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Like most people who've spent the past 20 years in show business, Nanci Griffith hates doing telephone interviews. Although Griffith has a well-earned reputation for having a formidable, if cranky, persona, her distaste for interviews is a matter of repetitive-motion sickness. She's simply answered too many well-meaning but moronic questions about how she got into music and who influenced her.
But Griffith is about to get some peace. Instead of turning off her brain and recounting the story of her life, she can now cut out the numbing tedium with a simple, four-word reply: "Listen to the disc."
After years of hovering somewhere between the country mainstream and the folk fringe, Nanci Griffith has finally planted her feet and aimed her career in one clear direction. Her latest album, Other Voices/Other Rooms, makes it clear once and for all that Griffith is a folkie. The album's 17 cuts feature Griffith singing tunes by the songwriters who influenced her performing and songwriting the most. Other Voices/Other Rooms is an enjoyable minihistory of what Nanci Griffith and her music are all about.
But unlike the beads-and-Baez folkies of the past, Griffith represents a new model, a Texas-tinged variety that puts her squarely at the forefront of today's burgeoning singer-songwriter renaissance.
Griffith's stylistic stand is a gamble for several reasons. First, most major labels don't take kindly to low-selling, no-airplay folk albums. Griffith's recent signing to Elektra--one of the few majors sensitive enough to comprehend the essence of Griffith's art--has mitigated this problem for the time being. But if her recordings don't sell, that, too, will change. The question of radio airplay is more problematic. Although it's receiving airplay on between-the-cracks stations like Valley FM KZON, Other Voices/Other Rooms (whose title harkens to Truman Capote's first novel) is being shunned by country and AOR radio. Griffith says she's actually grateful that her decision to go folk means she won't have to deal with the rigid playlists and small minds that make country radio so unimaginative.
"I've never courted country radio. I really didn't fit in and still don't," Griffith says by telephone from her ranch outside Nashville. "My biggest hits there have been when other country singers did my songs. "But there is such a wonderful songwriting community in Nashville. Chet Atkins and Harlan Howard have been like father figures to me. So I have a deep love for country music, but at the same time, folk music is my first love and where my basic roots are. To me, Emmylou Harris is the queen of the preservation of country music."
Despite the distinctive, twangy voice and considerable guitar skills that make her such a masterful soloist, Griffith prefers the title of "songwriter" beside her name. The sum of her influences, Other Voices/Other Rooms is also a tribute to American folk songwriters, new and old. Similar in spirit (and cost) to Michelle Shocked's sprawling Arkansas Traveler, Other Voices/Other Rooms was recorded in two locations: Nashville and Dublin, Ireland. The album documents in more or less chronological fashion the songwriters who influenced Griffith the most.
The idea for an all-star, all-covers album came from discussions Griffith had with Jim Rooney, a friend who produced several of Griffith's mid-Eighties albums on the Rounder label. The process began with Griffith narrowing her potential song list to 300 titles. She now says with a laugh that she just couldn't distill it any further, that every one of the 300 was "essential." Fortunately, Rooney had no such sentimental attachments. Plunging into the scheduling nightmare of matching all-star guest players with songs that best showcased their talents, he cut Griffith's unwieldy wish list to 17 songs. The guest list came to include Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Bob Dylan, John Prine, B‚la Fleck, Chet Atkins and others. With the songs and players set, Rooney and Griffith then developed a guiding principle around which the album was organized.
"I wanted to use songs from each folk revival," Griffith explains. "We wanted a couple of songs from the 'lost generation' folk revival that's been going on the past 20 years. And we wanted something from the 1800s, from the traditional Appalachian music. We ended up with 'Are You Tired of Me Darling,' which was written in 1877, all the way up to Buddy Mondlock's new song 'Comin' Down in the Rain.' But all of these songs could have been written in the same day. They all work together."
Opening with "Across the Great Divide," a modern tune by the late Kate Wolf (Wolf died of cancer she believed she contracted while playing a benefit at Three Mile Island), Other Voices/Other Rooms progresses through an eclectic mix of folk classics such as Prine's "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather" and Malvina Reynolds' "Turn Around." Along the way, there is even an unwitting demonstration of how folk music stays alive and is recycled by each new generation of songwriters. On Other Voices/Other Rooms, Griffith and one of her current tour mates, Iris Dement, join forces for a take of Gordon Lightfoot's "Ten Degrees and Getting Colder." Set to a melody line identical to the one found in Loretta Lynn's "The Pill," Lightfoot's tune went on to inspire Griffith to reuse the melody in "Ford Econoline," which opens side two of her most successful album to date, Lone Star State of Mind. That's not plagiarism, that's folk music.