April 23, 2008
The eighties brought a mini-folk revival to Music Row, with coffeehouse artists scoring major label deals. Of this group, only Mary Chapin Carpenter went on to mainstream country success, but one of the earliest of the wave made inroads into the Americana scene before it even had that name.
Nanci Griffith called her unique fusion of country and folk music “folkabilly.” Even when she was still teaching kindergarten in the seventies, she was playing Texas honky-tonks at night. She often quipped that controlling a group of kindergarten students and drunken hillbillies required the same skills. Pure folkie that she was, she soon signed a record deal with a local label.
Her debut album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, was released in 1978 on B. F. Deal records, which was followed by another indie release, Poet in My Window, in 1982. That Featherbed Records release caught the eye of Philo Records, a subsidiary of Rounder. They signed her up, and she released her first great album, Once in a Very Blue Moon, in 1984. She first truly establishes her sound on this disc, which she solidifies on the stellar 1986 The Last of the True Believers, which would be a big turning point in her career.
A young country artist named Kathy Mattea was still looking for a hit when she was preparing her third album, and she found a big one when she covered Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime” from the Believers album. Not only did Mattea break through, Griffith caught the ear of a young Tony Brown, who signed her to a major-label deal with MCA.
What followed was astounding critical success, but no luck at country radio. MCA President Jimmy Bowen was not a fan of Griffith, finding her “too country”, and her literate lyrics were an awkward fit when played next to the latest Exile hit. However, her MCA debut Lone Star State of Mind, introduced her to an international audience. Her version of “From a Distance” topped the charts in Ireland, and would later be covered by Mattea and by Bette Midler, the latter of which won a Grammy for her pop rendition of it.
Griffith transitioned from the Nashville division of MCA to the pop wing, but her presence remained in the genre. In 1992, Suzy Bogguss had her first top ten hit with the Griffith tune “Outbound Plane.” The following year, Mattea had a minor hit with “Listen to the Radio”, taken from Griffith’s Storms album. Emmylou Harris & The Nash Ramblers included her composition “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” on their well-received At the Ryman album.
Amazingly, the songwriter would have her greatest success with a covers album. The 1993 Other Voices, Other Rooms found her recording songs by her favorite writers. She had a popular video hit with her take on John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, which featured vocal support from Prine himself. The project won Griffith the 1994 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
In recent years, Griffith has continued to tour and to record, with her most popular work including the 1994 album Flyer and a follow-up covers album, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful) in 1998. In 2003, The Complete MCA Recordings was released, which documents her entire run with the label, including those first two country albums and the following two pop excursions. She is touring England and Ireland this fall, where she is viewed not only as a country artist, but as one of the most popular of the past two decades on the other side of the Atlantic.
- “Lone Star State of Mind”, 1987
- “I Knew Love”, 1988
- “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, 1993
- Once in a Very Blue Moon (1984)
- The Last of the True Believers (1986)
- Other Voices, Other Rooms (1993)
- Flyer (1994)
- Grammy: Best Contemporary Folk Album – Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1994