Nanci Griffith: Country's Queen of Folk
I first became aware of Nanci Griffith's immense talent around the time she released Lone Star State of Mind while watching The Nashville Network with my mother in mid-1980s. In those days, my mom would always have the television on that station until her soap operas started in the afternoon, having switched from radio when she discovered the channel after we began subscribing to cable. In the summer, or anytime I was out of school for whatever reason, I would occasionally watch or listen though I had been listening to less and less country music since entering high school years before.
At that time, my tastes leaned more toward classic rock, hard rock and heavy metal, but as I was working in a record store while attending college, I was also branching out in new directions as well and discovering dozens of artists while finding something to enjoy in almost every musical style. Nanci's music was a breath of fresh air and her voice... well, I was certain she must be an angel. Soon, I bought Lone Star State of Mind, but I did not realize that this was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg!
I was taken by the subtle beauty of "From a Distance", touched by the heartfelt emotion of "Trouble in the Fields" and uplifted by the bounce of "Ford Econoline". Nanci was 11 for 11 as every song on the record was a masterpiece. Her voice transformed even the most mundane passage in a work of beauty, not that there were really a lot of mundane moments on the album. It was the final track on the record, "There's a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)", that gave me a hint of what was to come (or perhaps I should say what had transpired in the past that I was yet to discover).
Nanci Griffith began a transition to a more mainstream country style with Lone Star State of Mind, but previously she had been more firmly rooted in folk. The manager of the record store I worked in, a musically diverse fellow named Jay, explained this to me and that the last track on the new album was actually a re-working of one of Nanci's earlier songs. Since I had nearly worn its grooves off of Lone Star State of Mind, I decided to check out some of her older material. The first two I picked up were the other two albums we had in the store I worked at -- Poet in My Window and Once in a Very Blue Moon. Poet in My Window was a great album, but I did not discover most of its beauty until later as I became completely taken with Once in a Very Blue Moon.
Thirteen songs and, just like on Lone Star State of Mind, every one of them a winner. to this day I cannot pick out a favorite on this record. It is a tie between "Ballad of Robin Winter-Smith", "Roseville Fair", "Once in a Very Blue Moon", "Spin on a Red Brick Floor", "Love Is a Hard Waltz" and "Friend Out in the Madness". Of course, ask me any other day and I might list a different half dozen potential favorites off this masterpiece. It is that good. But the amazing this was, I still had not discovered what would become my favorite Nanci Griffith album!
After I had broken in Once in a Very Blue Moon, I turned my attention to Poet in My Window and found it was also a great record though not quite as magical as the other two records I was now intimately familiar with. I special ordered Nanci's first album which featured the original version of "There's a Light Beyond These Woods" that had appeared at the end of of Lone Star State of Mind and also used that as the album title. Knowing this was Nanci's first album and that Poet in My Window was her second, I was prepared for an album not quite up to the level I felt her later releases were achieving as it would make sense she took some time to perfect her craft.
If you look at my ten favorite Nanci Griffith albums below, you might surmise that due to this album being in the tenth place that i was correct in my expectations. But that isn't exactly true. I placed the album tenth because it is the album I can never settle on a place ment for. Sometimes I would put it somewhere in the top three; other times I would not even put it in the top ten.
This is because while I think some of the songs are some of Nanci's best -- "Alabama Soft Spoken Blues", "Songs for Remembered Heroes" and "West Texas Sun" for example -- the production of the album and arrangements of the tunes do not do the songs justice. "There's a Light Beyond These Woods" is an excellent example with the newer version truly enhancing this beautiful song while the older version falls a little flat. The album still got plenty of spins, but I was much more excited when Nanci's next album, Little Love Affairs, was announced.
Little Love Affairs was another awesome release with "Anyone Can Be Somebody's Fool", "Never Mind", "I Would Change My Life", "I Wish It Would Rain" and "Gulf Coast Highway" all standing out, but this was again an album without anything less than excellent included. I considered ordering the only album I was missing at this time, The Last of the True Believers, but by the time I began to hunger for something new from Nanci, I was aware of the impending release of her first live album, One Fair Summer Evening. When it was released in late 1988, I chose to pick it up on something us old folks in the days before DVD called laserdisc. having seen Nanci live several times on The Nashville Network, I knew I was in for a treat.
As expected, One Fair Summer Evening was amazing. Many of my favorites were there as well as three songs new to me that I immediately loved -- "Deadwood, South Dakota", "I Would Bring You Ireland" and, what was instantly my all time favorite Nanci Griffith song, "Love at the Five and Dime". That title was familiar and I quickly figured out that while the other two songs were actually new, "Love at the Five and Dime" was from The Last of the True Believers album -- the one Nanci Griffith album I did not own. Needless to say, I corrected that as soon as possible.
