A few weeks back, I discovered that a compilation album which I fondly remembered didn’t actually lead me to Lou Reed as I had thought. However, it did lead me here, so now I get to talk about New Roots and its curious mixture of styles.
As I may have mentioned before, New Roots was – in my case, anyway – a double cassette, and I think the general idea was for it to showcase ‘roots’ music from all over the world, although I think the definition of ‘roots’ was a little loose, as the tracklist veered wildly between the obscure and the established stars. It’s roughly split into four differing sides, although the themes can be tricky to pick out – side one, for example, leads off with the Americana of Ry Cooder and Michelle Shocked but it’s not entirely clear what the path to Enya and The Proclaimers was meant to be.
Side two was, roughly speaking, British folk-influenced music, and side four was firmly in the ‘world music’ camp, mainly African, but culminating in the traditional music of Bulgaria, which was a whole other rabbit hole we went down for a while.
But side three was devoted to a journey from folk into country – from Richard Thompson’s Turning of the Tide to Dwight Yoakam and Lyle Lovett. Right in the middle of that journey was a live rendition of a song I’d heard before, From a Distance, delivered by the extraordinarily pure voice of Nanci Griffith.
I dug deeper into music by several of the artists on that compilation, but none more than Nanci Griffith, who clearly had something I hadn’t heard before, and threatened for a time there to turn me into a country music fan.
I say ‘me’; we both became Nanci Griffith fans. This is, of course, partly because we lived in a tiny house and drove around in the same car; whatever one of us was listening to, we were both listening to for a lot of the time. But it was also because great music is great music, and there was something about Nanci Griffith’s music which stood out for me – stood out from the other 27 songs on New Roots, but also stood out among all the new music swirling around in the early 1990s.
I started by grabbing a copy of the album the track had been lifted from. I’ll talk a little about One Fair Summer Evening later on, but take it from me there could have been no better introduction to her music.
We were, by this stage, able to spend money on albums again, and we gradually worked our way through the Nanci Griffith back catalogue – I suspect we had different favourites, especially as the albums showed a clear progression from country / folk – in those early albums is the ‘roots’ music the compilation was alluding to - to something altogether more polished and produced to appeal to a wider audience.
What never changed along this journey from sparse folk to over-produced pop was her ability to tell a story. Griffith's songwriting ability never faltered, although she seemed to find writing harder and harder as the years passed. Looking back at it now, I’m certain that what attracted me to this music was a combination of a remarkable voice and the stories behind the songs. She was never shy of a cover version or two, and later devoted entire albums to other people’s songs, but it was her own stories which landed best for me, whether heartfelt tales of love and loss, or simple evocations of time and place.
By the time Flyer came along in 1994, I was as familiar with her back catalogue as I was with any other of my favourite artists. Several of her albums could have made this list, but this one does because I think it’s the one which hits the sweet spot she had been looking for – all but one of the songs are originals, and she picks from the various styles and sounds she’s used through the years. I might again quibble that a few too many rough edges have been smoothed off by the production, but these songs shine through regardless.
Opening track The Flyer sets the scene for the whole thing – tinges of country guitar and hints of banjo deep in the mix, but all in service to the story – an autobiographical (or autobiographical-sounding) tale of missed connections which I once based a short story of my own around. It swings along merrily, with the ‘la-la-la’s around the chorus sounding at once joyful and wistful.
Nobody’s Angel is a straightforward ‘lost love’ song on the surface – Nanci is mourning the fact that her lifestyle doesn’t seem to lend itself to stable relationships, and is quietly and sadly beating herself up about it now. What raises it above the ordinary on this occasion is the setting – the music is doing all kinds of unusual things in the background – I swear there’s a harmonium in there somewhere, and there’s definitely a dog barking towards the end. The backing singers fade in and out, not always finishing their lines, and the whole thing has a broken-hearted feel which fits the words perfectly.
Say it isn’t So is a straightforward country song – Nanci’s voice, which generally rings pure and true, is as clear as you’d expect, but joyfully slides around those country-style slides and bends to lend this song an authenticity which you rarely hear in modern mass-produced country music. I know which I prefer.
The only cover on this album, Southbound Train is a Julie Gold song, and fits the mood and themes of the album, but never quite reaches the heights of Griffith’s best-known Julie Gold cover, From a Distance. Southbound Train pushes some of those same buttons, and reaches for many of the same tricks, but never quite makes it. There’s also a single superfluous word in there, which still jars (the word ‘chill’ serves no purpose I can see, it just kind of sits there, throwing off the metre and stubbornly not rhyming with anything).
Fortunately, These Days in an Open Book comes along to get us back on track. There’s a maturity to both the lyric and the vocals here which gives the delicate melody a real punch. It also opens with a line I still use to this day, usually without remembering where it’s from (“Shut it down, and call this road a day”) – I haven’t listened to this in a few years, and it was a delight to be reacquainted with the source of one of those things I just find myself saying from time to time.
