Nanci Griffith made her impact in the mid-1980s as a terrific songwriter in the Texas tradition—a country/folk balladeer straddling melody and lyrics with artful directness. She wrote hits for Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss, and her reputation spread. Moves from Austin to Nashville and from small to major label made her more prominent as a performer, with her “cute” but potent voice riding atop clean, acoustic arrangements that sometimes suggested pop, sometimes country, usually a folk amalgam that could warm your heart and get under your skin.
As Griffith moved from MCA to Elektra, she seemed to rediscover her folkier roots in a series of studious tributes to her folksong heroes—Other Voices, Other Rooms and a sequel. These albums were well-received, but some of Griffith’s less endearing ticks were on full display: beat-you-over-the-head literary pretension (Other Voices, Other Rooms being the name of Truman Capote’s first novel, which Griffith clutches on the cover, much as she showed off her love for Larry McMurtry on a previous cover), earnestness absent playfulness, and vocal mannerisms that seemed unsuited to a maturing voice. Griffith—once a songwriter who put a witty touch on her own quirky tunes—had become a grand dame of the folk scene, Emmylou Harris but without the right voice or a sufficiently edgy band.
Ruby’s Torch is supposed to be Griffith’s take on the “torch song” tradition—a date that sets Griffith’s voice against a 13-piece string section and a barely-there rhythm section. She takes on two of her classic songs (“Brave Companion of the Road” and “Late Night Grand Hotel”) and covers three songs by Tom Waits, some folk love songs, as well as “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”—the only traditional torch song “standard” in the batch. It is a departure for Griffith in some ways, but mostly it is a continuation of her progress toward a precious traditionalism that leaves her old material seeming golden in comparison.
The Tom Waits covers say it all. Griffith’s voice is the precise polar opposite of the patented Waits gravel-growl, but so what? Other bell-voiced singers have tackled Waits. But the string arrangements (along with a clarinet, a piano, that sort of thing) drench the Waits material in a washed-out pleasantry. “Ruby’s Arms”, a story of a man leaving his love behind in the dead of the night, sounds swollen and uplifting in its arrangement. “Grapefruit Moon” is a quirky song of unrequited desire over time, but Griffith delivers it with the unctuous smile of Kermit the Frog. (Might Griffith have tried “It’s Not Easy Being Green”?) And “Please Call Me, Baby” just sounds wrong with its swirling strings underlying the confession that “I’m selfish and I’m cruel but you’re blind / If I exorcize my devils, well, my angels may leave too.”
Griffith’s take on “Wee Small Hours” ought to succeed. She has an intimate voice, and she delivers the melody without revealing the odd little country hiccups and nasal-ities she sometimes favors. But the arrangement, with its glockenspiel runs and its impossibly leaden strings-only interlude, takes all the elasticity and feeling out of the track. And it hurts to think how Nanci might have sounded delivering the song with just a good jazz pianist or the empathy of her orchestra-less “Blue Moon Orchestra” with its Prairie Home Companion-esque sense of Western Swing.
In fact, it’s the very next song (and the last song on the disc) that makes the case for what this disc should have sounded like. On “Drops from the Faucet”, a tune written by her former guitar player Frank Christian, the rhythm section plays with some authority and Nanci sings like she’s having some fun rather than honoring someone or some genre. Here, the strings have to battle to be relevant and then are nicely shown up by a growling trumpet solo. Griffith seems twenty years younger simply for not trying so hard.
Fans of Griffith (and I am one of them, believe it or not) will certainly want to hear her reinterpretations of “Brave Companion” and “Late Night Grande Hotel”, both smashing tunes written when she was firing on all cylinders. On these tracks, her voice makes so much more sense, curling around the words with all its quirks in proper place. “Brave Companion” survives the strings, though why anyone thought a soprano saxophone solo was in order is a mystery. “Late Night” is mostly piano a voice, with the strings doing the right thing—just tugging on the high timbres in Griffith’s voice in a few places.
No doubt Griffith fans will bathe in a chance to hear her—a genuine hero of a certain kind of pleasant but independent American music—stretch. New listeners, however, won’t hear even a tenth of Griffith’s true measure in Ruby’s Torch. For those folks, you want to point to Storms and Lone Star State of Mind and say—there she is: dig Nanci Griffith. Today, she seems to have moved away from her strength, seeking some kind of legitimacy when she didn’t need to.
It’s a shame—a torch song topic if ever there was one.