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Remembering Nanci Griffith

September 26, 2023 10:39 am GMT

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From a distance, it might look like there’s been a sudden impetus to mark the passing of Nanci Griffith with an all-star tribute album, released on what would’ve been her 70th birthday. However, this richly textured record is not only a bit of a treat, but turns out to have been in the works for over four years.

Finally coming to fruition, More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith, features fans, friends and collaborators interpreting some of Griffith’s most beloved songs. It’s quite a line-up, including Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, Shawn Colvin, John Prine and Kelsey Waldon, Sarah Jarosz, Steve Earle, and Mary Gauthier.

Recorded in studios across America over several years, the tribute album also includes Brandy Clark, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Iris DeMent, Todd Snider and Aaron Lee Tasjan, while Ida Mae and The War and Treaty are on the expanded versions of the album.

Holler got the story directly from those who made it happen – not just the artists, but also her manager and producer.

The Big Idea

Let’s start at the very beginning. The idea came from Ken Levitan, Nanci Griffith’s longtime manager, who helped shape her career. Levitan’s company now reps the likes of the Kings of Leon, and when he dreamed up the album project, he went straight to John Strohm at Rounder/ Concord Records – who immediately liked the idea – and they agreed to co-produce the album, crucially with proceeds going to Cumberland Heights, a rehab centre that has helped so many.

Jim Rooney, who produced Nanci Griffith’s classic albums, including Once In A Very Blue Moon and Last of the True Believers, takes up the story. He explains that in the last few years of her life she was beset with various ailments and stopped performing – and at this point Levitan and Kathi Whitley, who had worked with Nanci as her personal assistant, got in touch with Rooney to explore the idea of doing a tribute album, with other performers singing her songs.

Strohm was on board, and Levitan next got Emmylou Harris to agree. Meanwhile Rooney spoke to Iris DeMent and John Prine. “Nanci had been very supportive of Iris when she was starting out” Rooney shared. “Nanci and John had done many shows together over the years, and Nanci had done a definitive version of his ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’ on her Grammy-winning album we made together, Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Iris chose to cover ‘Banks of the Ponchartrain’ and John decided to do ‘Love at the Five & Dime’ with Kelsey Waldon, a young Kentucky singer who he’d signed to Oh Boy Records.

They recorded these songs at Jack Clement's former studio, The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa. There Rooney had not only produced two Griffith albums, but also made John Prine’s early Oh Boy albums Aimless Love and German Afternoons, plus Iris DeMent’s first two records Infamous Angel and My Life. It’s rather an understatement to hear Rooney say: “There was a lot of history there.”

Rooney also got in touch with Lyle Lovett, who he’d initially met when Griffith brought him to sing on the first two albums they did together. Lovett wanted to do ‘Trouble in the Fields’ and Rooney suggested Kathy Mattea sing it with him, as she’d had great success covering ‘Love at the Five & Dime’ and ‘Goin' Gone,’ which she’d heard on the Last of the True Believers album. Lovett says of Griffith: “She always encouraged me. My career and life wouldn’t be the same without her.”

“Here again,’ says Rooney, “there was a lot of history. As it turned out, this was John Prine's last studio recording, as COVID took him four months later. Nanci herself passed away before the album was finished, though she had heard the tracks I did and was pleased with them. It says volumes about her songs that so many wonderful artists wanted to participate in this project, and, hopefully, it will lead new listeners to want to hear the originals as Nanci did them.”

In parallel, singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier was asked if she’d join the project and agreed to record a favourite song. Then John Strohm asked if she’d also write the liner notes. “I was honoured and very much put my heart into that. I deeply loved Nanci's work, and was very influenced by what she did.”

Gauthier kept saying: “You need to get this out, so she can enjoy us appreciating her while she's here. I can't make a record company do anything and I wish she would’ve seen it. It was in the works for years. But she did hear some of it.”

Fellow artist Aaron Lee Tasjan says he was also approached by Strohm to cover one of Griffith’s songs. “I was honoured he would trust me with such an important and sensitive song, ‘Late Night Grande Hotel’.” Patty Griffin came in to sing harmony with him, and he says: “That was a dream come true for me. If I had to pick a favourite modern vocalist, it would be Patty.”

Discovery

Everyone’s journey to discovering Nanci Griffith has been different. Mary Gauthier says she found her through her first record, There's a Light Beyond These Woods. “I fell in love with it 40 years ago. She really spoke to me. I found something in her work that I got excited about from the beginning.” Her eyes light up when she follows this up by admitting that when she moved to Nashville and got her own record deal, she sought out the opportunity to open for Griffith. And she did.

Crucially, Gauthier loved the sound of southern folk music: “Although I didn't know what to call it then, it was just new to my ears. I was also passionate about John Prine, and I think of her and John as two southerners who wrote folk songs. They were pioneers in this thing we now call Americana.” She adds, “It wasn't the mama, the dog and the truck kind of country. It was folk music. What they were doing was very southern, but also intelligent. And it spoke to me and gave me a path to walk down when I became a songwriter.”

