffith would return to several times with great success in the coming years: romanticizing the folk troubadour. Indeed, much of Griffith’s early appeal was built on her self-referential, frequently confessional songs about Life As A Folk Singer. Here, the centerpiece is “Workin’ In Corners” (download), which describes the innocence-lost aspects of the traveling life from a distinctly feminine perspective: “I’ve been workin’ in corners, all alone at night/Throwin’ down whiskey, keepin’ my eyes away from the light/I’ll never be a fool, but I will gamble foolishly/I never let go of love ‘til I lost it in my dreams.”
Adding pedal steel, mandolin and the occasional fiddle to the mix, Poet leaves more of a sustained impression than Griffith’s debut, especially when she powers up the vocals on tracks like “Waltzing With The Angels” and “Wheels” (download). Still, the songwriting and performances lack the peculiar magic that eventually would characterize her work. She may have seen a poet in her window in ’82; soon enough she’d see one in the mirror. (By the way, with Poet In My Window, Griffith began a tradition of using books as props on her album covers; here it was Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. She would continue referencing her literary tastes in this way for more than a decade.)
Big changes came quickly for Griffith after Poet; she divorced Taylor, who had played a major role in her career to date and would continue to provide songs, guitar-playing and inspiration long after their split. Then, in 1984, she signed to the Philo label, a sibling of the outstanding Rounder imprint, and she finally got national distribution for her third album. With the increased exposure came a fitting advance in quality. Once in a Very Blue Moon is the album on which Griffith located her musical identity — though she found it first in her abilities as an interpretive artist.
The title track (download) was the first in a long line of classic songs written by the renowned country tunesmith Pat Alger; it has been a staple of Griffith’s concert repertoire ever since, and has been covered by artists ranging from Mary Black to Dolly Parton. The gorgeous “Roseville Fair” is by Bill Staines, who has been traveling the folk circuit since the 1960s and was among Griffith’s earliest supporters at Kerrville and other festivals. And “If I Were the Woman You Wanted” came from a high-haired, twisted-grinned young man named Lyle Lovett, who had interviewed Griffith for the Texas A&M paper several years before.
Several Griffith originals on Once in a Very Blue Moon continue to contemplate her life on the road — not surprising considering the recent upheavals — and on “I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels (Put the Prose to the Wheel)” she finds both nuisance and meaning in the mundane effort to get home from a gig. “Spin On a Red Brick Floor” (download) is a high-spirited tribute to one of her favorite stops on the folk circuit, the Anderson Fair in Houston, which in 2008 will be the subject of a documentary film titled For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair. Griffith, of course, is featured prominently in the film; she’s practically a producer, having performed a pair of concerts to raise production funds in 2006. By the way, that’s a young Bela Fleck playing banjo, part of a band that countrified Griffith’s sound considerably on her first effort produced by Jim Rooney. (Griffith is reading Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding on the album jacket.)
Griffith’s creativity burst forth on multiple fronts on what most observers consider her finest album. Whether she was influenced by her move to Nashville the previous year, by the songwriting community of which she was an ever more important part, or by her continuing collaborations with Rooney, Alger, Lovett and others, Griffith’s original songs on The Last of the True Believers represent a quantum leap forward from her previous work. Meanwhile, Griffith and Rooney created an organic country-folk sound that better suited her unique vocals, a style that she would continue to pursue for a couple more albums.
A trio of extraordinary ballads finds Griffith reaching new heights as a storyteller and figuring out how to use twists of melody and instrumentation to inject drama into her understated lyrics. “Love at the Five and Dime” is the kind of story-song her friend Townes Van Zandt could have written in his prime, had he had a more positive outlook; the image of young lovers slow-dancing at a Woolworth’s after hours is irresistible. Budding country star Kathy Mattea quickly covered the song, and though her husky, uninflected vocals watered down its emotional impact, “Five and Dime” became Mattea’s first Top Five country hit and earned Griffith a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song.
Of the other two ballads that form the core of True Believers, the intimate “More Than a Whisper” is a long-distance lover’s plea for communication, while the majestic “The Wing and the Wheel” (download) is an elegy to loneliness and the hope for reunion. Griffith’s uptempo songs show new maturity as well; “Lookin’ for the Time (Workin’ Girl)” offers a (slightly) feminist take on the world’s oldest profession, while “The Last of the True Believers” (download) looks askance at a loved one’s wanderlust; it leaves one to wonder, not for the last time in Griffith’s career, whether her heart will survive her ambivalence toward the road.
The True Believers album was nominated for the Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy, and served as her ticket to a major label. (Griffith holds a copy of Donald Spoto’s biography of Tennessee Williams on the front cover; in the background, Lyle Lovett slow-dances in a Woolworth’s doorway. The back-cover photo sports a copy of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.)
