It’s good to have Griffith going back to her folk/country roots for inspiration.
Nanci Griffith began her career as a folk/country singer, but that side of her has been missing for most of the past decade, as she explored everything from torch songs to light classical music. Now she’s returned back to her roots for her first album of mostly new material in almost five years. The results are a mixed bag. Griffith comes up with some terrific songs and puts them over with grace and style, but she sometimes tries too hard to be topical or deep. The sincerity can grate rather than please.
Griffith co-wrote nine of the 13 songs on the record, not including the title cut. The details of “The Loving Kind” are so explicitly clear and evocative that it sounds like the kind of tune that creates itself. Richard and Mildred Loving were a white man and black woman who were jailed and forced to leave their home state of Virginia because of miscegenation laws that barred interracial marriage. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Virginia law and declared marriage “a basic civil right.” In these days where gay marriage is still a controversial topic, Griffith’s song seems especially relevant. The fact that the couple was actually named “Loving” adds a sweet connotation to the proceedings.
The other standout track also comes from a case of miscarried justice, but in this case the situation was not resolved as well. “Not Innocent Enough” concerns the death row case of Philip Workman. He was convicted of killing a Memphis police officer in 1981 and executed by the state of Tennessee in the spring of 2007, despite new evidence that proved his innocence. Griffith, an anti-death penalty proponent, passionately sings against the injustice of the situation, backed by John Prine, Todd Snider, and Elizabeth Cook.
The supporting cast on the album includes a top notch group of session musicians, with Pat McInerney on drums, Thomm Jutz on guitar (Jutz and McInerney also produced the record), Fats Kaplin on pedal steel, Shad Cobb on fiddle, Barry Walsh on keyboards, and Matt McKenzie on bass. The band does a good job of keeping the music always moving without getting in the way of the lyrics. Griffith has a distinctively pretty voice that sounds somewhere between a kittenish whisper and an articulate orator. Even when she raises her voice, Griffith sounds as if she’s quietly trying to get your attention. It would be easy for a band to overwhelm her with volume, but the instrumentation never does.
The weakest tracks are the ones in which Griffith oversimplifies details to make a point, whether it’s telling the story of Townes Van Zandt on “Up Against the Rain” or lambasting President George W. Bush on “Still Life”. There are better songs by other artists on these subjects. Griffith’s attempts tend to fall flat, though with good intentions. She does much better on “Cotton”, where she empathetically tells of the life of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Here she lets the specifics of time and place make the case for her.
It's good to have Griffith going back to her folk/country roots for inspiration. She originally mined that musical tradition where personal and political concerns meld together in a call for social change. These times call for musicians to pay attention, to use their music to help us all move forward together. Griffith's return to the movement is a welcome one.