The title More Than A Whisper – Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith probably says it all, given the disproportionate heft of the footprint left behind by this self-effacing singer. Her mild and bookish persona, all ankle socks and cardigans, might suggest a small town librarian or primary school teacher, but what she gave, and what you got, was so very much more. A consummate writer of literate story songs (she called them folkabilly), Griffith could captivate any an audience with her Texas charm and sweet/sour voice, attracting the best musicians to play by her side. Both as a writer and an interpreter, she lived and breathed the characters in songs she made her own, several of which are well on the to becoming standards. Her run of albums, from her 1978 debut There’s A Light Beyond These Woods through to Storms, a decade and a bit later, was little short of astonishing, the traction of the one building on the next until she became quite the star. And if she became, latterly, drawn, or possibly led, more to the mainstream, with the country hayride honed down a little, still the songs remained the same, elegant constructions, meticulously put together. Illness quietened her workload this century, her last album made in 2012, before her death in 2021.
It is fair to say that most of the songs on More Than a Whisper come from Griffith’s imperial phase, 1987-9, a time where she could do no wrong, touring constantly, with new material pouring out of her. I must have seen her two or three times during those years; she always included the UK and Ireland in her itineraries. I was never less than enthralled by the show she and her Blue Moon Orchestra would put on, falling, always, a little more in love. And, lest you feel this project of such appeal as to bring back singers from the dead, this album has been several years in the gestation, it fitting, and vital, that it should include one singer always very closely associated with her. You’ll know who I mean.
Sarah Jarosz opens More Than a Whisper with the slow and sad reflective tones of “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a song about outbound trains and Texas, with picked guitar and a moaning steel guitar the main scaffolding, muted percussion and a breezy organ billowing quietly in the background. I always felt Griffith had a voice like a green apple, slightly tart and with some appealing crunch; Jarosz is more peachy, and it is a lovely rendition, and a great start. One of Griffith’s best known songs, “Love At The Five And Dime,” follows, and, yes, that is John Prine singing, in a duet with Kelsey Waldon, the frailty in Prine’s delivery adding to the waves of nostalgia that moves through the very pores of the song. Prine and Griffith had history: read his widow’s lovely words on Facebook, posted on the day Griffith passed. The steel and mandolin, each from Fats Kaplan, will make you weep if the vocal delivery doesn’t. The only thing missing is the spoken introduction Griffith herself would always make, the ping of her guitar to mark the elevator button ping.
“Listen To The Radio” always threatened to be one of those corny songs designed cynically to get on a playlist. Somehow it avoided that, being just a simple exhortation to follow the lyrical instruction, and share the joy with those already doing so. Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle give it a glorious acoustic bluegrass buzz, the solo guitars showing exactly how well these youngsters carry the flame for this style of music. I confess it is then a slight shock to hear Emmylou Harris, suddenly realizing that agelessness comes to nobody. Of course, she still nails “Love Wore A Halo (Before The War),” but it sounds a struggle, even for this affable Cajun chug, especially as she has an estimable number of other Griffith covers in her portfolio. A neat, and possibly necessary, touch is the reversion to a spoken section for the third verse, casting echoes of her version of David Olney’s “Jerusalem Tomorrow.”
Another frequent Griffith sidekick, Lyle Lovett, is up next, alongside Kathy Mattea, for “Trouble In The Fields,” one of the more poignantly potent songs in Griffith’s canon. More bluegrass vibes aplenty here, via Al Perkins’ dobro and the fiddle of Sam Bush. Mattea has done a lot of Griffith covers previously, and so has the right tenor to match Lovett’s lugubrious quaver. (Color me silly, but I would sort of peg him as the plow and her as the mule, but that’s a minor quibble.) It is a solid enough version and provides the sufficient gap between the song before and the song after, which is where memories of earlier Emmylou might arise. “Gulf Coast Highway” is maybe peak Griffith for those easily moved to tears, and was covered by Harris, with Willie Nelson, on 1990’s Duets. Brandy Clarke is given the unenviable baton here, but, amidst some shimmery twang and post-country(?!) percussion, accredits herself very well indeed. A lovely solo rendition of a song more generally sung as a duet.
