In 1985 and 1986, Texas-born singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith made two classic albums, Once in a Very Blue Moon and Last of the True Believers. Her models were literary—such Southern writers as Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty—her songs three-minute narratives, actuality-studded tales of ordinary lives across America. Charmed, MCA Records snapped her up in ’87 and tried to make her a country star, but her songs were too probing, her tiny soprano too quirky, to fit any of Nashville’s molds.
Griffith has finally quit trying to swim up the country-music mainstream, and in her 10th .album she returns to the home ground of Blue Moon and True Believers—acoustic instruments, a supporting cast of old friends, and producer Jim Rooney. It is every bit the older records’ equal: Griffith’s third triumph.
She’s here only as a singer; Other Voices, Other Rooms is Griffith’s homage to the songwriters and singers who shaped her music. (The title is taken from the 1948 Truman Capote novel. The “other voices” belong to the ’60s folksingers Griffith loved as a girl; their songs are the “other rooms” she once wandered through.) The same personal-roots impulse inspired Sinéad O’Connor’s recent Am I Not Your Girl? but Griffith’s tribute is more cohesive and successful.
Some of the great ’60s folkies join Griffith. Carolyn Hester, shedding bell-like harmonies over Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”; Arlo Guthrie on Townes Van Zandt’s sad “Tecumseh Valley”; Dylan himself, blowing hushed and ruminative harmonica on his transcendent love song. “Boots of Spanish Leather. Not all 17 songs are oldies: From the ’80s come “This Old Town,” by Janis Ian and Jon Vezner, and Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” which features America’s finest harmony singer, Emmylou Harris.
This album celebrates folk music’s recent past. Does folk have a future? Thirty years from now, these songs will still be sung—these and some of Griffith’s too. (Elektra)