HONOURS AND TRIBUTES for Nanci Griffith
+ plaudits (and apologies) from Norman Warwick
In 2021, the music industry lost one of its finest talents: singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Nanci Griffith. The Texas-born, Grammy Award-winning artist, who would have celebrated her 70th birthday next week, was revered for her compelling storytelling, her distinctive vocals, and her special brand of Americana (which she dubbed “folkabilly”).
Griffith’s trailblazing legacy were honoured through two special releases arriving this September. The first, Working in Corners, reissues Griffith’s earliest—and long out-of-print—albums, including her 1978 debut, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, 1982’s Poet in My Window, 1984’s Once in a Very Blue Moon, and 1986’s Grammy-nominated The Last of the True Believers (featuring “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Goin’ Gone”).
Included in the collection are rare photos and ephemera, plus liner notes by Holly Gleason and producer Jim Rooney (left) , who worked closely with Griffith during this period. Rooney, who co-produced the box set, also weaves in memories from a myriad of Griffith’s friends, peers, and collaborators. Set for release on September 8 via Craft Recordings, Working in Corners will be available as 4-CD and 4-LP vinyl box sets, while There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, Poet in My Window, and Once in a Very Blue Moon will make their long-awaited return to digital platforms.
Griffith’s music will also be celebrated through the all-star tribute, More Than a Whisper: Celebrating The Music of Nanci Griffith. Arriving September 22 via Rounder Records on vinyl, CD, and digital, the album features Griffith’s friends, collaborators, and fans interpreting her most beloved songs, including Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, Shawn Colvin, John Prine and Kelsey Waldon, Sarah Jarosz, Steve Earle, and Mary Gauthier, who also shares her admiration for Griffith in heartfelt liner notes.
Recorded over several years in studios across America, More Than a Whisper (right) also includes stirring contributions from Brandy Clark, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Iris DeMent, Todd Snider, and Aaron Lee Tasjan, while Ida Mae and The War and Treaty both appear exclusively on the expanded CD, digital, and HD versions of the album.
All proceeds from More Than a Whisper (right) will benefit Nashville’s Cumberland Heights, a non-profit treatment facility offering hope and healing to those affected by drug and alcohol addiction.
More than a Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith
A Respectful and Loving Tribute Offering New Perspectives on Familiar Favourites
Tribute albums fall into various categories – there’s the off the wall reinventions, the soundalikes, the irreverent and the respectful. This tribute falls very much into the latter category, collecting as it does, several artistes who either had a connection with the late Ms Griffith, or are musically coming from a similar ballpark.
Sarah Jarosz (left) has a take on “You Can’t Go Home Again” leads things off – and it’s all very pleasant, but maybe a bit too low key for the opening track. Jarosz’s vocal echoes the purity of Griffith, set against a gentle arrangement and shows her off as a rich vocalist.
The first track that got publicly released from the compilation is up next – John Prine & Kelsey Waldon’s take on “Love at the Five and Dime” could have stepped off the “In spite of ourselves” / “Or worse for better” sets and it’s exactly as you might expect – there’s a uniting quirky character in Prine and Waldon’s voices that suits the anecdotal narratives of the song.
The tempo ups (as much as it might on a fairly laid-back collection) with the Molly Tuttle/Billy Strings interpretation of “Listen To The Radio”.
Tuttle takes the foremost vocal chores, with a Griffith-like tremble in her voice and there’s astute picking from, presumably both. It’s not as fiery as the two players sometimes perform, but fluid and melodic.
Emmylou Harris steps up next, with a rough and tumble ride through “Love Wore a Halo”.
Vocally, there’s a rasp in Emmylou’s voice and the call and response in the latter part of the song adds to its rough and rowdy ways (© Bob Dylan).
This is succeeded by Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea’s emotive version of “Trouble In The Fields” where Lovett is the vocal lead on this, with Mattea taking a supporting role and unexpectantly his vocal is a soulful, teary take.
Brandy Clark (right) takes on “Gulf Coast Highway” and there’s a slight shift towards a fuller sound than on the previous tracks, with Daniel Lanois-esque reverb-drenched guitar, whereas Shawn Colvin on “Outbound Plane” favours a more mellow Tom Waits rhythmic approach.
If guessing the acts who might contribute to a Nanci Griffith tribute, I wouldn’t have suspected Ida Mae, but their slide/dobro workout of “Radio Fragile” sits well amongst the company elsewhere on display. Steve Earle is one I would have guessed though – he brings a Celtic flavour, pipes and all to “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” which musically leans on his rocky Copperhead Road period.
Of the younger generation, Aaron Lee Tasjan turns in a powerhouse performance reminiscent of a Prince ballad, quite beautifully on “Late Night Grande Hotel” – probably this reviewer’s highlight of the album. He’s then followed by “Ford Econoline“, by Todd Snider who’s much more in traditional mode than his Eastside Bulldogs persona…although that might have been an interesting take on this song.
The most Griffith-esque of the acts is probably Iris Dement – it was a good choice to get her to cover “Banks of the Pontchartrain” which she infuses with soulful gospel – vocally, there’s an idiosyncratic vocal resemblance with Griffith and this works exactly as you might expect. Mary Gauthier, who wrote the liner notes for the release takes the penultimate track “More Than a Whisper” and offers a smooth, measured vocal interpretation.
Anyone who’s seen The War And Treaty (left) live won’t be surprised that they were trusted with probably the most famous song from Griffith’s repertoire, “From a Distance” – and they nail it perfectly – there’s the right measure of gospel power and soulful restraint in Tanya and Michael’s vocals and the arrangement builds and subsides without ever being bombastic or too swanky.
It’s a fine way to end what is, as I mentioned at the start, a very respectful tribute.
A good compilation often works in more than one way – to the initiated, it offers new perspectives on familiar songs – to the uninitiated, it offers a way in to an artist through a more familiar third party. This collection does both and does both well and was released on 20TH September 2023.
I have had seven articles published about Nanci, nd those of you who read yesterday´s More Than A Whisper piece will know that Nanci and I had quite a run in when she rng me once to plat heck about what she thought was an unfair review. I apologies unreservedly, because I had wrapped up my concerns about the state of ´my´ Americana music at the time in one Nanci Griffith gig. I was out of order
The primes source was a review by Nick Barber published in The Rocking Magpie, which looks at Americana and Roots music. All photographs were taken from on line sites offering free to use photographs. For more comprehensive details on our attribution policies visit https://aata.dev dated 7th April 23