Review: Nanci Griffith Revisited and Revived

Nanci Griffith/Working In Corners/Craft Recordings
4.5 Out of Five Stars

Various Artists/More Than A Whisper — Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith/Rounder Records 
4.5 Out of Five Stars

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s been two years since the premature passing of Nanci Griffith, who rightfully deserves a reputation as one of America’s greatest singer/songwriters, bar none. While the loss was lamented by those who had grown to admire and appreciate the music she made over the course of her 45-year career, many music lovers never became fully aware of her work, and remain ignorant of it even now. That’s even in spite of her various Grammy nominations, her Grammy win (for Other Voices, Other Wins), the various songs she wrote that were covered by other artists, and the honors she received from the Americana Music Association, the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame and the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

That’s a shame of course, given the fact that Griffith’s folk/roots repertoire easily compares to that of any of her contemporaries — Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Brandi Carlile, Shawn Colvin, Kathy Mattea, Mary Gauthier, and practically any other Americana singer one might otherwise imagine.

It’s hardly surprising then that the occasion of what would have been her 70th birthday is marked by two albums that ought to bring her either renewed recognition or the attention that alluded her in the first place, all depending on how the familiarity factor resonates with those that opt to investigate. 

Either offering provides a perfect place to start, although completists might be prone to pick up the four-CD Craft Recording box set, Working In Corners, on the first go-round, given that it contains the first four albums Griffith recorded for Rounder Records in their entirety — There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, Poet In My Window, Once In A Very Blue Moon, and The Last of the True Believers. All were exceptional albums, though the albums that followed after she made her switch to Elektra Records tended to overshadow those earlier efforts. Of these four, Once In A Very Blue Moon and The Last of the True Believers could be considered her seminal masterworks, given the fact that they boast her most enduring songs — “The Last of the True Believers,” Love at the Five & Dime” and “Once In A Very Blue Moon,” among them. Suffice it to say, anyone who’s in search of comfort and a caress, not mention an exceptional collection of memorable melodies would be well advised to start here. 

That said, More Than a Whisper is also essential, given that it boasts a remarkable cast of musical devotees who take turns covering 14 of Griffith’s signature songs. Ironically, one of the most moving offerings happens to be “From A Distance,” one of the few tunes Griffith didn’t pen. Composed by Julie Gold and also covered by Bette Midler, it’s rendered here by the War and Treaty in a most moving fashion. 

Other stand-out selections include Sarah Jarosz’s wistful rendition of “You Can’t Go Home Again,” Iris DeMent’s delicately delivered “Banks of the Pontchartrain,” Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea’s duet on  “Trouble in the Fields” and a stunning version of the stunning “Love at the Five & Dime” sung in tandem by the late John Prine and his prodigy of sorts, Kelsey Waldron.

In fact, there’s no shortage of memorable moments that come courtesy of the album’s exceptional cast of marquee names, which also includes Emmylou Harris, Todd Snider, Shawn Colvin, Brandy Clark, Steve Earle, Aaron Lee Tashjan, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Iris DeMent, Ida Mae, and Mary Gauthier, among the many. The fact that so many tremendous talents were obviously so eager to take part testifies to both their enduring admiration and the special status of these singular songs.

Clearly, the music continues to resonate, and likely always will. With these two exceptional efforts to represent her, Griffith gets the attention she so decidedly deserves.

Photo by KMazur/WireImage for American Civil Liberties Union

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