Griffith’s signing to MCA Records’ Nashville branch was the work of sideman/producer/A&R genius/magnate Tony Brown, who was intent on turning Nashville’s most successful label (George Strait, Reba McEntire, Steve Wariner, etc.) into its most innovative by signing artists like Lovett, Steve Earle, Kelly Willis — and Griffith, whose MCA Nashville albums he produced himself. He gave Lone Star State of Mind a much shinier gloss than Griffith had received from Jim Rooney, but funny enough, it worked. Of course, it helped that Griffith wrote a couple of great originals and dug up some excellent covers, nearly matching the quality of True Believers.
If Griffith had never written a song apart from “Trouble in the Fields,” she would still merit a mention among the century’s finest folk tunesmiths. A plaintive, yet hopeful rumination by a farmer’s wife on the economic struggles endured by family farmers across the nation during the 1980s, it is a less-pissed-off companion piece to John Mellencamp’s outstanding “Rain on the Scarecrow” from the previous year. (Griffith was an early and frequent supporter of, and performer at, the Farm Aid concerts that began in 1985.) This was her first foray into social-issues songwriting, but she dipped her toes in as gently as possible; more strident political songs would come later.
Elsewhere, Griffith contributed a barn-burner in “Ford Econoline” (download), the first of what would become several repressed-women-gettin’-the-hell-out-of-Dodge songs, and several other memorable originals. However, apart from “Trouble in the Fields,” it was the covers that proved most popular; Pat Alger’s title track became Griffith’s first Top 40 country hit (just barely), while Robert Earl Keen gave her “Sing One for Sister” (download), which approximates a barroom singalong. But it’s Julie Gold’s polarizing “From a Distance” that truly endures. In retrospect, one must ask: Should we blame Griffith for introducing the syrupy, yet good-hearted song that Bette Midler would later turn into MOR pabulum? On one hand, this track offered a glimpse into Griffith’s capacity for molasses-thick sentimentality that would become more of a problem in the next decade; on the other, it made her huge in Ireland, so that’s something. (For this first MCA album, a straightforward head-and-shoulders shot on the front, no art on the back. No literary allusions, please; we’re a major label.)
This album is probably the more fondly remembered of Griffith’s MCA Nashville studio efforts, but it was something of a disappointment at the time. Brown, producing again, upped the country instrumentation and then pushed Harlan Howard’s slight tune “Never Mind” as a single. It failed to register commercially, as did the album generally. And just like that, Griffith found herself in a position that would become familiar to Kelly Willis (whom Griffith had introduced to Tony Brown) and, eventually, Lovett: a middling success on a country label that had no room for middling successes, particularly ones who didn’t really sing mainstream country music.
As for the music on Little Love Affairs, it’s mostly wonderful, even if few tracks leap off the turntable/tape/laser (buying music was confusing in those days, wasn’t it?) the way “Trouble in the Fields” or “Five and Dime” did. The album’s title suited its songs perfectly, as Griffith’s originals and the well-selected covers examined the moments, motivations and emotions that add up to love. A case in point is the rollicking “Love Wore a Halo (Back Before the War)” (download), the story of a woman who would do just about anything to keep her Jersey-shore hotel afloat while her man was fighting in the Pacific.
The exquisite “Gulf Coast Highway” (download), sung as a duet with Mac McAnally, concerned a struggling couple who dream about growing old together in their beloved bluebonnet country along Texas’ coastline. Not too long after the album’s release, Griffith’s fans expected her career to get a huge boost when it was reported that Bruce Springsteen and Patty Scialfa were singing “Gulf Coast Highway” together at soundchecks on the Tunnel of Love tour, and were planning on recording it for her Rumble Doll album. Sadly, their cover never materialized, though the song was later recorded by Willie Nelson and Griffith’s good friend Emmylou Harris.
Griffith wasn’t left empty-handed on the covers front: Suzy Bogguss took the driving track “Outbound Plane” and landed her first big hit. The fact that a singer like Bogguss, with no discernable country inflection, could score with a Griffith song while the author’s own twangy, countrified tracks couldn’t buy airplay, must have driven Tony Brown crazy. Was Griffith’s voice too old-fashioned to work in the polished New Nashville? Were songs like “I Knew Love” and “So Long Ago” too literate to reach the country audience? Whichever was the case, the molding and marketing of Griffith at MCA Nashville wasn’t quite working out. (Making up for the last album, Griffith put a stack of books behind her on Little Love Affairs‘ cover: a treatise on the U.S. constitution, and novels by McMurtry, Edna O’Brien and Ellen Gilchrist.)
