Classic Americana Albums: Nanci Griffith “Other Voices / Other Rooms”

Elektra, 1993

A seamless blend of traditional, folk and country songs with a stellar supporting cast

By 1993 Nanci Griffith had released 9 studio albums, moved from MCA records to Elektra Records and after establishing herself as a well-respected singer-songwriter she decided to record some of her favourite songs that greatly influenced her. ‘Other Voices / Other Rooms’, an album of 17 songs followed which included songwriters of distinction such as Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, and John Prine just to name but a few.

The musician personnel itself reads like the cream of americana circa 1993 with guest appearances from Iris DeMent, Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan, Odetta, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, and around twenty more of similar distinction. Named after a novel by Truman Capote (she would name ‘Clock with No Hands’ after another book written by Carson McCullers) the album won the 1994 Grammy Award for ‘Best Contemporary Folk Album’ with producer Jim Rooney also winning the producers award.

Nanci has the ability to make these songs her own despite the abundance of guest musicians involved and source of material ranging from 60’s folk, and country roots. A case in point is her take on the Van Zandt song ‘Tecumseh Valley’ which Townes thought was the best cover of any of his songs. She inhabits the character of ‘Carolina’ in the song, as if it’s autobiographical, displaying the loneliness and fragile persona and hurt felt. The loneliness theme is revisited in the much loved John Prine song ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’, here sang as a duet by the two of them.

One thing that stands out on this album is how much Nanci’s voice blends so well with other female singers on it.  ‘Are You Tired of Me Darling?’, a song first written in 1877 and recorded by The Carter Family (it had Chet Atkins on it then and he returns for this recording) has a three-way harmony that includes Iris DeMent and Emmylou Harris – it’s stunning. Ralph McTell’s song ‘From Clare to Here’ sounds like a long-lost Irish traditional classic with harmony vocals shared by Pete Cummings from the Fleadh Cowboys.

The whole album was a process of passing the music on to new ears. Unfamiliar songs by Gordon Lightfoot, Vince Bell, and Tom Paxton sparkle as bright diamonds among the familiar ‘Spanish Boots of Leather’ and ‘Wimoweh’ (yes that “In the jungle, the mighty jungle” song that was adapted to become a love song). Here it is restored back to Pete Seeger’s South African protest song of 1948. Odetta makes an appearance on this, and reminded the players at the recording session that this was a song about “People’s Freedom”.

So good was the reception to the album that a kind of reprise was recorded and released in 1998 called ‘Other Voices. Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful)‘ which is just as good and follows the same template. There is a book that was released by Amber Waves in the US in 1998 that gives a fascinating behind the scenes picture of both albums – This is called ‘Other Voices – a Personal History of Folk Music’ written by Nanci Griffith and Joe Jackson and there’s an equally fascinating documentary on YouTube too here.

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