Nanci Griffith

TrackAlbum
There's A Light
Beyond These Woods
There's A Light
Beyond These Woods
I'm Not Drivin’' These WheelsOnce In A Very Blue Moon
Love At The Five & DimeThe Dust Bowl Symphony
Trouble In The FieldsLone Star State Of Mind
Outbound PlaneLittle Love Affairs
Listen To The RadioStorms
You Made This Love A TeardropStorms
It's A Hard Life Wherever You GoStorms
Late Night Grande HotelLate Night Grande Hotel
Across The Great DivideOther Voices, Other Rooms

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Contributor: Calvin Rydbom

There does seems to be a theme in many of the Toppermost entries I’ve read. We’ve certainly deeply mined the “Here is a seriously talented performer who hasn’t got their just due” genre. And I’m more than OK with that as I’ve come across a few acts I really knew nothing about before their entry.

So with that then in mind, let’s talk about Nanci Griffith. The Austin, Texas reared Griffth has jumped all over the musical landscape over the last 35 years, releasing 20 albums of country, folk, pop and what she coined folkabilly. Austin, Texas is a special place. While it is physically in Texas it isn’t quite there spiritually. More importantly it has been a hotbed of great music for as long as I can remember, hosting the hands down most important festival for up and coming acts in the US for years.

A country styled musician coming out of Austin never quite masters being part of the country mainstream. It might explain why Griffith has written a few songs that didn’t get noticed when she recorded them but became top 10 singles when recorded by others. That said, she has also done a tremendous job while covering other artists and songwriters. In fact her 1994 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, an album of covers by the artists Griffith felt influenced her, won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. She has sung duets with John Prine, The Chieftains, Adam Duritz, Darius Rucker, Jimmy Buffet, Willie Nelson, Don McLean, Townes Van Zandt and Emmylou Harris among others. In 2008, the American Music Association awarded her the American Trailblazer Award.

Other musicians have had huge hits covering her songs, other Grammy Award winning artists love to record and perform with her, and she is recognized as a trailblazer in the American music scene. On the other hand she has never had a single sniff of the charts in either the US or UK, and while in the early-mid 90s she had two albums peak at 18 & 20 in the UK, she had one album limp into the top 50 in the US.

Seems a prime candidate for yet another “Here is a seriously talented performer who hasn’t got their just due” entry.

Griffith recorded There’s A Light Beyond These Woods on her first album (with the same title) in 1978, and then re-recorded it for her fifth album Lone Star State Of Mind. It’s a poignant song for sure, about childhood friends that endure and I guess in a sense those that don’t. I was unaware the first few times I heard the song that the references to their friend John who they lost was really about Griffith’s High School boyfriend who died in a motorcycle accident shortly after they graduated. Still, even with that it’s a song of triumph and reflection and about how lucky one is if they happen to have a lifelong friend.

Once In A Very Blue Moon was Griffith’s third album, and the first that really had much of a band. And when she went out and got one what she got was Mark O’Connor and Béla Fleck. If you are going to swing, swing for the fences I guess. I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels is a great song from this collection: “And I am lost to the fiction of the book in my lap … / the snow makes me drowsy … while the dreams roll and tumble.” If that line doesn’t take you to a moment in your life, I’m sort of sorry for you. A good travelin’ song.

Love At The Five & Dime was first recorded in 1986 on her The Last Of The True Believers album, but I really love the version she did in 1999 with Darius Rucker backed by the London Symphony Orchestra on The Dust Bowl Symphony album. Now, for the record, I’ve never been a Rucker fan at any time of his career. But his voice just seemed to work with Griffith. It’s a tale about a love story between a dime store clerk and a steel guitar player. Their life, the missteps, everything. “They still sing / Dance a little closer to me, dance a little closer now / Dance a little closer tonight / Dance a little closer to me, it’s closing time / And love’s on sale tonight at this five and dime.” Sometimes I think simplicity is they key to Griffith’s songwriting. A good story that you never ask yourself, “I wonder what she meant by that?”