Even as Griffith and MCA struggled with the commercial setback of Little Love Affairs, they quickly followed it with this document of a performance at Anderson Fair, the setting for her song “Spin on a Red Brick Floor” (the natural closer here). Accompanied at the time by a PBS special and a video (and, as of 2005, by a DVD), One Fair Summer Evening encapsulates everything that made early Griffith so endearing (or, to some, so irritating): her wit, her penchants for both incisiveness and sentimentality, and that voice. (“Thank yew!” she chirps after every song; a friend of mine, driven crazy by a co-worker who played the album repeatedly right after it came out, still offers up a Pavlovian “thank yew!” every time Griffith’s name is mentioned all these years later.) Stripped of most of the country elements that had been ladled over their studio versions, Griffith’s songs emerge crisp and timeless; indeed, these live recordings accomplish the rare feat of rendering their studio antecedents obsolete.
A big part of it is Griffith’s chatty stage persona, which exudes carefree charm throughout. Personally, if I’m listening to “Trouble in the Fields” (download) or, especially, “Love at the Five and Dime” (download), I want them prefaced by her long-winded, meandering, and utterly delightful introductions. But another key to the success of One Fair Summer Evening is her obvious bond with the Blue Moon Orchestra, which Griffith had pulled together a couple of years before. Led by keyboardist James Hooker, who co-wrote “Gulf Coast Highway” and has remained Griffith’s onstage soulmate ever since, the band has proved versatile enough to follow her through all her experiments with country, pop/rock, and traditional-folk orchestration. Here, they take Griffith back to her folkie roots, and while listening to this album it’s hard to imagine why (other than the faint, distant ring of cash registers) she ever messed around with all those other styles.
Griffith introduced two new songs during the Anderson Fair shows: “I Would Bring You Ireland,” a tribute to her enthusiastic fan base in that country, and “Deadwood, South Dakota,” written by her erstwhile husband Eric Taylor. Unfortunately, this isn’t Ian McShane’s cocksucking Deadwood; it’s a glacially paced, navel-gazing, heart-bleeding, entirely-too-PC account of how the white man casually kept his steel-toed boot on the throats of Native Americans all the way to Manifest Destiny. Or something like that. Anyway, it’s a small flaw on a gem of an album that, more than any other, sums up what Griffith was all about in the late 1980s, and why her cult of fans was happy to fill up every juke joint from McCabe’s to Anderson Fair to the Birchmere to the Bitter End anytime she came out to play.
One Fair Summer Evening played up the strengths that had gotten Griffith where she was at the end of the ’80s, but it didn’t point a way forward from the commercial doldrums of her MCA Nashville tenure. She quickly found a new direction (or so she thought) by parting ways with Tony Brown and heading west — to Los Angeles, that is, and MCA’s West Coast operation. Abandoning its attempts to sell her as a country act, the label set Griffith up with rock producer Glyn Johns (instead of listing credits, I’ll just ask Who Hasn’t He Worked With?) and banned banjos, dobros, and anything containing both pedals and steel from the studio. The result of all these changes? A Nanci Griffith album, and an excellent one at that, albeit a record that sounded much more like Suzy Bogguss’ version of “Outbound Plane” than Griffith’s own.
The move toward rock production values lent added weight to Griffith’s lyrics, and she used the occasion to explore new territory. Leaping off the album was “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” (download), which linked American racism and Irish religious tensions in a cry against intolerance of all stripes. As the Reagan/Thatcher era devolved into the Bush/Major years, Griffith captured the frustration of liberals everywhere when she sang, “I am the backseat driver from America/And I can’t drive on the left side of the road.” She also paid tribute to a protest singer from an earlier era, Phil Ochs, on “Radio Fragile,” one of three songs on the album co-written with James Hooker.
Another is “If Wishes Were Changes” (download), a simple song about unrequited love that is most notable for its inspiration, Wim Wenders’ classic film Wings Of Desire. Elsewhere, Eric Taylor redeems himself on the title track, the album’s only cover, while Griffith’s “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights” offers a portrait of a pretty girl felled by low expectations who finds herself divorced and no longer so desirable. On the flipside of that equation, Griffith returns to the escaping-housewife theme with the raucous “Listen to the Radio” and with a sublime, downright heartbreaking duet with Phil Everly, “You Made This Love a Teardrop” (download).
Some fans denigrated Storms for its radical sonic departure, but it is, in fact, Griffith’s most consistent set of songs — and it allowed Griffith to cross over to a new audience. Minus the unnecessary percussive dramatics employed on “It’s a Hard Life” and “Radio Fragile,” the musical arrangements here would serve as a template for most of Griffith’s studio albums from then on. Not the next one, unfortunately.
