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Griffith Adds a Stormy Side to Her Message

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nanci Griffith’s reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter has been built on evocative, closely observed tales about sweet romancers waltzing through life together, working folks struggling to stay afloat, and losers in love left to cope with the distance and loneliness of separation.

On stage, she has been a winsome, demure figure, singing with a whispery, dreamy intimacy about old memories, or with a touch of sassy twang when her characters turn feisty. The dossier on Griffith, who plays sold out shows tonight and Sunday at the Coach House, is that she is a fetching singer with an intelligent songbook firmly rooted in folk and country traditions. Sensitive, smart and sweet.

But with her latest album, “Storms,” Griffith has shown that she can also put barbs in a song, in a way that gets people’s hackles up.

One song, “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights,” annoyed some listeners with its tale of an empty-headed young charmer who wastes her youth in flirtation and winds up alone and semiliterate, “heavy of thigh and light on integrity.”

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“When the record came out, a lot of people slapped my hand and said that was a very sexist song to write,” the 35-year-old singer said over the phone from San Francisco, speaking ever cheerfully in her endearingly musical West Texas accent.

Griffith’s defense: “Drive-In Movies” isn’t mere character assassination, but a message song about how some people are raised to place all importance on cosmetic, ephemeral values, at the expense of such lasting qualities as the ability to read a book and to judge right from wrong. As for the sexual stereotyping charge, she said, the song could as easily have focused on a boy raised to be a macho football hero as a girl groomed to do nothing but be popular and snare a man.

The song from “Storms” that really can get tempers flaring is “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go.”

The first verse laments the tragedy of religious strife in Belfast without taking sides, and the second indicts--somewhat stridently--an incident of racial hatred in Chicago. Nothing objectionable there. But in the last verse, Griffith challenges what we have always been taught to believe: that America is the most principled of countries, the greatest force for global good. She ends the song by saying that a far different image--that of the Ugly American--is closer to fact.

Now I am the back-seat driver from America

I am not at the wheel of control

I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil

Lord, and I can’t drive on the left side of the road.

“I got tons of letters,” Griffith said. “Basically, people saying, ‘How can you say this? How can you go along with the European perspective that Americans are guilty of everything?’ ”

For personifying America as “the root of all evil,” Griffith offers no apologies.

“Anybody who’s been abroad over the past 10 years would find that America is not respected at this point, and we’re going to have to make a lot of changes,” she said.

While the most important measure of a political song is how effectively it evokes the emotions behind an issue, rather than how accurately it portrays reality, it is unlikely that Griffith could carry her “root of all evil” proposition in a debate. For all the unjustifiable steps the United States has taken because of an exaggerated fear of Communist expansion, it hardly has exhausted the historically unprecedented moral capital accrued after World War II, when it chose to heal its defeated enemies and crippled allies, instead of exploiting their weakness.

According to Griffith, a controversial sally like “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” never would have been the video-spotlighted song it became if not for some healthy changes in the internal politics of her relationship with her record company, MCA.

Before “Storms,” Griffith had been marketed as a country performer, her recordings and promotion overseen by MCA’s Nashville-based country music wing. Now, she works under MCA’s Universal City-based pop music branch. That’s just fine with Griffith, who chafed against Nashville’s artistically conservative, hit-oriented approach.

“I think that Nashville would just as soon have put a blanket over those (controversial songs) and sort of pretended they’re not even on the album,” she said. “They haven’t a clue about what I do. The Los Angeles office of MCA understands me very well, and they know who my audience is. They are not as heavy-handed in creative control as Nashville was.”

For Griffith, the worst part of being in the country music system was its single-minded pursuit of the radio hit. That meant being pressured to record songs by outside songwriters with proven track records of radio successes.

“Having to go and listen to songs by other Nashville songwriters just because they felt I needed to have a country radio hit on every record--I think it’s an insult to the integrity of a songwriter, and to my own artistry,” Griffith said. “They made Lyle Lovett do the same thing. It’s just how they do things. I felt, ‘There’s something wrong with me--I’m not writing well enough.’ ” Griffith says she shrugged off those feelings of inadequacy when she concluded that the problem lay in the narrow framework of commercial country radio, not in her music.

In fact, Griffith’s “Love at the Five & Dime” was a big country hit a few years ago for Kathy Mattea. Griffith also has high hopes for a new version of her “Gulf Coast Highway,” recorded as a duet by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson (Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa also have done live performances of the song, which details a poor working couple’s struggles and stoical hopes).

It’s in Ireland and Europe that Griffith gets to have her own taste of stardom.

“Ireland was the first place I had mass commercial success, and it spread to England and Europe. It’s the only overnight success I’ve had in a 20-year career,” Griffith said. “I get to be a songwriter and a cult artist here in the United States, and I get to be a celebrity there. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Ironically, the key to Griffith’s Irish breakthrough in 1987 was “Trouble in the Fields,” a song written about an American issue: the threatened livelihood of the small farmer.

“I wrote it because my family were farmers in West Texas during the Great Depression,” Griffith said. “It was written basically as a show of support for my generation of farmers.” In Ireland, the song’s message of hope amid troubled fields was reinterpreted as a reflection on the bloody sectarian “Troubles” of Northern Ireland.

“I think it’s great when that happens, when a song is interpreted differently and becomes a universal thing for others,” Griffith said. She also credits Bono Hewson and Larry Mullen of the rock band U2 with boosting her career overseas by praising her work in media interviews in Ireland and Europe. Griffith also lists the young folk-pop performers Tanita Tikaram and the Indigo Girls among her admirers.

“When they’re asked, ‘Who was your inspiration as a child?’ and they say ‘Nanci Griffith,’ it just makes my heart pound with joy,” she said. Loretta Lynn, Griffith’s own early inspiration, no doubt got some joy out of hearing the compliment Griffith paid her in “Listen to the Radio,” the only jaunty tune on the mostly downcast “Storms” album. Griffith also lists Tom Waits and, surprisingly, the wild-eyed rocker Iggy Pop among her big influences.

Since her commercial breakthrough in Ireland, Griffith has divided her free time between homes in Nashville and Dublin.

“Growing up in Texas as a child, you had this imaginary land that would be the greatest place in the world, sort of the opposite of your own environment.” Ireland fulfilled that fantasy for Griffith: “a place where it rains and it’s cool and never hot, and they have great beer.”

As a youngster, Griffith was pretty much the antithesis of the party-girl protagonist of “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights.” However, she says, she didn’t write the song out of that common artistic motive--pay-back for old school days social slights.

“I was very introverted when I was young. I was a late bloomer, very small,” Griffith said. “But I think I enjoyed popularity in high school. I was a very reclusive person, but I was always the person they would call and drag along because I played guitar and sang. I never suffered not being invited places or not being popular.”

Griffith’s parents were both involved in the arts in her hometown, the university city of Austin.

“My parents were beatniks,” she said. “We didn’t even own a television until I was about 12 years old. Now my brother is a housewife, and my sister is a teacher. We took on roles of our own free will. We were fortunate we had parents who encouraged us to read and learn and explore our own creative nature to the fullest.”

Griffith’s creative explorations have led her to complete one novel and write most of a second. She is still seeking a publisher for the finished work, “Two of a Kind Heart.” She also is working on her first film scoring assignment and hopes to get a chance to do some character acting as well.

Nanci Griffith’s shows tonight at 9 and Sunday at 8 at the Coach House are sold out. Information: (714) 496-8930.


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