(“Exploring the Classics” (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music’s past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I’ll be revisiting albums with which I’ve long been familiar, in others I’ll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as “noteworthy” is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I’m not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music.)
While the mid-’80s through the early ’90s are a period associated with neotraditional country music, it was also a time when a generation of highly literate singer-songwriters with folk leanings began to emerge, making excellent music that was inspired by Americana and alt-country forebears like Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Guy Clark. While their commercial success was often limited, they made some of the most essential music of that era.
Nanci Griffith was one of the leading lights of this country-folk subgenre. Her first couple of albums showed promise, but she began to come into her own with 1984’s Once in a Very Blue Moon. In ’86, she released what is considered by many to be her masterwork, The Last of the True Believers.
The music is not squarely country, but not pure folk either. There is some steel guitar (provided by the legendary Lloyd Green), but dobros, mandolin, banjo and cello are the focus here. The sound is warm and organic, and manages to avoid the sterile and tinny production that marred so many country albums in the mid-’80s. Nanci’s voice might take a little getting used to but it is absolutely beautiful, and the way it quivers and dances around each syllable is something to behold.
The album’s true strength, however, is the songwriting. There’s not a single phoned-in track. Every song is creative, original, and has something to say. The stories and characters are fleshed-out and believable, emotionally engaging but never manipulative. The songs seem simple initially, only for new layers to reveal themselves on repeated listens. Whether it’s the story of a Eddie and Rita and the ups and downs of their relationship over decades, the prostitute looking to leave her life behind, or the middle-aged Manhattan couple considering moving back home to Texas, each song inhabits its own little word that is distinctly Nanci Griffith.
While Kathy Mattea had hit singles with covers of “Love at the Five & Dime” and “Goin’ Gone”, this album and Nanci in general aren’t as nearly well-known as they should be. It’s an excellent album that anyone who loves great songwriting would be well-served to give a try.
Standout Track: Tom Russell’s “St. Olav’s Gate”, one of two tracks Nanci didn’t write, tells of an ill-fated romance at a saloon in Norway, and contains some outstanding imagery and turns of phrase
Worst or Least Essential Track: “Goin’ Gone” might be the least memorable lyrically, but it’s still a highly enjoyable tune
Best Lyric: “Oh, I never put a chain upon your heart or tried to make you walk the line for me
Only a fool would want a heart that needs a chain to keep it restin’ here beside me”
Lesser-Known Gem: “The Wing & The Wheel” is a tender ballad that examines how people begin to mellow or give up on their dreams as they age
Recommended If You Like: Lyle Lovett (who makes a cameo on the album’s cover), Kathy Mattea, Suzy Bogguss, Mary Chapin Carpenter