Category: Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith Covers:
Sonny Curtis, Tom Russell, Ralph McTell, Kate Wolf, Shel Silverstein & more!

October 30th, 2010 — 10:13 pm

Austinite singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith has long teetered on the line between country and folk, successfully selling out mid-size concert halls and finding radioplay on both Country and Folk stations nationwide. She’s well-covered in both arenas, most especially by other crossover artists, her songs finding voice in the hands and mouths of Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Red Molly, Eliza Gilkyson and others.

But it’s telling that Griffith’s own albums and singles have never truly topped the charts in either category. The complicated web of factors which have led to a successful career that nonetheless hides just under the radar of her shooting-star peers includes both personal and professional elements. For fans and newcomers alike, then, today we offer a short overview of Griffith’s life and career, culminating in a well-deserved celebration in song.

Nanci Griffith got her start early, with a professional debut at 14 practically synchronistic with Tom Russell’s “discovery” of her at a Kerrville Folk Fest campfire. But hers was a slow rise to fame. The death of her high school boyfriend just after their high school prom surely took its toll on her early work, even as it inspired an early set of deep and wistful songs of love lost. For a short while, until her career blossomed, she taught kindergarten during the day, and hit the coffeehouses at night, biding her time until the world caught on to her talent and craft.

The national release of Once In A Very Blue Moon on Rounder Records in ’85, and her Grammy nomination for her subsequent release Last of the True Believers, seemed an indicator of star power, and an assurance that the shy, often startlingly powerful singer-songwriter was on the cusp of a life in the spotlight. But the path to fame and fortune is never straight, and life is full of curveballs. Though she finally won her first and only Grammy in 1994, Griffith’s career was slowed again in the late nineties, with two bouts of cancer keeping her off the touring trail for much of the latter part of the decade. And a notorious five-year case of writer’s block in the mid-to-late 2000s prompted no other output than a lush, overly orchestrated album of her father’s favorite torch songs which made hardly a ripple in critical circles.

Today, at 57, Griffith remains well known for several classic folk-radio staples, most especially Love at the Five and Dime, a 1986 signature song that country listeners know best as a #3 hit for Mattea, and From A Distance, a Julie Gold tune which hit #1 in the UK, and would go on to make millions for Bette Midler three years later. But even if she has never truly made more than a short-lived splash for her own performance of her own songs, she continues to merit well-deserved praise, both as a songwriter’s songwriter and interpreter of the songs of others.

Our featured artist’s voice is distinctive, a girlish alto with a gentle twang and strong vibrato that can come off as nasal and pinched even as it gains open-throated force in performance. Because of this, she often gets overlooked in my own listening habits, a lone female voice cast into in the wilderness of Dylan, Richard Thompson, and other artists whose catalogs I’m still coming to late in life as my tastes for vocal deliveries mature past sweetness and light.

And though she has a knack for subtlety when it’s warranted – my most favorite track of hers, in fact, is a solo acoustic version of Love at the Five & Dime recorded live on folk radio towards the end of the millennium – most of her catalog trends towards full-band performance, with her Blue Moon Orchestra ever at her side. It’s high-concept, high-production music, rich with contemporary country instrumentation, occasionally syrupy and poppish – a far cry from the sparse acoustic music we so often favor here – and as such, though we’ve shared a few of her songs here and there throughout our three years on the web, she’s not yet in my top twenty.

But there’s much to recommend deeper reconsideration of Griffith’s music, both to old-timers and to newcomers to the folkworld. Her ability to portray the full range of sad and weary existence just below the poverty line, especially through sweet second-person narratives of love and longing, is well worth celebrating. She is a well-known champion of collaboration, whose albums are peppered with co-write credits and studio sit-ins that show a diversity of influences and a keen eye for talent wherever she might find it, from Darius Rucker, Adam Duritz, Willie Nelson, The Chieftains, and Matthew Ryan to Nashville songwriter-to-the-stars Fred Koller and Country Music Hall of Famer Harlan Howard.

