Nanci Griffith, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

More twang for your buck
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The Independent Culture

Let me do a walk-on part in East Enders," pleads the new recipient of the Radio 2 Folk Lifetime Achievement Award. "I'll take my tour laundry to Dot..."

If she did, Griffith would no doubt engage Walford's tomb-faced laundress in lengthy, earnest conversation, her broad, hiccuping Texan twang blending in after a while. Because Griffith, though rightly classified as country during her 32-year career, approaches the form as American folk music. As she'll also say tonight, she began writing her own country songs in the hope of following Loretta Lynn into the hearts of "farm women and city women" who might need them. And in writing about such people, as she sings in "Across America", "you don't know someone till you look them in the eye". Hers is a music of common concerns, realised by sympathetic, warm-blooded inquiry.

On her new album, The Loving Kind, she can in truth come across as dryly earnest. But as her goofy references to EastEnders and America's Got Talent suggest, Griffith in person is intimate and uninhibited. Her beautifully understated three-piece band settle in behind her, even Thomm Jutz's controlled steel-guitar flash and the occasional pop thump to Pat McInerney's drums barely inviting your attention. Griffith herself stands tall in a long black coat.

"The word 'new' doesn't fit into what I do," she noted 20 years ago when, with the likes of Steve Earle, she was being peddled as new country. "I'm returning to what made country strong, simplicity, integrity, and stories people can relate to." "I want a simple life like my mother's," she sings tonight, and the national landmarks she notes in "Across America" are clichés invigorated with hope. Irony and intricate wordplay have little place here, where music flows with the clear, clean directness of her voice.

She is so sweet-natured in her social commitment, heart so open wide, that she can say, "Children are our future", and not quite sound corny. Similarly, when she explains her new song "The Loving Kind", about an illegal inter-racial marriage in 1958 Virginia, her natural, mounting passion for its heroine Mildred Loving, who won her case in the Supreme Court, would leave only Nick Griffin unmoved. When she goes on to quote Loving in defence of same-sex marriage, she has moved smoothly into still contentious terrain, opening more hard minds, perhaps.

Over 90 minutes or so, Griffiths' modestly told straight stories, though the essence of country, can leave the mind wandering. It's a relief when "Ford Econoline" revs up for a battered woman's screeching-tyres escape to freedom, and "Tequila after Midnight" summons visions of roadside honkytonk neon. "Are you getting enough to drink?" she enquires of the sedately admiring Radio 2 crowd that is country's UK heartland. Buddy Holly's "Well...All Right" and the Stones' "No Expectations" are added as earthy encores. It's rarely been thrilling, but there's been time and room to think about other people: part of the pleasure of American folk's big country.

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