Ken Levitan first heard Griffith in a small club in Nashville in 1985, right after Once In a Very Blue Moon was released, and he ended up managing her until 1996. Levitan says: “I found her to be a great storyteller with amazing songs that she’d written – and a sense of finding really special songs that other people had written and making them her own.”

Aaron Lee Tasjan says he honestly can't recall the first time he encountered her music. “It just feels to me like it was always there, which to me is a testament to its timelessness. Nanci's music has been a catalyst for so many good things in my life, including my friendships with both Elizabeth Cook and Doug Lancio.” So when he got the chance to record ‘Late Night Grande Hotel’ for this project it was the first opportunity he’d ever had to make music with Lancio, as a result of his friend Kathi Whitley suggesting it and then getting the two of them together.

Griffith’s producer Jim Rooney came across her a little earlier. Back in 1983 he’d gone out to hear singer-songwriter Richard Dobson, who’d come up to Nashville from Texas, much like Townes Van Zandt, Guy and Susannah Clark and Rodney Crowell. At the end of the night he was asked if he’d help Dobson make a record, and having liked what he heard, he found a time when the studio was free.

He’d also heard an Irish guitar player, Phillip Donnelly, and had a hunch his style would work with Dobson, and they recorded the entire album in a weekend and mixed it in a couple of days. To cut to the chase, Dobson invited Rooney to his place in the country for a barbecue, where he met another of his friends from Texas, Nanci Griffith.

“I’d never heard of her,” says Rooney, “but Richard said she was a good writer and singer. After a while we got the guitars out and started swapping songs. He was right, and she was a good guitar player to boot. She told me how much she liked Richard’s record, especially ‘The Ballad of Robin Wintersmith,’ and asked if I’d help her make an album.”

She sent him two acoustic folk albums she’d made in Texas and he listened, then quizzed her: “What’s wrong with what you’re doing? What do you need me for?” She told him she wanted a fuller sound, with drums, with Phillip Donnelly, plus Lloyd Green on steel and dobro. “There was nothing vague about Nanci,” says Rooney. “She had definite ideas and thought I was the one to help her fulfil them.”

Perfect Match

For this tribute record, pairing the right artists with the right songs was crucial. The duet from Lovett and Mattea on ‘Trouble in the Fields’ is a perfect match. As is ‘Love at the Five & Dime’ from John Prine and young Kelsey Waldon. You’d be equally hard pressed to find fault with ‘Love Wore a Halo (Back Before the War)’ in the cover version by Griffith’s old friend, Emmylou Harris – or Steve Earle’s stark, heartfelt rendition of ‘It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go’.

‘Late Night Grande Hotel’ was chosen by Aaron Lee Tasjan after singing harmony on it when he was playing in Elizabeth Cook's band. “She's the one who really put it in my head and helped me realise what a tremendous song it is.” He’s already sung it a few times in his own sets, and adds: “I feel every note she sings. The pure emotion in her voice and words. Obviously, I don't know her original intention for her songs, but I relate to them as though she's singing about me. I think that's really the main reason I had the confidence to try one of her songs was how personally connected I felt to her words. I'm certainly nowhere near the singer she was.”

Similarly, Sarah Jarosz got involved, covering ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’, saying, “Nanci’s songs have certainly been very inspirational to me over the years.”

For Mary Gauthier it was a hard choice pinning down which song to cover. “I would’ve loved to have sung so many Nanci songs. ‘Ford Econoline’, ‘Banks of the Pontchartrain’, ‘There's a Light Beyond These Woods’. The list goes on. But ‘More Than a Whisper’ [which she sings here] spoke to me about love and longing. She really was articulate in that arena. Loneliness. She spoke to my heart and I love the song, although I had a hard time deciding which song. I could make my own personal tribute record to Nanci Griffith and not be able to easily choose the 10 songs!”

The resulting album might seem like tribute enough for the unique Nanci Griffith, but her true believers will also be stoked to see that her back catalogue has also been re-released on vinyl. “It’s a big deal,’ says Gauthier, “and I’m excited to see it happen.”

Legacy

Longtime fans will embrace these new versions of Nanci Griffith classics, and there’s a hope that her legacy will not only live on through existing devotees, but new followers who hear either the tribute album or the re-released albums. Jim Rooney has no doubt about her place in music history, saying, “Nanci was a complete artist with a depth and range that few could equal. And she was just getting started…”

Mary Gauthier echoes this, and adds that it’s important we give her credit for being a pioneer in her genre. “I don't know if until now she's had the proper nod she deserves. So this is a nod to her life's work, a show of respect, and an acknowledgement of her as a pioneer in an art form – Americana – that was just becoming understood and invented. She was also a folk singer and country singer – and I think first and foremost, she’d want to be known as a writer. And she was a brilliant writer. She deserves her own head on Mount Rushmore.”

To underline this legacy, even Taylor Swift says: “Nanci was as good, if not better, than any singers of her generation.” Again Gauthier concurs this, observing, “There's a long list of women singer songwriters coming up through Nashville – and they are walking down the trail that Nanci blazed.”

More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith is out now via Rounder Records / Craft Recordings. For more on Nanci Griffith, see below:

Written by Helen Jerome
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