Various Artists “More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith”

Rounder, 2023

A mighty and entirely merited salute to a giant of americana.

Artwork for Nanci Griffith tribute 'More Than A Whisper' on Rounder RecordsNanci Griffith would have turned 70 in July 2023 had she not died in August 2021 after a long illness.  To celebrate her life and work, label Rounder commissioned a tribute comprising 14 songs which were performed by Griffith over her career; mainly from the 1987-1991 period.  Simultaneously, the label is reissuing her first four albums as a box set. The record is accompanied by an essay from Mary Gauthier paying her respects to Griffith as a singer-songwriter and as an inspiration.

Griffith was a major songwriter with tunes covered by many artists but also a great interpreter of songs written by others and both facets of her artistry are present on this collection.

The opening song ‘You Can’t Come Home Again’, addressing affectionately the need to move on from a small town, is performed with a great sense of empathy by Sarah Jarosz who grew up only 30 miles or so from Griffith’s home of Seguin, TX. It’s followed by one of the many highlights of the set, a duet by Kelsey Waldon with John Prine, ‘Love At The Five And Dime’.  Recorded towards the end of 2019 and one of Prine’s last ever recordings, he and Waldon more than do justice to the song with an affectionate and humorous take on Griffith’s tale of a long-term relationship.

Next up Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings run a guitar masterclass behind a bouncy ‘Listen To The Radio’, before Emmylou Harris and an all-star band marshalled by producer Buddy Miller deliver an exceptional ‘Love Wore A Halo (Before The War)’.  Like Harris, both Kathy Mattia and Lyle Lovett were collaborators of Griffith’s and perform an evocative duet on ‘Trouble In The Fields’ which leaves the listener almost tasting the dust and the desperation.

Brandy Clark’s solo interpretation of ‘Gulf Coast Highway’ is backed by some outstanding playing even if the ear memory keeps expecting the Willie Nelson/ Tom Russell duet partner to roll in.  Shawn Colvin turns ‘Outbound Plane’ into a very breathy acoustic instrumental that sounds like it could have been recorded round a campfire.

Ida Mae add a touch of beats and electronica to their husky take on ‘Radio Fragile’.  After which Steve Earle emphasises Griffith’s love of Ireland and Irish music in his version of ‘It’s A Hard Life’.  Earle’s version also captures sense of indignation reflecting the song’s social justice theme.

Aaron Lee Tasjan is up next with a gorgeous piano-led ‘Late Night Grand Hotel’ performed with Patty Griffin in a grand ballad style that could ignite a roomful of cigarette lighters.  Todd Snider’s country rocking ‘Ford Econoline’ which follows reminds the listener of Griffith’s versatility as a writer.

Another piano introduces ‘Banks Of The Pontchartrain’, Griffith’s tale of homecoming sung by Iris Dement.  As it develops, pedal steel and fiddle join creating a sense of the music as a lightly swirling stream carrying the lyric.  Mary Gauthier brings out the wistfulness and longing at the centre of ‘More Than A Whisper’ identifying the uncertainty that can unsettle long distance relationships.

Closing out the collection is a version of Julie Gold’s ‘From A Distance’, which Griffith was the first to record and release, by The War & Treaty.  Michael and Tanya Trotter give the song a powerhouse soul-gospel treatment which lights up the sense of community at the song’s heart.

A good tribute album will remind the listener of the original artist and hearing ‘More Than A Whisper’ took this listener back to the Fleadh at Finsbury Park hearing Griffith live for the first time.  The artists and supporting musicians have given a mighty and entirely merited salute to this giant of americana.

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About Richard Parkinson 115 Articles
London based self-diagnosed music junkie with tastes extending to all points of big tent americana and beyond. Fan of acts and songs rather than genres.
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My first love in Americana/folk. It’s a cliche but she was the soundtrack to my life. I can play one of her songs and I’m immediately back in the past. There’s another tribute album called Trouble in the Fields which is also rather good. This track is marvelous and as far as I’m aware, not on any of her albums.