“Outbound Plane” gets a good old murky swamplands arrangement, perfect for Shawn Colvin’s smoky voice. Terrific dobro in a slow burn smolder arrangement. Ida Mae are a husband and wife duo from Norfolk UK, about whom I am previously unfamiliar. With an unusual vocal blend, and some shimmery electronica, my listens of “Radio Fragile” vary between intrigued and off-put, veering more toward the former. One of the, um, more fragile interpretations here, that isn’t reduced any by the delivery. I think I like it.
Before dismissing the uillean pipes for “It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go” as too obvious, hold that thought. Sure, as a song about and set partly in two Irish cities, Belfast and Chicago (sic), it might seem a too easy shorthand, but bear also in mind the strong links Griffith always had with Ireland, a regular visitor and with many an Irish musician in the the ranks of her Blue Moon Orchestra over the years. Anyway, it works, with the lyrics speaking to and about the risks a visitor to the Island might make in assumption, and allowing for that. A classy song, and one that Steve Earle, another Eireophile, gives good measure to, his vocal suitably critical. It is Ivan Goff wielding the pipes and Eleanor Whitmore, an erstwhile duchess in his band, on fiddle. (And, yes, I do know Belfast is still in the United Kingdom.)
“Late Night Grande Hotel,” like the original, gets a tremendous and largely solo keyboard performance, with Aaron Lee Tasman’s soaring plaintive vocal tugging at the heartstrings, offset by Patty Griffin’s mellifluous harmony touches, appearing midway. A late highlight, perhaps by virtue of being one of the least stereotypical songs included. “Ford Econoline” shatters the crystalline, as Todd Snider channels it with pure outlaw country, choky automobile splutters at the front and back end. Some handclap percussion shouldn’t fit, but it does and then some.
Which leads on to the need to offer an Iris DeMent warning, her idiosyncratic warble an acquired taste for many. (OK, for me.) When she’s good, as in her own “Our Town,” she is splendid. “Banks of the Pontchartrain” is maybe one of the other times, but the pedal steel, Jon Grabof, near makes up for it. DeMent lovers will love it.
Mary Gauthier, who also pens the liner notes, distills all the essence of the title track, raising the small hairs as she applies a delicacy that is complemented by an exquisite arrangement. If, in truth, most of these covers fail to surpass the original iterations (through no fault of the artist–the bar is simply set that high), this is one that actually does. I guess that too was the hope for “From A Distance,” arguably Griffith’s best-known song. Written by Julie Gold, Griffith was first to release it; since then it has had version after version after version. Griffith played it straight, the lyric suited to the girlish enthusiasm of her delivery. The War And Treaty, whom we last heard with the Brothers Osborne on Stoned Cold Country, give it a little too much reverence, however well due. With the feel of a forbidding tabernacle in Houston, Tanya Trotter and her husband, Michael Jr., have given it too strong a hit of the serious stick, the message taking precedence over the mood and, at times, the melody. Maybe it has just become too well known, but a dial-down would have been my preference. (To be fair, and tellingly, the vinyl edition shears off both this track and the one from Ida Mae, so maybe always to be considered an extra.)
Do any of these misgivings make More Than a Whisper any less of a record? On balance and in summation, no, not a bit: it is still definitely one of the stand-out offerings of this nature this year. Plus, for those who need and like to know, all profits from this tribute’s sales will benefit Cumberland Heights, a Nashville charity for those with addictions to drugs and alcohol. This may not be the first tribute to Nanci Griffith–an earlier one, 1992’s Trouble In The Fields, is certainly worthwhile for the completist–but to these ears, it’s easily the best.
More Than A Whisper tracklisting:
- You Can’t Go Home Again – Sarah Jarosz
- Love at the Five & Dime – John Prine & Kelsey Waldon
- Listen to the Radio – Billy Strings & Molly Tuttle
- Love Wore a Halo (Back Before the War) – Emmylou Harris
- Trouble in the Fields – Lyle Lovett, Kathy Mattea
- Gulf Coast Highway – Brandy Clark
- Outbound Plane – Shawn Colvin
- Radio Fragile- Ida Mae
- It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go – Steve Earle
- Late Night Grande Hotel – Aaron Lee Tasjan with Patty Griffin
- Ford Econoline – Todd Snider
- Banks of the Pontchartrain – Iris DeMent
- More than a Whisper – Mary Gauthier
- From a Distance – The War and Treaty