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Music Preview: Nanci Griffith is folk-country legend in the making

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

There are few contemporary musicians who have had more collaborators than folk diva Nanci Griffith. Between her two "Other Voices" compilations alone, she's worked with the A-list from the folk and country scenes, giants the likes of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Steve Earle and Richard Thompson. She's also crossed over into the modern rock world, mixing with guys from U2, R.E.M. and Counting Crows.

 
 
Nanci Griffith


With: Dar Williams

Where: Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

When: 7 tonight.

Tickets: Sold out.

   
 

On her latest release, the stunning "Dust Bowl Symphony," Griffith has the full force of the London Symphony Orchestra behind her. As wondrous as its contribution is, it's still the smaller pleasures that bring the rewards -- the girlish way Griffith sings about "making the Woolworth counter shine" on "Love at the Five and Dime" or the way she so hopefully drawls the words "sweat and tears" on the farmer's lament, "Trouble in the Fields."

Griffith's formidable talents -- her gorgeous soprano, her sensitive portraits of rural life and her appreciation of other great songwriters -- are ones that have yet to be enjoyed in the American mainstream.

But that's OK with the 46-year-old singer from West Texas, who performs a sold-out concert tonight at Carnegie Music Hall, as part of the celebration of WYEP's 25th anniversary. At this point, she's more on track to be a legend than a superstar.

"I wouldn't trade this career for anything," she says in that sweet, shy voice. "Because I've never been an overnight success, I've never had to compete with a hit. And I've been so fortunate that my songs have been covered by such great singers. And I don't have to play that song if I don't feel like playing it. It's Kathy Mattea's song or it's Emmylou Harris' song or it's Suzy Boggus' songs. It's been a great career. I've been able to musically run amok for years because I'm not in competition with my last album."

Perhaps not in sales, but the standard for a Nanci Griffith album has become pretty high. Since debuting in the late '70s, the former school teacher dubbed by Rolling Stone as the "Queen of folkabilly," has released more than a dozen studio records, one more acclaimed than the last. She's won a Grammy Award and been nominated for four others.

But more importantly, she's gained the respect of both her folk-country peers and the pioneers that came before her. On the ambitious "Other Voices, Other Rooms" and "Other Voices, Too" records, she paid tribute to their work.

"I hope it brought a remembrance to people that Pete Seeger is truly the father of folk music for this century, and he'll carry on into the next century," she says. "At 82, he's still going strong and brought us some of our greatest folk anthems. And that Odetta is still moving hearts and changing minds and innovating every day of her life. And that Dave Van Ronk is one of the still greatest purveyors of blues this era ever had. I hope that it turned on a lot of people to their music. If it brought a lot of awareness to some of those writers, it served its purpose."

For "The Dust Bowl Symphony," she honors her own body of work, by reawakening the best of her old songs with the warmth of an orchestra and a more mature voice. It's turned out to be her favorite record of all.

"It's painful to go back and revisit things occasionally," she says. "But for me, it was a great experience. I had been wanting to capture what we had been doing with different symphony companies on record for a long time. We did it in four days at Abby Road studios. I was actually being conducted right along with them. I've had little string arrangements before, but this was the first time it was such a massive endeavor."

Griffith added a new song, "1937 Pre-War Kimball," and turned one of her best-loved pieces, "Love at the Five and Dime," into something even more glorious with Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish. The two singers, who would seem to be of different worlds, formed a friendship after Rucker became a regular at her shows.

"Darius and the guys in the band used to come and hear us play whenever they were close to where we were," she says. "Darius and I have remained great friends, and he just knows everything that I've written. So one great thing about when we play together, we never have to rehearse."

The record's other duet was no less special, as it paired Griffith with Sonny Curtis of the Crickets on "Tell Me How," one of the last songs that Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison wrote together. Singing with Curtis brought Griffith a little closer to her childhood dream of being a Cricket.

"My first remembrance of television is the age of 4," she says, "my parents loading up everybody in the car and going to my grandparents' house, 'cause we didn't have a television to watch 'the boys' on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.' In West Texas, it was few and far between that such great things happened to 'the boys.' "

Griffith says that "everyone in the studio was in tears, just the thought of bringing the song to people after all these years."

Griffith has other reasons to celebrate "The Dust Bowl Symphony," as it followed the hardest stretch of her life. Four years ago, she was faced with an early detection of breast cancer. After it was treated, she still wasn't feeling right and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

"Nothing can knock you down like thyroid," she says. "It did slow me down for about a year and a half. That's been a difficult thing to get over, but I'm clear now and doing very well."

Tonight, she'll play her last show of the 1900s with her own Blue Moon Orchestra, a group that isn't nearly as big as it sounds. If you don't have tickets, don't despair. Griffith plans to return as part of the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops series next year.

She also will be going back to the role of Nanci Griffith, the songwriter, sometime soon. She expects any future records to be received by the general public much like their predecessors.

"There's this preconceived idea that whatever it is I do, whether it influences a new thing that comes along or not, whatever it is, that Nanci Griffith is going to be very eclectic and commercially inaccessible. So even if I decided that I would do an entire album of Cowsills songs and Partridge Family songs, it wouldn't matter. I've been very happy where I am, and I wouldn't want to change."



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