Essay: `It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go' for the Last, Great, Folk Heroine Spurned by Radio, America's Traditional Music Is Struggling Just to Survive. That It Has Made It This Far Is Largely the Work of Nanci Griffith. Jasper Rees on the Life of That `Daft Woman'
Griffith, Nanci, The Independent (London, England)
Last Sunday in Dublin, three people were folding their creaking limbs into a minibus parked outside a hotel off Grafton Street. They looked an improbable menage. A tall, white-bearded man with pebble- lens glasses and a broad-brimmed hat; a short, black woman in a braided skull cap; a strong-jawed woman, the youngster at perhaps sixty, with straw platinum hair. The faces may not mean much, but the names will ring a bell to anyone familiar with the Greenwich Village coffee house sound of the early 1960s: Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Carolyn Hester. If you dropped a bomb on the bus as it ferried them to a rehearsal in the Olympia Theatre, Bob Dylan would suddenly find himself attending a lot of funerals.
This folk encyclopaedia made flesh is accompanying Nanci Griffith on a short tour of Dublin, Glasgow and London, where, tonight and tomorrow, they will round off the Barbican's Inventing America season. In total 23 musicians have assembled to mark the release of Other Voices, Too: A Trip Back to Bountiful, Griffith's second volume of cover songs from the rich folk tradition in American music. The first volume, Other Voices, Other Rooms, won her a Grammy five years ago.
You don't want to enquire to closely about the average age of the Dublin ensemble. At the rehearsal I got talking to one of the younger-looking musicians at the side of the stage. He turned out to be Ian Matthews, who joined Fairport Convention in 1967. He is now 52. Griffith routinely refers to these repositories of musical wisdom as "our elders". At 44, she is just abut the youngest person on stage. That's quite an age to be a spring chicken, as her recent health record testifies. She was operated on for breast cancer two years ago, and last month finished a course of radiotherapy to deal with thyroid cancer. Ageism is the battle that folk music has been fighting ever since a conservative music industry decided to distance itself from a left- leaning genre in the early 1970s. All these musicians will ruefully tell you that folk is the F word. Some time after Dylan went electric, folkies were rebranded singer-songwriters, while the term folk gathered dust on the shelf. Griffith convened the Other Voices project to blow away the cobwebs. For a dozen or so years Griffith, a songbird with a country accent, has been the folk singer people on both sides of the Atlantic have used as a route map round the territory. She in turn has deployed her own musical standing to exhume the reputation of folk composers who have found it hard to find a modern audience. "She's done things for all of us," enthuses Carolyn Hester in the wings of the Olympia. "I've never experienced anything like it. There's no ego here. Everybody is helping each other." The plan with Other Voices, Too is to revisit a specific period from pop's innocent past in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was a time when, says Griffith, "folk, rock'n'roll and the blues all merged on a very commercial level on radio. They weren't singled out or put into any cubby hole at all. They were just hits. We want to say, `Hey, it played on the radio just fine. Why all of a sudden do you say it can't be played on the radio?' " Radio is music's oxygen. Griffith sings of its liberating influence in "Listen To The Radio", one of her best known songs, which doubles as a tribute to the gritty Nashville diva Loretta Lynn. It tells of a woman who leaves her brutal husband and drives out of town with the radio on. These days she wouldn't be able to find a decent radio station to listen to - certainly none that plays Lynn or Griffith or Griffith's guests on either album. On the first album the guest list included such luminaries as Dylan, John Prine, Woody Guthrie's son Arlo, Guy Clark, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris and Leo Kottke. For the follow-up Griffith summoned an even heavier brigade, most of the above, plus half of Texas - Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, the Crickets, Griffith's ex-husband Eric Taylor - sundry survivors from the 35-year-old Village scene, plus a sprinkling of British folkies, led by Richard Thompson. …