And as Wikipedia notes, she is well known for her ability to interpret the songs of others, especially her peers from both sides of the genre divide. Indeed, more than one artist owes no small part of her fame and fortune to Griffith’s coverage, a list that includes Julie Gold, Pat Alger, and ex-husband Eric Taylor among others. And notably, Griffith’s sole Grammy win, the abovementioned 1994 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, was for Other Voices, Other Rooms, her first of two major cover compilations in tribute to her influences as a songwriter, and a folk staple that deserves prominent placement in any cover lover’s collection.

The more I listen to Griffith’s albums, especially those of the mid to late eighties period, the more I find to like, both in her originals and in her interpretation of the songs of other artists. As this is a coverblog, I’ll leave it to you to follow the thread to her own best work as an undersung singer-songwriter – but before you go off on the winding path, here’s a few favorite coversongs to whet the proverbial whistle.

Like her frequent collaborator, the much more famous Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith is in high demand as a back-up vocalist. Her distinctive vocals have appeared behind and alongside pop, country, and rock “greats” such as Hootie and the Blowfish, Don McLean, Jimmy Buffett, and The Crickets, with folk greats from John Gorka and Cliff Eberhardt to Maura O’Connell, Tom Russell, The Kennedys, and Guy Clarke, and with more countryfolk artists than you or I could count on our hands and feet. Today’s bonus tracks acknowledge her work sharing coverage credits out and about in the singer-songwriter community; for a complete list of her work with other musicians, check out this comprehensive discography.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

1,484 comments » | Nanci Griffith

Rainsongs: Folk Covers for a Stormy Night

June 1st, 2008 — 08:30 am

Written last night in a rainstorm’s aftermath. Posted this morning in bright dappled sunlight.

They say April showers bring May flowers, but I’m not so sure. This evening’s thunderstorm was a big one, and in our end-of-the-wire rural existence, even when the power stays on, thunder knocks our ‘net connectivity for a loop. Meanwhile, now that the trees have finally filled in, our newly-terraformed backyard doesn’t seem to be getting more than a few hours of sun each day; as a consequence, we’re having trouble getting flowers to do much of anything back there.

I’ve got dozens of posts half-formed and half-written, in my mind and on the screen: new and beloved artists to feature, a long-overdue return to our Covered In Kidfolk series, a few great songwriters to rediscover through folk covers. But writing this with a waning battery and no ‘net access means being shut off from my usual research materials. And in the darkness, the sounds of rain pattering against the leaves, punctuated by the intermittent gutterball of thunder, are sweeter than any music I could play – so sweet, it’s hard to think about anything but the world outside.

Instead, I spent the last hour watching the flowerbeds all but wash away, and the muddy water wash the fill from between the flagstones. The rain against the windows turned the yard beyond into an everchanging pointilist dream. And I lost the thread of anything but the present.

Some rainstorms disrupt; some destroy; others help things grow. All involve chaos, in their own way; even if it is only because rain challenges our default image of the world outside as inherently sunny and easily navigable. Here’s a playlist compiled quickly, in the dark, and researched only afterwards: a set of coversong, from the usual wide variety of folk artists and singer-songwriters, that celebrates storms both real and metaphoric.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • Single Song Sunday: Rain and Snow

  • 1,046 comments » | Beth Orton, Cassandra Wilson, Edie Brickell, Grant Lee Phillips, Jimmy LaFave, Joan Baez, Juju Stulbach, M. Ward, Nanci Griffith, Neko Case, Northern Lights, Petty Booka, Rani Arbo

    Caroline Herring, Lantana: covers of Kate Wolf and All The Pretty Little Horses

    February 19th, 2008 — 08:46 pm

    Ever wonder what happens to the artists who win Best New Artist at SXSW? If they’re Caroline Herring, they release a strong second album and then disappear, putting their recording career on hold to focus on marriage and motherhood. Now, after a long hiatus, Herring returns to the forefront of the folkworld with Lantana, a stunning, intimate collection which I’ve already shortlisted as one of my top ten folk/roots/Americana albums of 2008.

    Taking time off for family is an especially risky move in today’s music world, where momentum is king — bloggers, who constantly seek “the next big thing”, share no small responsibility for accelerating this process. But with true genius, Herring turns her time out of the limelight to her advantage, treating it as both subject and sustenance, crafting a strong, polished set of tunes which speak to the the complex balance between traditional family roles and career ambitions which women are asked to internalize in modern society.