Nanci Griffith was not often openly political (in her lyrics at least; she would famously wear a giant “All The Way With LBJ” button on her guitar strap), so Time of Inconvenience comes as something of a surprise in among these wistful love songs. The message is clear and almost angry, but these days seems almost naively optimistic.
Don’t Forget About Me invokes another album I covered a few weeks ago – it wouldn’t sound out of place on Gerry Rafferty’s North and South album; the songwriting is very similar, and the accompaniment is constructed in a strikingly similar way, which has me searching the sleeve notes for Davy Spillane – he’s not there, but his spirit definitely is. At this time, Griffith was poking around her Irish connections, and that comes over clearly in the way this sounds.
I remember little about Always Will, and it still strikes me as one of the slighter songs on here, so maybe this is the point at which I can confess to my somewhat inept attempts to recreate these songs on guitar – I always had more enthusiasm than ability on the guitar, but these songs, combined with the early internet and the sudden, surprising access to tablature and sheet music meant I could at least try to play along with all of these.
Haven’t done that in a while, but it’s another reason I love this album.
As is the standout track, Going Back to Georgia, which crackles and fizzes with life and showcases the voice of Counting Crows singer, Adam Duritz, whose world-weary voice perfectly complements the ringing bell of Nanci’s. It’s a simply gorgeous song, one where the words perfectly fit the rhythm, and the loping beat invokes the weariness of the long-distance traveller. Nanci Griffith wrote several duets over her career, but this one is far and away my favourite, and never fails to break me into a wide smile whenever I hear it.
Talk to me While I’m Listening is back in sad love song territory; there’s an honesty to it which is genuinely heartbreaking; the song is simple and effective, enhanced by the backing vocals, sometimes doubling, sometimes harmonising, sometimes wandering off on their own path – I don’t have the full sleeve notes to hand, but I’m absolutely certain that the female voice behind Nanci here is the peerless Emmylou Harris, who quietly lifts this song into greatness.
Fragile is the kind of song which finds itself being used over the end credits of a particularly emotional episode of a TV show. That’s not a criticism, by the way – I could probably write several essays on the way that some television is lifted into the category of art by the music choices it makes (see the episode of thirtysomething which used Joni Mitchell’s River to devastating effect, for example)
Now we go full Irish with On Grafton Street, which starts with a drum track which could have come from Achtung Baby (yes, Larry Mullen on drums) before becoming more of a lament – a song about feeling at once at home and out of place in an unfamiliar city. It’s also a song of lost love, as so many of these songs are. I think it just about contains its desire to erupt into full Irish corniness, although at times the pennywhistle and autoharp combine with the fiddle to walk that tightrope a little uncertainly.
Incidentally, if you like this, you should look into the music of Eleanor McEvoy, from around this time, who did whole albums which sounded like this to tremendous effect.
The count-in to Anything You Need But Me still makes me laugh (“one, two, three…nine”) and the song itself is a welcome release from the inward-looking tone of the last few songs. This one is defiant and self-confident, full of a quality which has seemed incidental so far, simple enjoyment at the act of making music.
Goodnight to a Mother’s Dream is a magnificent piece of poetry, at once sad and uplifting. It’s – like all the songs on here – a song from a woman’s viewpoint (we overlook this aspect too often, I think – how much rock music is male-oriented). This is as much about a woman’s relationship with her mother as it is about the same themes which have been stitched through the whole album, and while I might complain that it’s a tad over-produced, I can’t shake off the genuine power of the words, which stand alone as poetry in a way few lyrics ever do.
But you can’t end an album that way – there has to be one more song full of joy and hope, and This Heart delivers. Simple, fun and memorable, it closes the door on the introspection and points the way forward with curious noises and sparse instrumentation. All the elements of the album are present, but repackaged and repurposed to send us on our way with a smile in our hearts and a skip in our step.
There are other Nanci Griffith albums which match this for quality, I think, and ones which are perhaps more uplifting and positive, but none which surpass it for songwriting and musicality. I’d still start the way I started if you’re coming to her new, but this is a terrific album any way you look at it, and – like almost everything she did – deserves to be much better known.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Nanci Griffith’s career was a progression, so it’s hard to pick just one or two which are representative. Having said that, Once in a Very Blue Moon does the country thing very well, and both Storms and Late Night Grande Hotel demonstrate how that sound evolved into this one, even if the latter is somewhat too polished and shiny to be a truly great album.
Compilations to consider?
The UK-released Best Of is a tremendous selection, and includes a track I’m in the audience for (although you can’t hear the audience, so it’s rather a moot point). The much later From a Distance is more of a career retrospective, but perhaps serves also to highlight that her later writer’s block meant that most of her best work was done prior to 1995.
Oh, yes. As mentioned before, One Fair Summer Evening is a truly exceptional live album. If you need convincing of the genius of Nanci Griffith, look no further. Stripped of the layers of instrumentation which the studio versions sometimes suffered from, this is mainly voice, guitar and storytelling. And no-one ever did it better.
There was a book published to coincide with Other Voices, Too, her second album of covers, and it offers some insight into her background, influences, and process, although I remember thinking that I still didn’t know much more about her having read it.