To build on the crossover audience Griffith had earned with Storms, MCA enlisted producer Rod Argent, who — decades removed from his ’60s tenure in the Zombies and his ’70s hit “Hold Your Head Up” — had recently produced Tanita Tikaram’s magnificent Ancient Heart and two decidedly less magnificent follow-ups. But whereas Argent’s synth-, piano- and organ-slathered arrangements had somehow complemented Tikaram’s husky, exotic voice, with Griffith he adds lots and lots of echo to the keyboard wash, making her sound distant and altogether too precious. Gone, for the most part, is the acoustic intimacy that marked Griffith’s most affecting work, replaced with overly dramatic musical surroundings more appropriate to a pop diva than a folkie.
There are bright spots; unfortunately for listeners in the pre-iTunes era, they’re concentrated at the end of the album. Thankfully, we can now take out of its overwrought context the witty Griffith original “One Blade Shy of a Sharp Edge” (download), a sarcastic ode to a conservative whose vote she promises to cancel out at the polls. We also can fully appreciate Griffith’s cover of “The Sun, Moon, and Stars” (download), a moving tune by Texas singer-songwriter Vince Bell that offers plenty of real drama yet, ironically, features perhaps the album’s most organic arrangement. Apart from those highlights, there are other songs that might have worked better without some odd backing vocals and all those layers of keyboards (designated first single “It’s Just Another Morning Here,” “Fields of Summer,” the pretty title track). Others, however, were just bad ideas executed poorly: Julie Gold’s “Heaven,” which has the distinction of being even more treacly than “From a Distance,” and a painfully overdramatic attempt at Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade” that is just plain wrong.
Late Night Grand Hotel barely scraped the bottom of the album chart, selling far fewer copies than Storms had and disappearing quickly from public notice. Having watched its attempts to market Griffith in both country and pop crash and burn, MCA finally cut the cord; of course, that hasn’t stopped the label from anthologizing her work no fewer than five times in the U.S. alone. (At least “>The Complete MCA Studio Recordings offers some value by cramming all four albums onto two CDs and adding a couple of rare tracks.) For Griffith’s fans, nonplussed by the sonic excesses of Grand Hotel, the parting of ways with MCA came not a moment too soon.
When I interviewed Griffith in 1994, in advance of her Flyer album (see below), she recalled with more than a trace of bitterness, “MCA Records never knew what to do with me.” Once that link was broken, Griffith quickly got back to basics. She contributed “Cradle of the Interstate” (download), an austere original that once again reflected her preoccupation with life on the road, to the soundtrack for John Mellencamp’s film Falling from Grace in 1992. That same year, Bob Dylan asked her to perform his song “Boots of Spanish Leather” with one of her mentors, former Dylan paramour Carolyn Hester, during his 30th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden. Griffith didn’t remain unsigned for long; she was quickly picked up by Elektra Records, the historically eclectic label that recently had guided folk-oriented acts like Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs to mainstream success — largely by letting them be themselves.
From the opening bars of Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide” (download), it’s clear that Griffith is In Her Element on Other Voices, Other Rooms. The all-covers album was a brilliant gambit by Griffith and Elektra to re-establish her eminence as a folk artist, reuniting her with longtime producer Jim Rooney and surrounding her with fellow Texas singer-songwriters and other influences. Thus, we get Griffith joined by John Prine on his “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”; by guitar virtuoso Frank Christian on his whimsical “Three Flights Up”; by Guy Clark on Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi”; by Arlo Guthrie on Townes Van Zandt’s tragic “Tecumseh Valley” (download); and so on. Griffith, Emmylou Harris and Iris Dement channeled the Carter Family on their luminous “Are You Tired of Me Darling” (download), while Griffith reprised her take on “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Finally, in case anyone hadn’t yet gotten the point, a gaggle of folk legends and newbies from Odetta to the Indigo Girls joined Griffith for an album-closing “Wimoweh” hootenanny.
With Other Voices, Griffith celebrated the folk canon while cementing her own place within it. To cap this achievement, Griffith and most of her guest stars reunited onstage at Carnegie Hall for a glorious concert that recalled the historic folk-music gigs at that venue by the Weavers, Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte. (The all-star concert was repeated at the end of Griffith’s tour that year, at the Paramount Theatre in Austin; that performance was taped for PBS and a video that has since gone out of print.) Other Voices easily earned Griffith the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album; just as important, it served notice that Griffith was back where she belonged, in the comfortable yet creatively invigorating confines of the folk-music community. While she would continue to take sonic detours on occasion, she hasn’t really strayed since. (Returning once more to her habit of wearing her literary aspirations on her album’s sleeve, Griffith here clutches the Truman Capote novel that inspired the album title.)
How does a singer-songwriter on a major label, with a growing fan base but no built-in constituency at radio, follow an album of covers that is widely considered to represent the pinnacle of her career? That’s the challenge Griffith faced with Flyer, and she responded with an album that clearly attempted to consolidate her recent gains in exposure while reflecting the lessons she’d learned over the course of her recording career. She once again enlisted an all-star supporting cast, though this time the emphasis was less on folk heroes and more on contemporary rockers who also happened to be fans: various members of U2 and R.E.M., Mark Knopfler, the Indigo Girls, the BoDeans, and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows.
