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, Bla 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.
Griffith's new album closes with a humorous take on the South African folk tune "Wimoweh," which, in the Sixties, became a signature tune of the Pete Seeger/Ronnie Gilbert-led folk group the Weavers. For that track, 25 players, representing five generations of singer-songwriters, join in. Of all the material on this album, the closest to Griffith's heart are the tunes by the Texas troubadours.
"My role models for what I wanted out of my career and what I really expected were Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker," she says. "In terms of commercial success, my career has far exceeded anything I ever expected. I really expected to spend my life driving myself around America, playing small clubs and following in the footsteps of my heroes."
All of those heroes are represented in one way or another on this collection. Van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley" and Walker's "Morning Song for Sally" are two of the album's strongest cuts. And though none of his songs made it onto the album, Guy Clark sings a duet with Griffith on the album's most vivid performance, a spirited take of Woody Guthrie's "Do-Re-Mi." Woody's presence can also be felt through his son, Arlo Guthrie, who sings harmony on "Tecumseh Valley." "Do-Re-Mi' was Woody Guthrie's generation talking about California," Griffith begins. "And for me, Guy Clark wrote the definitive California song for his generation, which is 'L.A. Freeway.' Guy and I are from the same part of Texas and we have the same phrasing, and it was just natural that Guy should be the one to do the Woody Guthrie song with me."
The co-star of Griffith's current tour, Clark has been experiencing throat problems that have forced him to return to Texas to rest. At press time, the chances that Clark would rejoin the tour in time for the upcoming local show were about even. Although Griffith's been to Tucson twice--once as an opener for the Everly Brothers and once solo--her April 18 show at Tempe's Red River Opry will be Griffith's first in the Valley.
Although it looks rosy now, Griffith's career, like those of most singer-songwriters, has been filled with periods of starvation. Born in Texas, Griffith began singing in coffee houses in Austin in the mid-Seventies. In 1978, she made her first album for Rounder, There's a Light Beyond These Woods. The relationship proved fruitful, and three albums later, Griffith's last Rounder recording, The Last of the True Believers, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1986. It also contains one of her most beloved originals, "Love at the Five and Dime." The Grammy nod convinced MCA/Nashville to give Griffith a shot. She paired with Midas-touch producer Tony Brown for her first MCA album, 1987's Lone Star State of Mind. It remains her opus. Lone Star is the only Griffith album to go gold in the United States. It was even bigger overseas, going platinum in England and Ireland. Griffith says she's still gratified that Brown encouraged her to co-produce the album with him. Bolstered by the talents of non-Nashville players like drummer Russ Kunkel, Lone Star benefits most from a bevy of Griffith-penned classics, like "Cold Hearts/Closed Minds," "Beacon Street" and "Trouble in the Fields." The album also includes the first recording of songwriter Julie Gold's "From a Distance," which later won Grammys for Gold and performer Bette Midler. "Julie and I are dear friends, and she sent me that song about a week after she wrote it," Griffith says. "That was in 1986, and we had just finished the True Believers album. It's so beautiful that it came in time to be the centerpiece of my first MCA album. That version became a hit for me in Europe, years before it won the Grammy."
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Another tune from Lone Star, "Trouble in the Fields," opened an unexpected door for the Texas singer. After the album came out, the song was picked up and covered by Irish singer Maura O'Connell. That version became a huge hit for O'Connell in Ireland, and led to a demand for Griffith to tour there. Griffith's first Irish tour was such a success that she has returned annually, playing to sold-out houses. "The best audiences in the world are in Belfast," she says. Until recently, Griffith lived in Ireland for half of each year. The Irish people's fondness for her gives her a giggle, because despite her Irish surname and her Celtic features--fair skin, dark eyes and hair--she doesn't have a drop of the auld sod in her.
"I'm not Irish at all," she says, beginning to laugh. "My dad's family came from Wales and my mother's family came from Scotland. I guess I'm just the adopted daughter of the country of Ireland."
In 1991, MCA decided to move the careers of Griffith and its other iconoclastic country talent, Lyle Lovett, from Nashville to the label's pop division in L.A. It was a move that eventually spelled the end of Griffith's association with MCA. If the excellent Nashville division couldn't market and promote her considerable talents, then MCA/L.A. had no chance. After the album Late Night, Grande Hotel died on the vine in 1991, Griffith decided it was time for a change.
"I wanted to leave MCA in Los Angeles. At first I thought I'd stick it out until my contract was up. At the time, I still owed them three albums. But I just couldn't do it," Griffith says, growing serious. "When the idea came up to do this album, I just really did not want MCA to have it, not out of any kind of viciousness, but they just would not have known what the music was and who these writers were. "Elektra came to me when they found out I was hard at work trying to get out of my contract with MCA. When they found out that this album was the first product they'd be getting, they were so excited, because that's Elektra's roots--folk music."
Unlike Michelle Shocked's album, which has been a slow seller, Griffith's project is off to a fast start. What makes the album truly special, besides the impressive guest list, is that Griffith had the sincerity and confidence as a songwriter to do an album of time-tested classics. She says she never considered the fact that recording songs by people like Bob Dylan would invite unkind comparisons.
"That never occurred to me. Really," she says. "Music means so much to me. I'm such a devout fan. I'm a hopeless consumer. Music is my sacred comforter, my saving grace. "I owe so much to these writers. You can't learn how to write until you learn how to read. And I've always felt that as a songwriter, you can't learn how to write songs until you learn how to listen.