Nanci Griffith learns her lesson

April 14, 1995|By Alan Sculley | Alan Sculley,Special to The Sun

In 1992, Nanci Griffith took a step back from a 14-year career as a songwriter and singer to make an album of her interpretations of 17 songs by writers who had influenced her own folk-informed style. The album, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," won Ms. Griffith a Grammy and was widely acclaimed as one of her most satisfying projects.

Ironically, when Ms. Griffith immersed herself in the songs of her favorite writers, she made an important discovery about her own writing -- one that helped spur a shift in her own music on her 11th and most recent record, "Flyer."

After specializing in songs that featured finely detailed, emotionally engaging stories about fictional characters, Ms. Griffith has opened the window to her own world, revealing much about her heart and soul over the course of "Flyer's" 15 original songs.

"Going back and studying their work," said Ms. Griffith of the songwriters she covered on "Other Voices," "it's all so internal and propelled from inside as well. Certainly it's never crying-in-your-beer stuff, you know, but it was all very introspective and very helpful to me. And I think that influenced me to go ahead and write personal, even though I'll always be very endeared to my fictional characters."

Another event that helped confirm this new direction was a visit to a card reader in New York City during the "Flyer" recording sessions.

"My father had told me, 'You've never had a good time in your entire life. You're so intense. Even when you were a baby you were so intense,' " Ms. Griffith said. "And so, the card reader telling me the same thing, not knowing me from Adam . . . She said, 'You've had a really hard life, and you've done a lot of work inside to try and overcome that, but don't you think you ought to have fun now?' "

Finally, Ms. Griffith said, she was able to 'let go' and begin to enjoy herself, to feel the freedom to express her own thoughts and experiences in song.

Some of the revelations on "Flyer" will undoubtedly surprise even longtime fans, especially on songs in which Ms. Griffith, 40, wonders if her single-minded pursuit of career has cost her a chance for lasting love.

"Some of the songs are so personal, it's still difficult to perform them," she observed. "Like 'These Days in an Open Book' and 'Goodnight to a Mother's Dream.' I think a lot of people were really surprised, that they would think, 'Well, Nanci Griffith should be a really happy person. . . . She probably has everything she ever wanted in life.' To voice my insecurity and my grief for having pursued all of those things professionally without pursuing anything personal is something I think a lot of women my age are going through."

One song sure to generate curiosity is the title song, which tells of Ms. Griffith's chance meeting with an Air Force pilot at a Pittsburgh airport one day when bad weather had delayed her flight to London. The two discovered an instant bond but never acted on the mutual attraction: "He shouted out his name to me/As I ran to make my flight/Now, I would give anything/To see that flyer flyin' tonight."

"That's exactly how it happened. Line for line, word for word," Ms. Griffith said. "And I keep wondering if the flyer has heard it."

Throughout "Flyer," Ms. Griffith rides a roller coaster of emotions and experiences. She exposes feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty on "Fragile," loneliness on "Nobody's Angel" and heartbreak on "Talk to Me While I'm Listening." Then she reaches a coming to terms with her life on "Goodnight to a Mother's Dream" and the upbeat closing track, "This Heart."

"I think it does go full circle," Ms. Griffith said of the song cycle. "Even though there are bruises and bumps and all kinds of little scars here, my heart is still running."

Ms. Griffith's life has been dedicated to music -- to become an accomplished songwriter like her best friend, Harlan Howard, the veteran tunesmith whose credits include numerous country classics, such as Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces."

A Texas native, Ms. Griffith began her career playing clubs in Austin. She released her debut album, "There's a Light Beyond These Woods," in 1978 on a local label. After a second record, she signed to the larger independent label, Rounder Records. Two albums later, she landed a deal with MCA.

Despite a string of five fine albums, including "Lone Star State Of Mind," "Storms" and "Late Night Grande Hotel," MCA never found a way to make Ms. Griffith a major record seller.

Only since signing to Elektra and releasing "Other Voices, Other Rooms" and "Flyer" has she made significant inroads. Ms. Griffith credits much of her success to the arrival of adult alternative radio, which has embraced her music in a way country radio never did.

Ms. Griffith has always described her music as folkabilly, despite others who labeled it country.

"I never fit in with country," she noted. "I never tried, and MCA never really pushed me in that direction. I never visited one country radio station in my entire time of being on MCA, although I'm so grateful to the country artists and singers who've had hits with my songs. I know that I do have a lot of roots in country music, but it would be dishonest for me to masquerade myself as a country artist because I'm really not."

Nanci Griffith

When: Wednesday, April 19, 8 p.m.

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $24.50

Call: (410) 481-SEAT

High "Flyer"

To hear selections from Nanci Griffith's album "Flyer," call

Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6199 after you hear the greeting.

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