That said, Flyer is decidedly Griffith’s album, reveling in subjects and moods she’d explored before: a propulsive tribute to the traveler’s life on “The Flyer” (download), a sop to her Irish fans in “On Grafton Street,” a strident but non-controversial foray into political commentary on the Peter Buck-produced “Time of Inconvenience.” The rollicking “Going Back to Georgia” (download), sung as a duet with Duritz, contains some of the best vocal work either has recorded. Generally speaking, the album’s numerous uptempo moments are its most memorable — particularly “This Heart” (download), a Buddy Holly-style rave-up helped enormously by the presence of the surviving Crickets themselves. (Griffith and the Crickets have recorded and gigged together frequently over the last decade.)
The production remains firmly grounded in what Griffith had helped establish as the sound of contemporary folk music; acoustic rock-based instrumentation with country flourishes. Those surroundings nicely serve such midtempo numbers as “Don’t Forget About Me” (featuring Knopfler’s guitar) and “Say It Isn’t So,” which she co-wrote with Harlan Howard. Several of the ballads on Flyer, unfortunately, betray the penchant for preciousness that had sunk much of Late Night Grand Hotel. There’s a Julie Gold number that thankfully isn’t too horrible, but Griffith’s own “Always Will” stops the album (and, subsequently, her live performances) dead in its tracks as she wallows in its melancholy.
Whether because she believed her audience wanted it or because her own experiences (she reportedly has dealt with clinical depression through much of her career) and aesthetics were leading her that way, such sentimentality would become more and more prominent in Griffith’s recorded and live work over the coming years, largely to her detriment. Flyer turned out to be the last album of Griffith’s most successful period, both creatively and commercially; it stands, in places, as a testament to the greatness of which she was capable, but in a few places it warns of the choppy waters that lay ahead.
Explanations/excuses vary for this, the nadir of Griffith’s recording career: professional upheaval (her backing band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, was planning to disperse after a decade together), personal trauma (she had become engaged to, then disengaged from, singer-songwriter Tim Kimmel), illness (she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996, and had undergone surgery and radiation treatments). In those contexts, it’s more than a little tempting to give Griffith a pass for Blue Roses from the Moons; however, since even her most ardent fans didn’t know these facts at the time, and since 15 bucks is 15 bucks, one must soldier on and appraise the album As It Is.
What it is is a mess. It was recorded live in the studio, so it’s not surprising that it all sounds a bit off the cuff; however, one expects at least a modicum of quality control over both the songs and the sound, and that appears to be sorely lacking here. The first thing that leaps from the speakers is the ragged nature of Griffith’s vocals; usually so pure in tone despite her west-Texas twang, here they’re gravelly, frequently off-key (sometimes alarmingly so), and occasionally downright ill-considered when she playfully or emphatically exaggerates her already-pronounced accent. She doesn’t sound like herself; in retrospect, she doesn’t sound healthy. Nor is she helped by producer Don Gehman’s beat-heavy arrangements, which threaten to swallow her straining voice entirely.
Keyboardist James Hooker and the rest of the Blue Moon Orchestra acquit themselves quite nicely within Gehman’s sonic landscape, but considering the album (from its title forward) was supposed to be a tribute to her longtime backing band, it’s a surprise to find Griffith once again cuckolding them with the Crickets. She and Sonny Curtis duet on what is, distressingly enough, probably the album’s most successful track, a cover of Curtis’ “I Fought the Law” that works mostly because he takes the lead. The other duet on Blue Roses is inexplicable, a remake of Griffith’s own “Gulf Coast Highway” with Darius Rucker. The problem here isn’t merely that Planet Earth already had erupted in a full-on Hootie Backlash by the time the track surfaced; it’s that Griffith and Rucker amp up the sappiness factor to excruciating levels, bending notes with the melismania of a brother-sister “America’s Got Talent” audition. A rejected audition.
Is there any good news here? Very little, though Griffith’s cover of Paul Carrack and Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield” (download) manages to rock a little bit, and her version of Guy Clark’s “She Ain’t Going Nowhere” (download) closes the album by almost, for a minute, tricking the listener into thinking it’s all been a bad dream and he’s been listening to Other Voices, Other Rooms instead. It’s easy to wonder if the sentiments expressed in Clark’s song were Griffith’s way of assuring her listeners (or herself) that she would survive her troubles and bounce back. She would — eventually.
Sadly, cancer struck Griffith again in 1998, this time of the thyroid variety. In what (in retrospect) must have been a relatively weakened state physically — dealing with the apathy that had greeted Blue Roses from the Moons — and having recently dropped out of a tour with the Chieftains under contentious circumstances, it’s not surprising that she chose to reprise her greatest success. So she recorded another album of folk covers, filling the studio with a bevy of guest stars ranging from Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch to Dave Van Ronk and the Cowsills.
Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice. The musicianship is all in good taste, and producer Gehman tones down the drums in a manner appropriate to the songs; still, the results here are decidedly underwhelming compared to the achievement of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Part of the problem is song selection. Griffith misfires right off the bat with Richard Thompson’s “Wall of Death” (on which Griffith’s harmony vocal bizarrely sits atop the mix, while Thompson’s melody is buried) and Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a song whose dramatics Griffith’s still-suffering voice couldn’t tame. On the other hand, Griffith’s takes on slight numbers such as “Walk Right Back” and “You Were on My Mind” aren’t strong enough to make anyone forget Anne Murray (much less the Everlys) or the Cowsills, and their inclusion on an album like this was a dodgy prospect.
Griffith’s voice, while less gruff than on the previous album, remains a shadow of the instrument it had been until the mid-1990s. Perhaps because she recognized this, she allowed guests including Williams, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to take lead vocals on such tracks as “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “Wings of a Dove” (download), “He Was a Friend of Mine” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.” The result is a more communal-sounding effort than even the original Other Voices, and the hootenanny feel has its charms. Still, the closest Griffith herself comes to recapturing former glories is with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” (download), and somehow the energy and sense of revelation remain on a much lower level than on this album’s antecedent. (Three Rivers Press published a companion book, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music, in the summer of 1998.)
The tepid critical response to Other Voices, Too prompted perhaps the most perplexing moment of Griffith’s career. From her home in Ireland, she fired off a missive to a number of newspaper editors and reporters across her home state of Texas, in which she addressed what she called “years of brutal abusive reviews” and derided what she called the tendency of Texas to “eat its young” — to reject homegrown artists ranging from author Katherine Anne Porter to Buddy Holly to herself. While, more recently, Natalie Maines likely has plenty of sympathy for such an attitude, Griffith’s letter did little to endear her to those Texas critics — many of whom had, in fact, ridiculed everything from her clothes to her “greeting-card” sentimentality to her West-Texas accent (odd for an Austin girl, though she says it comes from spending time as a child with relatives near Lubbock). With a bitter signoff — “Sincerely, your native daughter forever…far from your crooked biting teeth…” — Griffith retreated into what she expected would be a long semi-retirement from writing and recording.
During the latter part of 1998, Griffith collaborated with the Nashville Ballet and the Nashville Symphony to create a contemporary ballet, “This Heart,” featuring seven of her signature songs. The ballet premiered early the next year, with Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra joining the Symphony in the pit. Inspired by hearing her music transposed for orchestra, Griffith enlisted the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor/arranger Andrew Jackman and recorded The Dust Bowl Symphony over four days at Abbey Road Studios in London. The album re-contextualizes 11 Griffith originals, and she adds two covers and a new composition. Guests include fellow folkie Beth Nielsen Chapman and (oh, why?) Darius Rucker again, this time performing various atrocities on “Love at the Five and Dime.”
Why Griffith felt the world needed heavily orchestrated renditions of songs like “Trouble in the Fields” or “Five and Dime,” whose original versions revel in their acoustic simplicity, only she can answer. Some of this music works, some doesn’t. Griffith’s voice, thankfully, continues its recovery, though her pitch control is still not all the way back. The problem with her vocals here is that she seems preoccupied with “interpreting” her own songs, chiefly by altering the pronunciation or emphasis that she gives certain words. This is acceptable in a live setting; on a studio recording, one is necessarily left to compare the new version with the original, and in only a few cases do these remakes merit a repeat listen (most welcome is a new take on “Not My Way Home” (download), rescued from Blue Roses). Likewise, the orchestra’s contributions only occasionally change the character of a song — as on Flyer‘s “These Days in an Open Book” (download), which Griffith slows down dramatically — but more often a studio string section (and a pennywhistler, pandering again to Griffith’s Irish fans) could have replaced the London Symphony and no one would have been the wiser.
It’s difficult not to contrast this album with the work Joni Mitchell did during the same period on the Both Sides Now (1999) and Travelogue (2000) albums, on which she deconstructed her back catalog (and some pop standards) with help from a 70-piece orchestra, to masterful effect. Compared to Mitchell and her musicians’ thorough re-imaginings of her classic songs, the orchestrations on Dust Bowl Symphony serve primarily as window dressing for slight variations on Griffith’s oeuvre. In this context, one can only ask, Why Bother? As for purchasing this collection, not many did bother.