    The result is a revelation. Herring’s five years out of the studio only intensified what was already a stellar ability to create and deliver poignant, powerful songs about the world around her in a pure, rich southern-twanged voice reminiscent of some of the the best female folksingers of the past thirty years. The songs on Lantana are simultaneously authentic and new, applying traditional folk storytelling and verse structure to stories of women in today’s rural South who, like Herring herself, have struggled to find their place between the demands of the heart and post-feminist possibility.

    At its best, this album is haunting and beautiful, combining strong songwriting with solid, effective production and stunning vocal delivery. Paper Gown, a murder ballad of the finest order which retells the chilling story of Susan Smith, is especially gorgeous example of Herring’s ability to create song of the first order: catchy, thoughtful, sympathetic, and deep, the song roots itself in your soul, lingering long after the music has faded from the ears. Even in her quieter, more peaceful numbers — including a deceptively simple cover of traditional lullaby All the Pretty Little Horses and a beautiful, wistful version of Kate Wolf’s Midnight on the Water, both of which we feature below — Herring brings a depth of emotion which few contemporaries can muster

    Universally accessible yet rooted deeply in the sounds of Herring’s native south, Lantana is the best singer-songwriter CD I’ve heard in a very long time. Let’s hope it’s the first of many more to come from this up-and-second-coming talent.

    • Caroline Herring, Midnight on the Water (orig. Kate Wolf)
    • Caroline Herring, All The Pretty Little Horses (trad.)

    Lantana doesn’t come out until March 4th, but you want more of Caroline Herring as soon as possible, so pre-order Lantana over at Signature Sounds today. Act now, and you can pick up this magnificent album for under ten dollars — a real steal in today’s market.

    Still not convinced? Check out Paper Gown over at fellow folkblog Here Comes The Flood. Their description of Caroline Herring’s sound as “gothic country” is right on the money.

    Today’s bonus coversongs include another take on Kate Wolf, and a set of songs which used to be my favorite versions of the slave lullaby All The Pretty Little Horses before Caroline Herring hit it on the nose:

    • Nanci Griffith, Across The Great Divide (orig. Kate Wolf)

    • Calexico, All The Pretty Horses (trad.)
    • Shawn Colvin, All The Pretty Li’l Horses (trad.)
    • The Chieftains w/ Patty Griffin, Whole Heap of Little Horses (trad.)

    929 comments » | Calexico, Caroline Herring, Kate Wolf, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, The Chieftains

    Love, Afraid: Coversongs to Prepare the Heart for Valentine’s Day

    February 11th, 2008 — 01:45 am

    I spent all morning trying to script a post about songs which struggle with the infinite and indescribably complex mysteries of love. The idea was to celebrate this complexity, and acknowledge as valid the stuff that often holds us back from putting a name to what we feel, lest we call it wrong and mess everything up.

    But every time I try to put words to love, things fall apart. Love’s like that, I think. I guess that was the point, after all.

    Instead, in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, here’s a mixed bag of folk-tinged coversongs that address the myriad and multiple fears we have about love: naming it, finding it, losing it, and losing ourselves to it.

    May each of us, regardless of our romantic status, find something in the words of these poets and songwriters which speaks to our secret heart – the better to withstand the oversimplified, candy-red onslaught of emotion sure to come by Thursday.

  • Feist, Secret Heart (orig. Ron Sexsmith)
    (live at KEXP; also available on Let It Die)

  • Jose Gonzalez, Love Will Tear Us Apart (orig. Joy Division)
    (from Remain)

  • Marc Cohn, I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You (orig. Tom Waits)
    (from the Prince & Me soundtrack; more Marc here)

  • Emiliana Torrini, I Hope I Don’t Fall In Love With You (ibid.)
    (from Merman)

  • Aimee Mann, The Scientist (orig. Coldplay)
    (live; from the Lost In Space Special Edition)

  • Evan Rachel Wood, If I Fell (orig. Beatles)
    (from the Across the Universe soundtrack; Evan’s not a recording artist, but her movies rock)

  • Jonatha Brooke, God Only Knows (orig. The Beach Boys)
    (from Back In The Circus)

  • Peter Malick Group w/ Norah Jones, Heart of Mine (orig. Bob Dylan)
    (from New York City)

  • Amy Winehouse, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (Goffin/King)
    (from the Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason soundtrack; more Amy everywhere but the Grammys)
    Link removed due to hotlinking. Please stop stealing my links — I pay for my bandwidth!

