Nanci Griffith excelled at capturing the details of a small world in her songs. Her songs were like snapshots of a landscape and the lives that inhabited it; in wry lyrics, she caught the denizens of small town Texas life embroiled in the web of love, loss, and hope. With her crystalline vocals and her spare, intuitive musical arrangements, Griffith created an atmosphere of intimacy so that the songs came to life, touching listeners in enduring ways.
Had she not died two years ago (August 13, 2021), Nanci Griffith would have turned 70 this year (July 6). What better way to celebrate her birthday and to honor her legacy and continuing influence on songwriters and singers than in a tribute album, More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith (Rounder)? The album features artists with whom Griffith often shared stages—Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Iris DeMent—and those whose music reflects Griffith’s influence—Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle.
Jarosz’s spaciously unfolding version of “You Can’t Go Home Again,” from 1982’s The Poet in My Window, conveys the yearning and regret of the original. If you close your eyes for a moment, you’d think you’re listening to Griffith. John Prine and Kelsey Waldon capture the enduring character of love in the portrait of small town romance on “Love at the Five and Dime,” from Griffith’s 1986 The Last of the True Believers, while DeMent turns in a spiraling version of “Banks of the Pontchartrain,” from the same album, layering her vocals over cascading piano and strings and creating the photo of a couple waltzing on the lake’s banks.
Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea deliver a spare, emotionally powerful version of “Trouble in the Fields,” from 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind, that captures the enduring power of love in the face of poverty and economic devastation. Brandy Clark’s version of “Gulf Coast Highway,” from 1988’s Little Love Affairs evokes the promise and the regrets of the open road, while Shawn Colvin offers a spare take on “Outbound Plane,” from the same album, that captures the longing for love and the will to capture it. Todd Snider’s take on “Ford Econoline,” from Lone Star State of Mind, captures the hard-edged, celebratory tale of an abused woman escaping her abuser by “cruising along in that Ford Econoline,” while Strings and Tuttle deliver a rousing version of the Griffith’s hopeful ballad “Listen to the Radio,” from 1989’s Storms. More Than a Whisper closes with the War and Treaty’s soulful version of “From a Distance,” from Lone Star State of Mind.
In 1994, Griffith paid tribute to the many songwriters and singers who had influenced her on Other Voices, Other Rooms. Now, these artists repay the favor by sharing their versions of Griffith’s songs and keeping her music alive for new audiences.
Nanci Griffith’s legacy is also being celebrated by the release of a 4-CD/4-LP box set of her first four, long out-of-print early albums, Working in Corners (Craft Recordings). The set includes her 1978 debut album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, 1982’s Poet in My Window, 1984’s Once in a Very Blue Moon, and 1986’s The Last of the True Believers. In addition to the four CDs, the set includes rare photos, memories from friends and collaborators and liner notes by Griffith’s producer Jim Rooney and music writer Holly Gleason. The set offers listeners a chance to revisit—or to hear for the first time—the ways that Griffith developed as a singer and a songwriter.
Her debut album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, introduces Griffith’s distinctive voice and her twirling and spare folk music. Songs like “I Remember You” and “Alabama Soft-Spoken Blues” sonically resemble the music of Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, while the soaring “Michael’s Song” takes its cues from Townes Van Zandt. No matter how much these early songs resemble others, however, they reveal a singular songwriter expressing her tales of love and loss in unadorned folk arrangements.
On Poet in My Window, Griffith’s vocals grow stronger and more confident, and her songs benefit from fuller arrangements. She blends more country instrumentation into her folk music on this album, on songs such as “Marilyn Monroe/Neon and Waltzes” and “Waltzing with Angels.” The album also includes spacious, introspective ballads, including “You Can’t Go Home Again” and “Workin’ in Corners.” The CD and digital version contain the bonus track “Can’t Love Wrong.”
On her third album, Once in a Very Blue Moon, Griffith has moved to Rounder Records, and she’s joined on the record by some of the best musicians in country and bluegrass, including guitarist Pat Alger, banjoist Béla Fleck, fiddler Mark O’Connor, and veteran pedal steel player, Lloyd Green. Her sound grows fuller on songs such as “I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels,” but she retains the tenderness of her folk ballads on the title track, and delivers a crackling bluegrass rambler on “If I Were the Woman You Wanted.”
Griffith’s fourth album, The Last of the True Believers, moves her from small-town Texas folksinger and songwriter to nationally recognized songwriter. It’s on this album listeners hear, in their fullest arrangements in her career to date, the distinctive blend of country and folk that Griffith would call “folkabilly.” The album contains her tender “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Goin’ Gone,” as well as the swirling “Banks of the Pontchartrain.” By this album, Griffith has blended her keen-eyed insights into life into a musical style that carries those songs to wider audiences.
Both More Than a Whisper and Working in Corners provide more than fitting celebrations of one of our finest singers, songwriters, and guitarists; these albums introduce Nanci Griffith to new audiences and offer long-time lovers of Griffith’s music a chance to dwell in her music again.