Griffith spent a considerable amount of time around the turn of the millennium in Vietnam and Cambodia, retracing the path trod by her ex-husband Eric Taylor when he was a soldier. She had become heavily involved with the Vietnam Veterans of America as well as the Campaign for a Landmine Free World, and those causes began to inform her work in multiple ways. She would address the Vietnam War (and its more contemporary doppelganger in Iraq) more intently on her next studio album; for now, on Clock Without Hands, her first album of new songs in four years, she focused on the personal travails of her ex-husband and, perhaps, their relationship to her own recent struggles with cancer. Griffith addresses Taylor directly on “Traveling Through This Part of You”; in some ways, the song (and the trip to Vietnam that inspired it) seem to have served as catharsis, a way for her to achieve new empathy for his experiences and a new understanding of their implications for her long-ago marriage (which by many accounts was an unhappy, even abusive one). Unfortunately, the song works better conceptually than in practice; it’s a bit too on-the-nose, full of specific places and events but lacking in the type of metaphoric poetry that would help it achieve universality.
Reaching for metaphors obviously isn’t a problem on the title track (download), which in fact pushes its central conceit (a protagonist — likely Griffith herself — feeling displaced from the passage of time due to loneliness or a sense of her mortality) a bit too far. The lyric is an ambitious one, and happily it’s matched by a propulsive track reminiscent of her early ’90s work. Unfortunately, most of the album fails to engage the listener on that level. Griffith seems to have lost her storytelling mojo, her knack for weaving those tales of life in miniature, full of intimate detail and well-drawn characters. Here, the closest she comes is on “Pearl’s Eye View (The Life of Dicky Chappelle)” (download), the story of a Vietnam combat photographer who didn’t survive the war. More typical is “Roses on the 4th of July,” whose blend of romance and patriotism quickly becomes annoying. Her choice in covers is no more astute: She burrows into folkie John Stewart’s catalog three times, but reveals little more than the wheel-spinning nature of songs such as his 1978 semi-hit “Lost Him in the Sun”; meanwhile, Paul Carrack’s “Where Would I Be” may be the single most generic song ever written.
Griffith’s audience was so diminished by her disappointing efforts of the late ’90s that Clock Without Hands went little noticed. Elektra Records, facing diminishing returns itself as the 21st century dawned, parted ways with her afterward.
In her liner notes for the live album Winter Marquee, Griffith says that during her most recent tour, the Blue Moon Orchestra had begun performing Phil Ochs’ song “What’s That I Hear,” which Griffith initially had encountered during her childhood as the theme for a guitar-instruction program on public television. Hoping at first to release a live recording of that one song, Griffith found herself so pleased with the concerts in general that she went looking for a new label to release a whole album; she was welcomed back into the arms of her breakthrough label, Rounder.
At first glance, Winter Marquee looks like a continuation of the holding pattern that had begun with Blue Roses From The Moons; indeed, “Gulf Coast Highway” makes yet another appearance here (sans Hootie, thankfully). However, the great news on Winter Marquee is that Griffith’s voice has fully emerged from the hoarseness, pitch problems and odd phrasing choices that had plagued her even through some tracks on Clock Without Hands; here, she sounds confident and sure-footed, and the sound captured by producer Monty Hitchcock is full and luminous. Her gifts thus (largely) restored, she reaches back into the depths of Blue Roses and salvages “Two for the Road,” whose line “Two of a kind heart” recalls the title of a novel that she wrote during the 1980s but never managed to publish. (These days it can be found on one of her websites.) The set list also includes chestnuts from throughout her career: the 20-year-old chestnut “Bring the Prose to the Wheel (I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels)” (download), “I Wish It Would Rain” from Little Love Affairs, and her tribute to Loretta Lynn, “Listen to the Radio” (download).
Though Griffith’s singing voice is in full flower once again, there’s something missing here, and it’s her speaking voice. Compared to her charming verbosity throughout One Fair Summer Evening more than a decade before, Griffith says almost nothing between songs on Winter Marquee; whatever the reasons for that (was she saving her voice for the songs? Were her intros edited because they weren’t recorded well, or weren’t interesting? Was she so beaten down by her recent travails that she had nothing left to say?), for Griffith’s fans the impact of not hearing her speak bestows a touch of melancholy on what is otherwise a heartening return to form.
Griffith responded to George Bush’s invasion of Iraq the way any good liberal folkie would: by whipping up a batch of anti-war songs and making a record. To release it, she signed with the New Door imprint, a division of Universal Music Group dedicated to “heritage artists” whose earlier releases appeared on other UMG labels. (Universal is MCA’s parent company as well, and has thankfully kept Griffith’s music from her MCA years in print over the years.) Hearts in Mind came out in Europe first during the fall of 2004, then in the U.S. in early ’05; whether that timing had to do with Griffith’s greater popularity overseas or Universal’s desire to avoid releasing protest music in advance of the ’04 election, we’ll leave to the conspiracy theorists. Nevertheless, Griffith’s travels in Vietnam, Kosovo and elsewhere in support of banning landmines clearly informed her songs here; whether those experiences gave her any unique insights into war and its consequences is another question, because she keeps her antiwar statements non-specific in a quest for universality.
