Nanci Griffith wasn’t fresh off of the bus when she recorded five albums for MCA—she already had four records and a Grammy nomination to her credit. MCA, though, is arguably where she blossomed (even if sales didn’t keep pace), and it’s hard to think of Nanci Griffith without humming more than a few of the songs she recorded between 1987 and 1991.
The Complete MCA Studio Recordings takes four of Griffith’s MCA records (excluding the live One Fair Summer Evening) and crams them onto two CDs. Not only does this free up the valuable space that those four CDs were already taking up on my shelves, but it also makes more apparent the stylistic growth she experienced during those years. In a lot of ways, Griffith’s strengths were fully-formed when she recorded 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind: the alternately breezy and commanding voice, the keen eye for detail, and her ability to craft gentle vignettes that make you feel like you’re thumbing through an old photo album as sepia-tinted backstories play out in your head.
When Griffith signed with MCA, it was at a time when a few left-of-center acts like Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle were being cautiously introduced to Nashville (a body as quick as any to reject anything smacking of radicalism—strange, then, how conventional Griffith, Earle, and Lovett all seem today). Befitting that environment, Griffith recorded Lone Star State of Mind and its 1988 followup Little Love Affairs with a crack Nashville band that even included Bela Fleck on banjo. Consequently, those two records contain your standard country sound—but even then, Griffith was pushing the boundaries of her songwriting style. Literate from the start, Griffith created some of her most enduring classics in songs like “Love Wore a Halo (Back Before the War)”, “Gulf Coast Highway”, “Ford Econoline”, “Little Love Affairs”, and “I Wish It Would Rain”.
For all the critical accolades, however, Griffith’s sales left something to be desired. Unsure what to do with her, MCA shifted her from its Nashville division to its Pop division. Although Griffith’s work maintained the bold production that distinguished it from her earlier work on Philo, the difference in approach is immediately apparent on 1989’s Storms. The pedal steel, banjo, and other country implements are largely replaced by keyboards—some of which naturally feel dated today. Also more noticeable is a strong piano presence, of the style that Bruce Hornsby was making popular at the time. As for the songs? Griffith standards like “I Don’t Want to Talk About Love”, “Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights”, “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go”, and “Listen to the Radio” were all given birth on Storms.
By this time, with a solid fanbase seemingly cemented, Griffith still wasn’t attaining the sales that MCA was looking for. 1991’s brilliant Late Night Grande Hotel made things even worse. Featuring full-bodied orchestration and more attention to pop styles, the album alienated many of Griffith’s die-hard fans. While not as heavy on instant classics—although “It’s Just Another Morning Here” and her cover of Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade” belong on any reputable best-of—Late Night Grande Hotel holds up extremely well these days as a cohesive piece, no less of a success than her previous efforts.
At this point though, with Griffith’s sales seeming to grow in an inverse relationship to her artistic growth, she parted ways with MCA and went on to form a beneficial relationship with Elektra, and to form the relaxed, mature style that we enjoy today. The albums Griffith recorded for MCA have never really been in danger of being lost or forgotten—they’re just too good. Griffith might not have gotten the rewards she deserved at the time, but her position as a legend and not-so-elder-stateswoman in the singer/songwriter field are indisputable on the basis of these albums. Even without the three bonus tracks previously unavailable in the U.S.—“Tumble and Fall”, “Wooden Heart”, and “Stand Your Ground”—this is a definitive collection that any fan of Griffith (who doesn’t already own all of the originals) should pick up.