Nanci Griffith: Tribute Album Honors a Gentle Spirit and Powerful Talent

Nanci Griffith at the BBC Radio Folk Awards in 2010 (Wikipedia)

Part of Iowa’s claim to musical fame is that the town of Shenandoah was the boyhood home of the Everly Brothers. The legendary pioneer rock ’n’ rollers had a morning radio show for farmers and small-town folk that was broadcast in the early morning until the brothers moved to Nashville in 1953 and became big stars. The duo had their ups and downs during the 1960s before acrimoniously splitting up at a California concert in 1973.

However, the chemistry between the brothers remained strong. Three years after a reunion concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1983, the siblings found themselves back in Shenandoah, where they were honored by their hometown with a parade and a street named in their honor. The festivities culminated in a full-length concert at the end of the night. Opening the concert was a girl from rural Texas who had two records out on a small label. This was Nanci Griffith’s first documented show in Iowa. The Everlys were the stars of the night in what was probably the biggest show the town had ever seen. But Griffith also created a sizable buzz. I know, I was there!

Despite a wonderful performance by the brothers and the drama of a tornado watch that night, Griffith charmed the audience with her dulcet tones, literate lyrics, and amiable presence. While quiet warm-up acts are usually ignored by those waiting for the headliners, Griffith managed to capture and fascinate those in attendance. She made a lot of fans that night, including me. I went out and bought all of her available records when I got home.

Nanci Griffith at the Cambridge Festival in 2007 (Wikipedia)

Griffith went on to have an illustrious career. She released almost two dozen records and performed around the world, including many times in Iowa over the years. She won a Grammy for her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms and received many other awards, including the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award (2008) and the Lifetime Achievement Award at BBC Radio 2 Folk (2010). She died of natural causes in Nashville on August 13, 2021. Coincidentally, Don Everly died of natural causes in Nashville about a week later.

Griffith is still fondly remembered as a talented musician who had a strong, positive influence on the culture. Her distinct style encompassed everything from folk to rockabilly to country to pop to classical. She recorded albums with everyone from Buddy Holly’s Crickets to the seminal Irish band the Chieftains, as well as individual tracks with such talented artists as Iris DeMent, John Prine, and Emmylou Harris.

These last three musicians are among the contributors to a fantastic tribute album recently released on Rounder and Concord Records. More than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith features renditions of Griffith’s songs (some that she wrote, others that she successfully covered) by some of today’s most important performers in the folk-country-rock category. All of the 14 performances are top notch.

One would find it difficult to imagine an introduction more beautiful than Sarah Jarosz’s barbed, nostalgic “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Griffith sophisticatedly wrote about the mixed emotions one has for the place of one’s youth. Jarosz sweetly sings about her memories with a dose of reality mixed in. “This old town never did really care that much for me / I only come here to remember my dreams . . . . Country town, good night.” While this song does not directly concern the Everly Brothers in Shenandoah, Griffith describes the universality of those feelings. Coming home after being away is a common experience. Depicting these emotions evokes memories without falling into cliché and suggests the extent of both Griffith’s and Jarosz’s talents.

Every cut on the album is a gem. Griffith had a way of infusing her songs with an effervescence, even when the material was heavy. This led some critics to argue that her music was lightweight. The opposite was frequently true. Griffith addressed serious concerns ranging from world peace (“From a Distance”) to spousal abuse (“Ford Econoline”) to racism (“It’s a Hard Life”). She frequently sang of love from a variety of perspectives, from long term (“Love at the Five & Dime”) to short lived (“Outbound Plane”) and everywhere in between (“More Than a Whisper”). Griffith’s range is on clear display on this record.

Major new-ish talents on the collection include Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, The War and Treaty, and Aaron Lee Tasjan. Strings and Tuttle turn Griffith’s bouncy “Listen to the Radio” into a joyride on a country road. At the other end of the spectrum, long-standing acts such as Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris, and Steve Earle successfully interpret Griffith’s tunes with their own bold stamps. For example, DeMent’s take on “Banks of the Pontchartrain” features DeMent’s distinctive trill and Griffith’s Texas warble at the same time. The autobiographical details of the song ring true.

And then there’s the mix of old and new talent on More Than a Whisper. The most noteworthy one features the late John Prine and newcomer Kelsey Waldon in the duet “Love at the Five & Dime.” Other artists on the album include Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, Todd Snider, Mary Gauthier, and Brandy Clark.

Nanci Griffith earned a Grammy Award for her album of other people’s songs, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and followed it with a well-named sequel, Other Voices, Too. On the second record, she took on the Everly Brothers’ “Walk Right Back.” She sweetly turned the boys’ mournful harmonies into a comic cry that bespoke of innocent love.

This tribute album lovingly recalls Griffith at her best and reminds listeners to recall the past by looking forward with these new performances.