She scores a solid success with the album’s low-key opening track, “Simple Life” (download), an old-timey, pedal-steel-and-fiddle tune with a gentle but direct lyric and a terrific singalong chorus. It’s the best song she’s written in well over a decade. On the other hand, “Big Blue Ball of War” goes for the whole ball of wax — Griffith is clearly trying to write a modern-day “If I Had a Hammer” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” — and comes up considerably short. The lyric is entirely too obtuse (“We spend our destinies in deeds of hate/Humanity upon this ball/Is just a bloody fall from grace”), and she closes with one of those “if only women ruled the world” sentiments that sound good until you imagine Ann Coulter running things. But I digress.
In between those two anti-war statements, Griffith reflects on her Vietnam tours in a pair of songs that, as much as anything, romanticize the before and the after of Euro-American empire-building in that nation (she insists on referring to it as “Indochine”). “Heart Of Indochine” (download), in fact, is a nice play-by-play document of one trip; conversely, “Old Hanoi” takes its wistfulness a bit too far. A pair of other songs reference war’s impact on matters of the heart, and then there’s “Mountain of Sorrow,” an utterly insipid rumination on the World Trade Center ruins penned by — who else? — Julie Gold. Apart from that, Griffith does manage to lighten up on “I Love This Town” (download), a rollicking duet with Jimmy Buffett on a sardonic number written by Clive Gregson, and she indulges her taste for literate schmaltz on “Back When Ted Loved Sylvia,” whose hyper-emotionalism is enough to make one think (however briefly) that Sylvia Plath might have had the right idea. All in all, Hearts in Mind stands as Griffith’s best studio album since Flyer…though that’s not really saying much.
Yet another label change, this time back to Rounder, accompanied Griffith’s most recent stylistic diversion. Ruby’s Torch finds Griffith gathering a collection of disparate songs from different genres — including, once again, several songs she had recorded before — and trying to shoehorn them into an overarching “torch songs” theme. To that end, she and producer Peter Collins slather on the strings, emphasize the piano nearly to the exclusion of acoustic guitars, and even close the album with a full-on jazz reworking of Frank Christian’s “Drops from the Faucet,” which had previously appeared on The Dust Bowl Symphony (to which this album feels like a sequel). Griffith obviously focuses on her vocal technique — by necessity, since the album is loaded with ballads and the torch-song tradition emphasizes the stylized vocal; one only wishes Griffith had attempted this a decade before, when her instrument was undeniably stronger.
Some of this material works quite nicely, though much of it of it is a bit overdramatic and several songs don’t even vaguely qualify as “torch songs.” The album is centered on the Tom Waits classic “Ruby’s Arms” (download), which marks a rare occasion when Griffith’s homespun-diva routine truly comes together to put a song across effectively. Also relatively successful are two other Waits covers, “Grapefruit Moon” and “Please Call Me, Baby,” both of which get nicely jazzy arrangements. Still, most moving performance here is probably the least “torchy” on the set, a fine cover of Irish writer Donagh Long’s “Never Be the Sun” (download) that would have fit cozily on Other Voices, Other Rooms. A couple of other covers don’t work nearly as well. Griffith’s version of the oft-covered “When I Dream” can’t stand up to Eddy Arnold’s or Willie Nelson’s; meanwhile, 30 years on, “Bluer Than Blue” belongs less on a torch-songs collection than on a Barry Manilow covers set (where it has, in fact, appeared, and to better effect).
Griffith revisits two of her own compositions here, including a version of “Late Night Grand Hotel” (download) that finally eliminates the ill-considered backing vocals that had diminished two previous recordings, though the arrangement becomes overwrought toward the end. Its re-appearance on Ruby’s Torch — yet another Griffith album that plays more like a stylistic digression than a career move — begs a question that has gone largely unanswered for a dozen years now: Where is this artist going? Hearts in Mind showed that, on occasion, Griffith is still capable of making valuable contributions as a folk-based songwriter and interpreter; Winter Marquee demonstrated her continuing power as a performer when she plays it straight. Ruby’s Torch isn’t a bad album, but it’s a non-sequitur, the latest in what seem like scattershot gestures by an artist more interested in following her personal muse than in creating a coherent career narrative. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as the quality of the work remains high and an audience is willing to follow along; unfortunately, Griffith’s work of the last decade has called both those qualifiers into question. Griffith’s next album reportedly will celebrate the Crickets’ 50th anniversary (a bit late), with Sonny Curtis and the gang joining her for a full-fledged return to “folkabilly.” The concept sounds promising, though one can only hope that this time a conscious look back might also point a clear way forward.