Her fifth album, Lone Star State Of Mind, saw her move from a folk artist to a little more of a country one. The standout track for me is Trouble In The Fields. On the face of it you seem to have yet another it sucks to be a poor farmer in America country tune. It deviates a bit for me as the protagonist doesn’t seem the least bit angry or self pitying. Seems to be in a happy place really. And then we have that lovely voice and that perfect diction.

From 1988’s Little Love Affairs comes song number six, Outbound Plane, which is the second song on this list to break the country top ten in the US for someone other than Griffith. It’s uptempo and fun and I think signalled yet another shift as Griffith started mixing more of a pop vibe into her work. She is one of those performers who can’t help but tell a story about every song when she plays live. Maybe how hot it was in Nashville when her and Tom Russell wrote this song really doesn’t mean anything to this song but it meant something to her as I’ve heard her tell it twice right before performing it. I don’t know, that just strikes me as funny and makes me like the song even more.

While 1988 foreshadows a turn into pop, the 1989 album Storms roared into it. Griffith knew exactly what she wanted and reached out and enlisted the help of Glyn Johns for this, yet another turn in musical style. There were legitimately six songs on this collection I considered for my top ten, it’s that damn good. If you don’t own it, go buy it.

But if I had to whittle it down a bit I’d go with Listen To The Radio, mainly because I’m just a sucker for songs about bonding with your radio. Kids today are never going to understand what it meant to find a favorite DJ on your transistor and making sure you always caught his show. Maybe they have something better in their self-created sort of stations at their disposal. Who knows, but I miss when the radio meant something.

I’m not a huge break up song sort of guy, just not. But the last stanza of You Made This Love A Teardrop does kind of get ya. “No, I will not forgive you for betraying the trust between us / Though I will always care for you / I’ve loved you half my life / And when I give my heart again / I know that I’ll remember / Love is but a fragile flame.” A pretty biting line as exit speeches go.

Finally from the album is It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go. Such a song of lost optimism. “I was a child in the sixties / dreams could be held through TV / with Disney, and Cronkite, and Martin Luther / Oh, I believed, I believed… I BELIEVED.” The singer doesn’t seem to feel the same anymore, very sad.

1991 saw her go even more pop with Peter Van-Hooke and Rod Argent producing. Frankly, I think she went too far into pop and it didn’t quite work for her. But the track Late Night Grande Hotel certainly does. In some ways it was her last time playing around with more of a pop song. It should have been a big hit, instead the album shuttled her back into folk.

I could have chosen many songs from Other Voices, Other Rooms. I mean it is a Grammy winning album with a crazy amount of guest stars. Lots of great songs here. But it is a covers album. That said, Across The Great Divide with Emmylou Harris is stunning. A must listen.

Nanci Griffith’s output from 1994-2012 hasn’t been quite on par with her 1978-1993 efforts. A five year span where she said she had severe writer’s block, two succesful attempts beating back cancer and who knows what, left us with a couple of live albums, a lot of covers and a second Other Voices album. Still better than most, although not like those early years.

Still, hers are the only shows where I’ve seen multiple people crying to the sound of her voice, moved so much by her words they had no choice. That’s impressive. That is something very few artists ever get to experience.

 

Nanci Griffith official website

Comprehensive Nanci Griffith Discography

Nanci Griffith biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #230

4 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Mar 22, 2014

    So little time, so much music. Nanci Griffith is another past favorite whose CDs haven’t been pulled off the shelf for ages. I mentioned From A Distance in the Cliff Richard Toppermost (and that hers was my favorite version). It’s not her composition, but she does a sublime version, Off to pull some CDs off the shelf! Thanks, Calvin.

  2. Ian Ashleigh
    Mar 22, 2014

    Thank you Calvin, thank you. I remember the BBC broadcasting a live concert years ago when I was still under the parental roof and I have a 22 track compilation (From A Distance) but I know nothing of Nanci Griffith’s story. I’ve always thought she has a lovely voice and it’s nice to have read your appreciation. I’m listening to the selection on Spotify as I write.

    Great list, lovely singer, superb songs.

  3. Christopher Costello
    Dec 18, 2017

    Such a nice article. I’ve always thought Flyer was an exceptional and criminally underrated album. It’s a grower.

  4. Kieran
    Aug 5, 2018

    These Days in an Open Book from FLYER – wonderful song.

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