A Die-Hard Folkie--and Proud of It : Nanci Griffith's album 'Other Voices, Other Rooms' is a tribute to the songwriters who have influenced her. 'It's always made me incredibly angry that the music industry turned its back on folk music,' she says

Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

Does this sound familiar?

The singer doesn't get any mainstream radio play, maybe because she's a little too close to a traditional form. But people respond to the honesty of her singing, and she gradually builds a loyal audience through a backbreaking tour schedule.

Mixing her own songs with material by other writers and playing music that extends a "root" American style, she earns a reputation for taste and integrity and becomes a consistent record seller in the 200,000 range.

Finally, a hip record producer makes her a little more radio-friendly, and she unexpectedly connects with a mass audience, selling millions of records and raking in Grammys.

That final chapter of the Bonnie Raitt story hasn't happened yet for Nanci Griffith, and it isn't likely to happen with her just-released 10th album. But her new record company doesn't see any reason why it can't happen somewhere down the line.

"Who knows why everything conspired for Bonnie Raitt?" says Steve Ralbovsky, the vice president of artists and repertoire who signed Griffith to Elektra Records last year. "She had a career based on goodwill and honesty, and it all came together. We hope we can have that kind of success with Nanci."

Ralbovsky identifies an audience in the 25-45 age range that appreciates "intimate, emotional, heartfelt" music.

"Look at somebody like (singer) David Wilcox," he says. "He sells over 100,000 albums, and he just drives from folk club to folk club in his Toyota, with no airplay. The people who listen are looking for those kind of people.

"Nanci is interested in working with producers who would keep the acoustic underpinning but perhaps make records that would be more radio palatable. I think people root for an artist who's carved out her own niche, done it her own way, lasted a long time and really has touched their lives with her songs. They're gonna want you to have your day."

Rather than the commercial gesture that might pull that off, the new "Other Voices, Other Rooms" is a tribute to the songwriters who have influenced her, and to the tradition that's the wellspring of her music.

What the blues is to Raitt, folk music is to Griffith--a personal passion and a musical foundation, and she speaks of it with the same zeal Raitt applies to the blues.

"It's always made me incredibly angry that the music industry turned its back on folk music and said it's not commercially viable," says Griffith, sitting in an office at Elektra's Beverly Hills headquarters. "We all know that's not true. The Weavers sold a lot of records. Bob Dylan sold a lot of records.

"Folk music and rap music are the only two American forms of music that have any kind of social conscience whatsoever. So I think it deserves to be on the radio, deserves to be heard."

Does she see any encouraging signs?

"I do. I see R.E.M., I see the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman. And the fact that I'm still surviving, I'm still here. I won't go away."

In "Other Voices, Other Rooms"--named for Truman Capote's first book--Griffith has assembled songs representing each folk revival, from the Carter Family's 1877 composition "Are You Tired of Me Darling" to works by such contemporary writers as Buddy Mondlock and Frank Christian. In between are Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, Dylan, Tom Paxton and John Prine, Janis Ian and the late Kate Wolf, among others. (See review, Page 74.)

Guest musicians include Emmylou Harris, Dylan, Prine, Carolyn Hester, Iris DeMent, Guy Clark and Chet Atkins. Clark and heralded newcomer DeMent are part of Griffith's concert tour roster, which plays April 16 at the Wiltern Theatre.

The project was something Griffith had often thought about, but it took solid form in the final hours of 1991, at her traditional New Year's Eve get-together with Harris.

"Emmy and I were talking about Kate Wolf, and the fact that Kate has been gone since 1986 and that no one was recording her songs," says Griffith, telling the story she recounts in the album booklet.

"And if you don't record the songs, they just die, they go away, no one sings them. Emmy said the most marvelous thing, which was that songs need to be sung in new voices in places that they've never been heard before, in order to stay alive and have new life. It really was a statement that said it's time for me to do this record."

Financing the project herself while extracting herself from her MCA Records contract, Griffith reunited with producer Jim Rooney. Their collaboration was as smooth as their first work together nine years ago, when they recorded the 13 songs of "Once in a Very Blue Moon" in two days.

"She still has that ability to focus and concentrate, and yet be pretty relaxed at the same time," Rooney says. "What I'm always after is a performance, and Nanci is fully capable of performing live in the studio."

Griffith says it wasn't that relaxed.