The Last of the True Believers turned out to be Nanci's finest album. Where some of her other records included only excellent tracks, this one included only perfection. In addition to "Love at the Five and Dime", other high points include "The Last of the True Believers", "More Than a Whisper", "Looking for the Time (Workin' Girl)", "Goin' Gone", "Love's Found a Shoulder" and "The Wing and the Wheel". But every other song was only a breath below these.
After Little Love Affairs, Nanci's albums became more mainstream country and with the exception of Late Night Grande Hotel, they never recaptured that old magic for me. Her releases during the 1990s were great, but not as great as her earlier work. But then, in 2004, she released Hearts in Mind. By this time I was only loosely following her music so I was not even aware of the album until I ran across The Loving Kind, her newest release. Both of these albums regain some of whatever it was exactly that made those earlier albums so special to me. So with my renewed interest, I thought I would share my love of this great artist with you.
Here are some recommendations for new Nanci Griffith fans. This is more or less my personal top ten, but I reserve the right to change my mind. Many times. Each day. Enjoy!
The Last of the True Believers (Philo / 1986)
Without a doubt, this is my favorite Nanci Griffith albums. Sweet, emotive vocals combine with acoustic instrumentation in a mix that can only be described as heavenly. This is the voice of an angel combined with the music of nature. Folk, Americana, dang good tunes... Call it what you want; this is fine stuff! You will never look at a Woolworth's the same again. Of course, I guess you really cannot look at a Woolworth's anymore...
Lone Star State of Mind (MCA / 1987)
This was Nanci's breakthrough album not only for me but also as a more mainstream country artist. Her earlier folk tinged albums had a dedicated but small following that multiplied greatly with this release. Like many rock music artists who were not exactly "radio friendly", Nanci benefited from the emergence of cable television and the music networks found there who were quicker to embrace her than was radio.
Once in a Very Blue Moon (Philo / 1984)
By the time Nanci released her third album, she was really getting the hang of capturing the enchantment of her exceptional live performances in the recording studio making this her best album by far when it was released. Gentle, earthy music, though often upbeat and full of bouncy tempo, underlined Nanci's exquisitely demure voice making a delightful blend of accessible-yet-true-to-its-roots folk music.
Little Love Affairs (MCA / 1988)
Nanci Griffith has often straddled the admittedly thin line between contemporary folk music and modern country music. This incredible album probably does the best job of keeping one foot in each of these worlds. Some of these songs clearly lean one way while some may more subtly lean the other, but they all retain some elements of each genre. At any given moment, you may feel you are on a journey to her past or receiving a brief glimpse of her future.
One Fair Summer Evening (MCA / 1988)
Nanci's first live album featured live version of some her finest works. It introduced me to my favorite of her songs, "Love at the Five and Dime". I am still undecided as to whether I prefer the original studio version or this live version. Generally I prefer studio tracks unless I am seeing a concert, but every now and then there will be a live song that just captures the moment and this is certainly one of those, as is the whole album.
Hearts in Mind (New Door / 2004)
The title of this album is a reference to the "hearts and minds" the United States military was trying to win in Iraq and Afghanistan, so not surprisingly this album deals a lot with war or at leadt the tragedy of conflict. But it also represented a return to Nanci Griffith's Americana roots with a few songs even sounding like they would fit well with her earlier albums and everything once again more bluegrass and folk than country.
The Loving Kind (Rounder / 2009)
Nanci's most recent album, her 19th overall, finds her fully returned to her folk roots with a collection of socially aware songs that touch the heart of America. Nanci's voice is as beautiful as ever and the album is one of her finest to date. Special guests such as Steve Earle, James Taylor and John Prine only add to the enjoyment of this precious gem. Easily the best folk album of the last few years, this one really shines!
Late Night Grande Hotel (MCA / 1991)
As Nanci moved in a more mainstream country direction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found myself less drawn to her new music. But this album, her last for MCA, was the exception. While the style might be closer to popular country than indie folk, something about these songs retains the intimacy of some of Nanci's earliest releases. One excellent song after another, this one is the best of her 1990's work.
Poet in My Window (Philo / 1982)
This was Nanci Griffith's second album and, while it was overshadowed by some of her more refined work when I first heard it, over time I have come to appreciate its particular beauty. Nanci's songwriting was exceptional on this record with her composing all but one track. It is the type of album where you feel the musician is right there with you when you listen. The album is aptly titled as this is lyrically one of Nanci's finest early efforts.
There's a Light Beyond These Woods (Philo / 1978)
I can never decide where on my list of favorite Nanci Griffith albums this one belongs. It was her debut and on the one hand, it is her most inexperienced effort and rough around the edges at times which can make it pale in comparison to her newer, more polished albums. On the other hand, that inexperience and roughness give it an honesty that can be quite endearing. One thing is certain, it is a work of great warmth and beauty.