Nanci Griffith: Lots of Friends And Some Fun

Steve Morse, Boston Globe (1995-04-13)

The story tells much about Nanci Griffith. She comes off stage in Dublin, only to be greeted by a stranger in her dressing room. The stranger is drummer Larry Mullen Jr. of mega-stars U2. He’s among the many players magnetized by Griffith in recent years, no doubt because she’s so genuine and so unaffected by corporate concerns.

“Larry was just sitting there and I didn’t recognize him,” Griffith says. “I offered him a beer and he said, ’Yeah,sure.’ And finally he said, ’You don’t know who I am, do you ?’ When he said he was Larry Mullen from U2, I nearly fainted. He said, ’The rest of the lads are in with your band, but I bribed your road manager to be in here so I could introduce myself because I’m such a big fan. I’m really surprised that you didn’t throw me out of your dressing room. You’re everything that I ever thought you were.’ “

Griffith, who plays Symphony Hall tomorrow and Worcester’s Mechanics Hall on Saturday, enlisted U2’s Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton to play on her latest album, “Flyer.” It was the first time they had played on a non-U2 album, she says. They’re not the only stars to help record this quietly beautiful, highly personal folk-rock-country album, which follows “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” an album that had guest appearances by Bob Dylan, Odetta, John Prine, John Gorka and Leo Kottke.

For the new disc, Peter Buck of R.E.M. played and produced a couple of tracks. Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits added his piquant guitar. The Indigo Girls and the Chieftains added their skills. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows sang a blue grassy duet with Griffith on “Going Back to Georgia.” And further help came from guitarist Al Anderson of NRBQ and harmonica ace Mickey Raphael of Willie Nelson’s band.

“It was an accident of fate to have all these people on this album,” Griffith says recently from her Nashville office. “But it was a real honor to have everybody on there. And everybody chose the songs they wanted to play on.What made it work is that nobody was a regular session player. So what you have is a lot of intriguing personalities sitting in a circle playing music.”

Griffith has toured so often in the last decade (she started out driving alone to gigs across the country) that she has gathered the reputation as a musician’s musician. It was only natural that some musicians would become her biggest, most loyal fans.

“Every time we would play in Atlanta, the R.E.M. guys would call the management office and request tickets.And they’d come to my shows,” she says. “I think R.E.M. and U2 are probably the two biggest bands in theworld. They’re also among the most humble, nicest people in the world.”

R.E.M. guitarist Buck was so committed to helping out on the new recording that he initially produced eight tracks. Only two are on “The Flyer” album, but the rest will come out on a special disc that Elektra Records will release in August.

“It’s going to be called ’Three Weekends in Georgia,’ “ says Griffith. “Seven of the songs are the same songs that are out now, but they’re different, more acoustic versions. And then there’s one song that’s not on ’TheFlyer’ album called ’Hearts in Motion.’ The guys from Widespread Panic are on it with my rhythm section.

“The songs are real open, very simple and Peter kept my guitar right up front,” says Griffith. “I think Elektra loved both versions of the songs and felt both should be heard. . . . It’s like two different sides of me.“Sometimes, like her reaction to Mullen’s backstage visit, Griffith is disarmed by such high-level musician interest. Take, for example, the support given by Durvitz of Counting Crows.

“I was a fan of Counting Crows before their album had come out,” says Griffith. “I had an advance cassette of it. And then I picked up Rolling Stone one day and was reading Adam’s Top Ten list for the year and I had two records on it. I never even expected he would know who I was. I had written ’Going Back to Georgia’ as a duet, so I got in touch with him, because I heard he was a big fan of hanging out in Athens, Ga., just as I am. And it worked out really well. He was fun to work with.”

Fun, by the way, is the new word in Griffith’s vocabulary. The Texas-raised singer turned 40 last summer and received a lecture from her dad about having more fun in life, versus her workaholic tendencies of old.

“My dad threw a huge party for me,” she says. “That was kind of a disaster because he came up to me and said, ’Why won’t you have fun ? You’re turning 40 now and you’re never had fun all your life. Even when you were a child, you wouldn’t have fun. You’d have to go off and think about it for a while and by the time you thought about it, the fun was had.’ And he got really angry with me. So I went off and thought about it. It took me six months until New Year’s Eve to realize that he was right. So my New Year’s resolution was : ’If it’s not fun, don’t do it.’

“My dad has always had fun, so we’re kind of opposites in that regard,” Griffith says. “Sometimes I feel like I was in the middle of the rose garden, but I couldn’t smell the roses because I was busy tending the ground.That’s kind of what it’s been like. But now it’s time to wake up and smell the roses and realize this is the finest time of my life. I’ve seen so many things that I’ve dreamed of in childhood come true. To write songs for great voices was always my big dream. And I’ve seen that come true. I hadn’t really sat back and celebrated that and said, ’Wow, that’s great. It happened.’ “

As for the personal nature of the album, Griffith digs into her heart for the poignant “Goodnight to a Mother’s Dream,” the political “Time of Inconvenience” (boldly singing that “the right-to-life man has become my enemy”) and the title track “The Flyer,” where she admits to being romantically clumsy.

“It is a real personal album and it’s a departure for me,” she says. “I have been a writer who leans more toward my literary roots – and to writing fiction in 3 1/2-minute songs and creating characters – as opposed to waking up at 40 and realizing that I’m a character within myself. It was still almost like writing the older material, but I was a character this time, instead of creating them.”

Meanwhile, she’s back on the road with her own group, the Blue Moon Orchestra. “This tour has been great,“she says. “We sold out three nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London. When I walked in the door the first day, the whole staff met me with flowers and champagne and said, ’Welcome home.’ That’s become my home away from home in England. And Symphony Hall has become the same thing in Boston. It’s overwhelming for me to sit back and say, ’I’m really playing in Symphony Hall.’ “

True enough. But is she having fun yet ? We’ll find out this weekend.

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