POP / Killing folk: Nanci Griffith used to walk around life. Now, she tells Jasper Rees, she's meeting it head-on

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The Independent Online
In the biopics of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, the ingredients common to both were hardship, ballsiness and twang. A big- screen version of the life of Nanci Griffith (born to liberal west Texans; marries young; divorces young and hits the road with her guitar) would slip comfortably alongside.

Like the other films, the Griffith story could be named after one of her songs. Not, perhaps, 'Listen to the Radio', because until alternative radio came along she never qualified for any of the American medium's rigid categories. Nor 'Lone Star State of Mind': 'If there's going to be a bad review anywhere for something that I've done,' she says, 'it'll come out of Texas.' But it could be called 'Ford Econoline', referring to her history of driving thousands of miles to gigs, or 'It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go', in acknowledgement of her campaigning streak, or 'Speed of the Sound of Loneliness', after the John Prine song she covered which tidily sums up her own love-hate relationship with solitude.

The new album would provide useful source material. For Flyer, Griffith has turned her gaze on herself, yielding relentlessly intimate, melodic songs that pick over the bones of little love affairs that failed. In 'Anything You Need But Me', she tells her man where to get off. 'This is as personal as I've ever gotten,' she agrees. 'I guess I've never been too much of an autobiographical writer. I always walked around life rather than through it, and this album is more about the past couple of years of walking head-on into life.'

Flyer is also the result of an extra year or two's worth of songs. Its predecessor, Other Voices Other Rooms, was a set of covers designed to 'take the F-word out of folk' (and Griffith unabashedly takes some credit for landing several of the writers she featured with major-label deals). Everything she has written since 1991 has had to wait till now. There is the usual contribution from Julie Gold, who wrote 'From a Distance', the song that broke Griffith in Ireland and still helps pay the bills, plus 14 Griffith originals - representing perhaps her strongest collection yet.

As a songwriter, Griffith's skills stray closer than anyone's to those of the novelist: she looks and listens and narrates. Hence you picture her at a desk on her Tennessee farm, agonising over prepositions on a word processor, but her methods are in fact far more extemporary. The tune to the title song, like many before it, came to her in an airport; she composed 'Going Back to Georgia' and 'Nobody's Angel' within half an hour of each other at the Dublin flat she's owned for a couple of years; 'Time of Inconvenience', a barnstorming protest song, was written backstage at a benefit concert to raise funds to fight anti- homosexual legislation.

'James Hooker (Griffith's perennial sidekick) and I walked out on stage and played that song and I didn't think it would ever be used for anything, but Peter Buck from REM said that if he used nothing else for this album he wanted that song. So he's really the keeper of it; he's the one that saved it.'

Buck, who produced two songs, is one of the array of star names you find on Griffith's albums nowadays. This time there are the Indigo Girls, the rhythm section of U2, Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris and the former Cricket Sonny Curtis, who plays Stratocaster on 'This Heart', a tribute to Buddy Holly.

'Sonny hadn't played a Stratocaster in 15 years. He was doing some charity work in Romania, but he came back to work on the song because he said Buddy would have wanted him to. And everyone who's heard it says, 'Man, that can't be anyone but Sonny Curtis playing that.' '

For her current tour, Griffith plays the Stratocaster herself. You wonder if there's room for self-improvement anywhere else in a musician for whom the sound of others singing her tunes is 'that stamp of validation that I have achieved what I wanted'. 'I enjoy doing back-up for other people, but I've never really thought of myself as a singer. When you hear my voice it's not going to be confused with anyone else's; it's definitely its own little person. But I'll never be Whitney Houston.' For this relief much thanks.

'Flyer' (MCD11155), MCA records. See Gig Guide, page 26

(Photograph omitted)

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