"There was actually more pressure than when I'm doing my own songs, because as writers we all want that song to be heard with the greatest voice. It was so important to me to do it right. And I really didn't know if I had or not.

"The Dylan piece, 'Boots of Spanish Leather,' was probably the most intimidating piece. After I'd sent it to Dylan, to tell him we had recorded it and let him know it was done, we heard back from him that he wanted to come in and play harmonica. That was the first time I knew that I had done OK."

Griffith, 38, grew up the youngest of three children in a district of Austin, Tex., that must have had something strange in the water: Among her parents' friends were the Potter and the Erickson families, whose children preceded Griffith in the music world: Todd and Jerry Potter were the psychedelic pop group the Bubble Puppy (one chart hit, 1969's "Hot Smoke & Sasafrass"), and young Roky Erickson went on to form the 13th Floor Elevator and become a psycho-rock legend.

Griffith's "beatnik" parents provided a stimulating environment, but it was a financially lean existence, and her folks weren't attentive in any conventional sense. They divorced when she was 6.

"I think there was a certain sadness in my childhood," Griffith says. "It gave me a lot to think about, and I spent a lot of time by myself. I think that is essential for a writer.

"I was a little kid, I was skinny, I wasn't very popular, I didn't get tall till the 11th grade. So I spent a great deal of time playing guitar and reading. Literature was my great escape. I wouldn't really call that happy, 'cause I was so into morbid things. I was really into Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. They're not 'The Secret Garden.' "

By the time she was 14 she was playing Austin clubs. She recorded her first album in 1978 and released her third and fourth albums on the prominent independent folk label Philo. The second of the Philo releases, "Last of the True Believers," earned a 1984 Grammy nomination in contemporary folk.

She worked the folk club circuit tirelessly, championing such writers as Julie Gold, Patrick Alger and Bill Staines and establishing her own songwriting voice. Her vignettes were informed by a literary sensibility that also manifested itself in prose--she's written two novels, both unpublished (still a sore point with her).

Griffith, who was married briefly in her 20s to singer Eric Taylor, dubbed her music folkabilly , reflecting the pop and country elements that modified her folk base. She had no ambitions as a pure country artist, but she signed with MCA's Nashville division in 1987.

"It was a time when Nashville really seemed to be stretching its parameters," says her manager, Ken Levitan. "They were signing people like Nanci, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam. It looked like Nashville was going to change a bit and be the home for those type of artists. . . . I don't know if it was the label or what, but it didn't seem to work that way."

Although she prospered as a country songwriter--her material was recorded by Emmylou Harris, Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea, among others--she couldn't establish herself in the country market with three albums, and relations with MCA became increasingly strained.

Griffith and the label decided to try shifting her to its L.A.-based pop division, where she recorded with such pop-rock producers as Glyn Johns and Rod Argent, but things didn't improve. Griffith complains that MCA repeatedly neglected to submit her albums for Grammy consideration and says she was frustrated at the label's refusal to release her recording of Julie Gold's "From a Distance" as a single. The song obviously had hit potential: Bette Midler's version later reached No. 2 in the United States, and Griffith's was No. 1 in Ireland, where she is a big star.

Griffith and her team finally negotiated her release from MCA, which retains rights to Griffith in Ireland and Britain for the next two albums and participates in the earnings of "Other Voices" and her next Elektra album.

Some of the wear shows in the lines of age in Griffith's little-girl features. But with the problem resolved, the theme she keeps striking is one of resolution and relief.

"This album is like taking a year and a half of my time and enjoying it, thanking my audiences and all these writers," says the singer, who lives what she terms a "reclusive" life near Nashville in Franklin, Tenn. "This really is a great time for me to turn around and take a breath and say, 'Wow, this is really nice.' "

Says producer Rooney, her longtime friend: "I think there have been times when she felt she had something to prove, and that might have showed in terms of pressure or what have you. But I find now that she is extremely comfortable with what she's done and where she is."

Griffith says her worst year was 1989. She exorcised it in her last album for MCA, "Storms."

"I was really not feeling very good about Nanci Griffith and wondering why I did this. Where was my peace of mind? I was on the road 350 days a year and I had no life, no happiness, nothing of my own.

"It all came together for 'Storms.' It was my way of working it out. All this rhythm and percussion getting this anxiety out. It helped. It made me just say stop this, take everything as it is and do what you do. There's a reason for everything, and everything happens in its own time."

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