  • Nanci Griffith, Are You Tired Of Me My Darling (Cook/Roland)
    (from Other Voices, Other Rooms)

  • Eva Cassidy, If I Give You My Heart (orig. Doris Day)
    (live 1994 bootleg; more Eva here)

  • Evan Dando, How Will I Know (orig. Whitney Houston)
    (live, unknown origin; more Evan here)

    As always, all artist and album links above go to artist websites and stores, the better to show our love for the folks who speak for us when we run out of words.

    Hoping for some more traditional Valentine’s Day fare? Never fear: we’ll back Wednesday with a short, sweet romantic soundtrack for the lucky ones.

  • 870 comments » | Aimee Mann, Amy Winehouse, Emiliana Torrini, Eva Cassidy, Evan Dando, Evan Rachel Wood, Feist, Jonatha Brooke, Jose Gonzalez, Marc Cohn, Nanci Griffith, Norah Jones, Peter Malick, Valentines Day Coverfolk

    (Re)Covered IV: More Covers of and from Sam Amidon, Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson, and House Carpenter

    February 8th, 2008 — 02:54 pm

    Thanks to email submissions, new releases and discoveries, and a newly-purchased CD repair kit, it’s time for yet another edition of (Re)Covered, a monthly feature here on Cover Lay Down in which we recover a few songs that dropped through the cracks just a little too late to make it into the posts where they belonged.

    I saw Lucy Kaplansky last month at the UnCommon Coffeehouse with my father; as always, she turned in a wonderful, intimate set, including great covers of The Beatles’ Hey Jude, Robin Batteau’s Guinevere, Ron Sexsmith’s Speaking with the Angel, and my own request: Cowboy Singer, a Dave Carter tune which she seemed genuinely pleased to play. If you ever get a chance to see Lucy, drop everything and go.

    We covered the works of Lucy Kaplansky in our first month here at Cover Lay Down, and posted Cowboy Singer last week in our feature on folk covers of cowboy songs. But I just can’t get enough of this sweet-voiced urbanite. So here’s Guinevere, which Lucy cites as her most requested song, plus a gorgeous Billy Joel lullaby from 2007 release Down at the Sea Hotel, a mostly-stellar album of dreamy kidsong covers from the Red House Records stable.

  • Lucy Kaplansky, Goodnight, My Angel (orig. Billy Joel)
  • Lucy Kaplansky, Guinevere (orig. Robin Batteau)

    Oh, and a bonus cover of Nanci Griffith’s Midnight in Missoula, one of two great Eliza Gilkyson cuts from that same kids album. We did a feature on Eliza Gilkyson’s coverwork a long while back, too. Worth revisiting.

  • Eliza Gilkyson, Midnight in Missoula (orig. Nanci Griffith)

    Since our Single Song Sunday megapost on House Carpenter, a couple of especially solid folkversions came in from the ether. Thanks to my readers for Dylan and live Aussie slidemaster Jeff Lang takes on this truly traditional English country ballad. The Pentangle version, off 1969 release Basket of Light, holds truer to the “original” lyrics than most modern covers but layers those lyrics over a truly psychadelic sixties instrumentation; the CD is out of print, so this cut comes to us courtesy of our local library system.

  • Bob Dylan, House Carpenter (trad.)
  • Jeff Lang, House Carpenter (ibid.)
  • Pentangle, House Carpenter (ibid.)

    And speaking of tradfolk: Sam Amidon‘s incredible new album All Is Well, which I wrote about several months ago in our post on Sam Amidon’s coversong career, finally dropped earlier this week. Here’s hoping the slight blogbuzz that accompanied the original hint of this moody all-tradsong indiefolk release turns into a mighty roar as it finally comes to the air. These two further cuts off the upcoming album, plus Sam’s own video for Saro, should whet your appetite enough to get in on ordering All Is Well.

  • Sam Amidon, Wild Bill Jones (trad.)
  • Sam Amidon, Wedding Dress (trad.)

