anci Griffith is a poet of the highest caliber. It’s an added benefit that she puts her poetry to beautiful music and sings it with an angel’s voice.
I first heard that voice in 1989, when my sister suggested I listen to “More Than A Whisper” from Nanci’s 1986 album “Last Of The True Believers.” I immediately thought of James Taylor – the delicate style of guitar picking, the flow of the melody, the interplay between vocals and guitar. Like many of her tunes, “More Than A Whisper” is a cry for a little reason and sense in the usually irrational arena of love.
And like many of her finest tunes, “More Than A Whisper” was included in her first live album, “One Fair Summer Evening.” Recorded at the Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant on two summer evenings in 1988, the songs are presented in their purest form; simple acoustic numbers, standing on their beautiful melodies and touching lyrics rather than fancy instrumentation. It’s easy to forget, listening to the richness of each song, that the only instruments played are Nanci’s guitar, long-time compatriot James Hooker’s keyboards, and Denny Bixby’s bass.
While many live albums eliminate the between-song patter, part of the appeal of “One Fair Summer Evening” is Nanci’s commentary; why songs were written, who they’re about, and in one case, what the little ‘ding’ is during the quiet instrumental sections. Her stories of great-aunts and uncles, her love for Ireland, and the loves and lives of her own loved ones, all flow naturally between and around the songs chronicling those same events.
Two new songs were introduced on the album. “Deadwood, South Dakota” is a quietly biting commentary on the plight of native Americans, told through the events in a small-town drug store when news arrives that Crazy Horse, enemy of the people, has been killed. The sarcasm of the chorus is atypical of Griffith’s lyrics, but apropos to the poignant tone of the track:
And the gold she lay cold in their pockets And the sun she sets down on the trees And they thank the Lord for the land that they live in Where the white man does as he pleases
The second of the new tunes, “I Would Bring You Ireland”, is a ‘thank you’ to the people of Ireland. Nanci explains that the Irish have always made her feel especially welcome, and the song is a glowing portrait of a place she obviously loves.
- “Love At The Five And Dime”, a wonderful story of enduring love in everyday life, and featuring the ‘ding’ of the elevator bell in a Woolworths’ store. Nanci opens this one with her fond and funny memories associated with Woolworth stores. She perfectly describes something I remember well: the smell of a Woolworth’s store is the smell of “chewing gum and popcorn rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-soled shoe.”
- “Trouble In The Fields”, a story inspired by Griffith’s great-uncles and aunts who farmed the land, enjoying good times and enduring bad. The lyrics use the hardships and joys of farming as an analogy to the hardships and joys of relationships. Acknowledging the hard work necessary to make anything grow, the chorus closes
Come harvest time we'll work it out There's still a lotta love, here in these troubled fields
My next Nanci Griffith album is going to be her 1993 release “Other Voices, Other Rooms“, a tribute to the people whose music influenced her. Not only does she cover her benefactor’s tunes, the list of guest artists read like a “Who’s Who” of modern folk and country: Chet Atkins, Bob Dylan, Bela Fleck, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, Leo Kottke, Alison Krause, Odetta, John Prine, Amy Ray, and Emily Saliers.
Sometime soon I’ll tell you all about Nanci’s fantastic 1994 album “Flyer“, another of my favorites.