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Storyteller

Nanci Griffith
Señor McGuire

Lucky Stars: Nanci Griffith loves it when a "real singer" performs her songs.

Folkabilly icon returns to LBC

By Mike Joyce

TOWNES VAN ZANDT, Guy Clark, Robert Earl Keen, Joe Ely--why has Texas produced so many great songwriters/storytellers? Nanci Griffith, who has earned a place near the top of the list, has her suspicions. "There's nothing to look at, so you learn to use your imagination very early in life," says Griffith, who brings her celebrated Blue Moon Orchestra to LBC on Nov. 9.

Imagination has fueled Griffith's life for as long as she can remember. Born 42 years ago in Seguin, Texas, she became a voracious reader as a child and later devoured the Southern prose of Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. So it was only natural, she says on the phone from Nashville, that the creation of character-driven songs would appeal to her. As it turned out, she had a gift for it, too.

By the mid-'70s, her literate songcraft was attracting attention around the country, winning her a prize at the 1976 Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas and allowing her to venture beyond the Texas honky-tonks she played as a budding performer and tunesmith. She still marvels at how silent audiences were when she began playing coffeehouses in New England. "I thought everybody was supposed to have a beer in their hand," she says. "The quiet was a little disconcerting. At first I thought people didn't like what they were hearing. I had no idea that people actually paid to hear you sing."

Instead of trying to land a record deal in Nashville, Griffith toured the country extensively in the '70s and early '80s, playing her "folkabilly" at any place that would have her. "I started driving myself around America," she recalls in a faint, girlish voice. "I just went out and worked wherever I could. I also made four albums for four different labels, and it was hard to do that then. But it was a great time in my life, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Griffith has been writing, touring, and recording ever since. Along the way, she's developed a fervent international following and won several Grammies, including one for the 1993 album An Irish Evening with Roger Daltry and Nanci Griffith. She's also had her songs recorded by numerous artists, such as Willie Nelson ("Gulf Coast Highway"), Suzy Boguss ("Outbound Plane"), and Kathy Mattea ("Love at the Five and Dime"). Whenever she hears someone singing one of her songs on the radio, Griffith says, "I just count my lucky stars."

After all, she adds, "I do this so that a real singer will come along and sing these songs."

Even so, in some circles Griffith is best known for her wistful voice and affecting interpretations. Her version of the Julie Gold song "From a Distance" topped the Irish charts several years before Bette Milder recorded it. Now Griffith regards Ireland as her second home.

These days, she touring to support Blue Roses from the Moons (Elektra), which features guest appearances by Buddy Holly's legendary band the Crickets (who will join Griffith at LBC) and Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker

But her most personal and revealing album was 1994's Flyer. Writing the songs for the album, she explains, was akin to "an exorcism--very much like that. Instead of writing about characters like I usually do, I became the character. It was very painful to put out an album that made you feel naked, but at the same time it was a great experience working with all of the musicians."

Big-name collaborators on Flyer included REM's Peter Buck, Mark Knopfler, Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton of U2, the Indigo Girls, Adam Gurvitz of Counting Crows, and her "hero," Sonny Curtis of the Crickets. "I don't know how it happened, but this block of songs just came flooding out of me--and they were all autobiographical."

Griffith is quick to point out that her cycle of soul-baring songs has ended--at least for the time being. Her new album commemorates the 10th anniversary of her band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, and though it features a couple of guest cameos, she describes it as a small-scale, festive affair.

Meanwhile, upbeat, descriptive, or confessional, much of Griffith's music has been disregarded by commercial country radio over the years, but she isn't frustrated by a lack of exposure. From the beginning of her career, she notes, college radio has been her mainstay. "That's always been the alternative, and I guess I just kind of fall into the alternative thing," she explains.


Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra, featuring the Crickets, perform Sunday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $22.50. For details, call 546-3600.

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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