  • VIDEO: Sam Amidon, Saro

    As always, links above and in the original posts whisk you off to label- and musician-preferred purchase sites. Support artists best by buying direct: it’s just that simple.

  • 750 comments » | (Re)Covered, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Eliza Gilkyson, Jeff Lang, Lucy Kaplansky, Nanci Griffith, Pentangle, Robin Batteau, Sam Amidon

    Folkcovers For A Winter’s Night: Snowsongs, sleigh rides, and other nondenominational carols

    December 5th, 2007 — 01:49 am

    Raising Jewnitarian children means working hard to balance the outer culture’s overabundance of Christmas music with alternative seasonal sounds. This is sometimes harder than it sounds, especially when it comes to covers. Though there have been a few originals over the years that would fit the category, most notably a recent spate of Hannukah music from the fringes of the indierock world, it’s harder for these songs to enter the canon, driven as it is by the tick and tinsel of gift-giving and public holiday display in a predominantly Christian culture.

    In some ways, it’s surprising, given the national push towards multiculturalism over the past decades, that there aren’t more songs of not-just-Christmas. There are plenty of modern, entirely secular songs about Christmastime, it’s true — common themes here might include “I miss you more this time of year”, “I want stuff”, and, more recently, “crass commercialism is getting kind of evil, isn’t it?” But ultimately, these songs are still about Christmas. After all, it’s not like I miss people more this time of year just because it’s cold.

    Still, there’s a small, stellar selection of nonedenominational songs that have crept into the songbook over the years, many lying unnoticed among paeans to Christmas trees, Jesus, and holiday celebration. And a few great, well-covered songs out there which are appropriate for a snowy December day, even if they’d never make it on a holiday sampler.

    Today, as an antidote to the already-overfamiliar Christmasmusic that fills ears and airwaves this time of year, a few select songs of solstice, snow, winter, and other alt-seasonal delights from the world of folk covermusic. Plus the usual bonus covers, just for kicks.

    • Erica Wheeler, Song For A Winter’s Night (orig. Gordon Lightfoot)
    • Quartette, Song For A Winter’s Night (ibid.)
        Gordon Lightfoot’s mellow Song For A Winter’s Night fits the folk mindset perfectly: the hearth, the snow, the story of us in a house. A spare cover from Erica Wheeler and the rich harmonies of Canadian folk supergroup Quartette do it justice, twice over.

    • Robert Earl Keen, Snowin’ On Raton (orig. Townes Van Zandt)
    • Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem, Snowbird (orig. Gene McLellan)
        The cover of snow becomes a metaphor of darkness and loss in Robert Earl Keen‘s latenight honkytonk cover of Snowin’ on Raton, and a mantle in Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem‘s light, swinging version of Elvis/Anne Murray classic Snowbird.

    • Elizabeth Mitchell, Jingle Bells
    • Sufjan Stevens, Jingle Bells
    • The Roches, Jingle Bells

      As always, all artist links above go to artist/label storefronts — the best way to give artists the most bang for their buck. And remember, kids: music is a present that fits any occasion, any season, any connection between you and your family and friends, no matter what you celebrate.

      Today’s bonus coversongs:

    • Jill Sobule, Merry Christmas From The Family (orig. Robert Earl Keen)
        Okay, so it’s not nondenominational. Folkpopstar (and Jew) Jill Sobule covers this drunken anti-spiritual paean to dysfunction with such aplomb, it transcends the holiday setting.

    • Nanci Griffith, Ten Degrees and Getting Colder (orig. Gordon Lightfoot)
        This one’s not technically about winter, just cold. Lightfoot was Canadian. I guess it gets chilly up there. From coveralbum Other Voices, Other Rooms.

    • The Roches, Winter Wonderland
    • The Roches, Frosty The Snowman
        Two more familiar, playful, tongue-in-cheek “traditional” songs of snow from The Roches’ mostly-Christmas album We Three Kings.

      Haven’t had enough of Christmas coverfolk? Never fear! Stay tuned over the next few weeks for a plethora of acoustic holiday cheer still to come!

    169 comments » | Elizabeth Mitchell, Erica Wheeler, Holiday Coverfolk, Jill Sobule, Nanci Griffith, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Robert Earl Keen, Sufjan Stevens, The Roches