Nanci Griffith got an early start on her path to performing and songwriting. At the age of 6 she began to write songs, thinking of it as “part of the process of learning how to play guitar.” While she doesn’t remember many of her earliest songs, she does recall that “the first original song my mother commented on…was a song about Timothy Leary.” Then at the age of 14, when a campfire turn at the Kerrville Folk Festival caught the ear of singer-songwriter Tom Russell, she was on her way. Having recorded 18 albums and performed concerts all over the world, it’s safe to say that she’s never looked back.
The Loving Kind (available June 9 on Rounder Records) finds Nanci Griffith at the top of her game as a songwriter, interpreter, and singer. Featuring nine songs written by Griffith and her collaborators, and four well-chosen covers, the album takes its place alongside the consistently acclaimed work of this Grammy® Award-winning, genre-defying artist.
Griffith says that her approach to songwriting hasn’t changed over the years. “I just never know, any given day, what I’m going to wake up to.” Once she’s inspired, “it just all comes at once.” Even when working with collaborators, the idea driving the session has to be very strong. “If we don’t get something in twenty minutes, I’m done. It’s a very unique process and I don’t write with a lot of people. Charley Stefl, I’ve known since I was 16 years old and writing with him is always a joy. Thomm Jutz…is very easy to write with because he’s also my guitar player and he just knows my brain, and knows me musically.”
Her latest album, which skillfully touches on newsworthy issues as well as matters of the heart, proves that such a writing style can capture life at its most complex. The title track sets the tone, telling the true story of how love triumphed over a social injustice that prevailed in the United States until 1967. Mildred and Richard Loving were a mixed-race couple who were put in jail when they married in 1958, but their case eventually reached the Supreme Court, where state laws against interracial marriage were struck down. “I read Mildred Loving’s obituary in The New York Times and it just floored me,” says Griffith. “She never remarried after Richard died and in her last interview before she passed she expressed hope that their case, Loving v. Virginia, would eventually be the open door to same sex marriage.”
Another topical song is “Across America” – an upbeat paean to the hope many Americans have experienced in this time of political change and new leadership. “Still Life” is an indictment – “my opinion of George W. Bush,” says Griffith.
But The Loving Kind is also a showcase for the perceptive exploration of emotions, personalities, and relationships that Griffith is known for. “Things I Don’t Need” gets at that feeling most of us have had at one time or another when our lives are cluttered and, at the same time, lacking in what we really need.
“Up Against The Rain,” while drawing on very close connections in the songwriter’s life, manages to transcend the personal, painting a portrait of a hero who never gives up the struggle. “‘Up Against the Rain’ was inspired by a huge McGuire photo portrait of Townes Van Zant that hangs in my library…I call it my velvet Townes as his eyes follow you everywhere. My co-writer Charley Stefl was one of Townes’ best friends, as well as Townes being my dearest mentor, but the song could be for anyone’s hero and with me, I also lost my dear ‘beautiful’ Pops (my stepfather…real father) just before Christmas and we recorded ‘Up Against the Rain’ the day I returned from his funeral in Austin so it’s very close to my heart.”
Also dear to Griffith’s heart is the song “Cotton.” “I always wanted to write something to remind people that LBJ was so much more a huge heart dedicated to his country and social reform – than just the Vietnam War.”
“Sing” is an autobiographical ode to expression and inspiration. Griffith elaborates: “Artists don’t choose to be artists, writers, or singers. It’s just something you know you have to do.” The romantic “One of These Days,” a song Griffith wrote in 1984, is revisited here with singer-songwriter Todd Snider joining in on the chorus.
Nanci Griffith has always skillfully chosen the songs by other writers that she covers. She was the first artist discerning enough to record Julie Gold’s classic “From A Distance.” When asked what she looks for in a song to cover, Griffith says, “I have to feel like: ‘man, I wish I’d written that.’” The Loving Kind features four outstanding covers – two by early mentor Dee Moeller. The rowdy “Party Girl,” sad tale that it is, still makes you want to dance, while “Tequila After Midnight” will send you looking for the nearest Honky Tonk. “Money Changes Everything,” by Gale Trippsmith, is a jaunty look at greed, a song that seems to grow more timely with each passing day. The album closes with Edwina Hayes’ laid back yet reflective “Pour Me a Drink.”
Perhaps the most striking song on The Loving Kind is “Not Innocent Enough” – a poignant statement against the death penalty. The song deals with the story of Philip Workman, accused of murdering a police officer, and convicted – with tainted testimony. “I started writing this song long before Philip was executed but just couldn’t finish it until that final injustice took place,” Griffith explains. In the song, the focus is on human imperfection – and the finality of the looming punishment. “I am a total abolitionist on the death penalty. I just hope [the song] makes a difference.”
When the cause is championed with the eloquence Nanci Griffith brings to it, it just might.