There are artists who you know you ought to like but it’s hard to find the connection to their music, or they just pass you by for some reason. For me Nanci Griffith fell into that category for a long time, right up until her passing in 2021 in fact. For me, ‘From A Distance’, was a song that I really didn’t like. Probably not helped by hearing some of the easy listening versions before I heard Griffith’s. Somehow I never found my way back to her music despite a couple of goes at listening to her over the years.
When her death was announced a friend who had been a fan of hers from the eighties talked about what Griffith’s music had meant to her. That and reading Martin Johnon’s obituary at AUK was enough to make me have another listen.
I’m still not keen on ‘From a Distance’. In fact there are still albums of hers that don’t really click. I think it’s the way her voice is recorded sometimes, it can come across as quite harsh, and while this works out just fine live, it doesn’t always work in the studio. ‘One Fair Summer Evening’ is the album I have played most often, and I have just found her other official live album ‘Winter Marquee’.
I think her voice matured well, and her singing on later albums just feels more assured. Of her earlier albums the place I would suggest starting is ‘The Last of the True Believers’, which has some great writing and a more sympathetic production than the albums for MCA that followed it.
Of her later studio albums ‘Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful)‘ the sequel to her earlier covers album ‘Other Voices Other Rooms’ is one of her highlights. It may be that she does two of my favourite songs particularly well, Richard Thompson’s ‘Wall Of Death’ and ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ or it may be the cast list of players who performed on the album, but this is one of her best recorded performances.
The albums that followed from ‘The Dust Bowl Symphony’ onwards were patchy to at best in my view. ‘Ruby’s Torch’, which found her backed by strings was an interesting experiment and certainly way better than the previous few records. Jimmy Webb’s ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ is particularly effective. Her last two studio albums, ‘The Loving Kind’ and particularly ‘Intersection’ which was recorded in her home studio in Nashville are both worth seeking out. Get the bonus track version of ‘The Loving Kind’ as the extra song ‘Love is Love is Love’ is a career highlight and deserves better than being buried. ‘Intersection’ includes another personal favourite ‘Hell No (I’m Not Alright)’ .
My friend saw her perform on her last UK tour in Bristol, when she was clearly ill and unable to complete the Bristol show, and she retired from the music world in 2013.
I’m sorry I never got to see her live and that it took her passing to wake me up to her music/ But I’ve found her now and while she may never displace long time favourites there are 3 or 4 of her albums that I will play regularly now I’ve found them. She has been poorly served by her record companies, with most ‘best ofs’ focusing on her early and MCA years which I don’t think were her best. Nanci Griffith is another artist who would benefit from a thoughtfully compiled big box set. I’d buy it.
Your article makes me think I should listen to Joni Mitchell again – I can think of plenty of reasons why I should like her but the one that trumps them all is that I don’t!
A song worth seeking is Cradle of the Interstate. Not on any of her albums but from the soundtrack of a film. Very evocative.