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A Die-Hard Folkie--and Proud of It : Nanci Griffith's album 'Other Voices, Other Rooms' is a tribute to the songwriters who have influenced her. 'It's always made me incredibly angry that the music industry turned its back on folk music,' she says

March 28, 1993|RICHARD CROMELIN | Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar

Does this sound familiar?

The singer doesn't get any mainstream radio play, maybe because she's a little too close to a traditional form. But people respond to the honesty of her singing, and she gradually builds a loyal audience through a backbreaking tour schedule.

Mixing her own songs with material by other writers and playing music that extends a "root" American style, she earns a reputation for taste and integrity and becomes a consistent record seller in the 200,000 range.

Finally, a hip record producer makes her a little more radio-friendly, and she unexpectedly connects with a mass audience, selling millions of records and raking in Grammys.

That final chapter of the Bonnie Raitt story hasn't happened yet for Nanci Griffith, and it isn't likely to happen with her just-released 10th album. But her new record company doesn't see any reason why it can't happen somewhere down the line.

"Who knows why everything conspired for Bonnie Raitt?" says Steve Ralbovsky, the vice president of artists and repertoire who signed Griffith to Elektra Records last year. "She had a career based on goodwill and honesty, and it all came together. We hope we can have that kind of success with Nanci."

Ralbovsky identifies an audience in the 25-45 age range that appreciates "intimate, emotional, heartfelt" music.

"Look at somebody like (singer) David Wilcox," he says. "He sells over 100,000 albums, and he just drives from folk club to folk club in his Toyota, with no airplay. The people who listen are looking for those kind of people.

"Nanci is interested in working with producers who would keep the acoustic underpinning but perhaps make records that would be more radio palatable. I think people root for an artist who's carved out her own niche, done it her own way, lasted a long time and really has touched their lives with her songs. They're gonna want you to have your day."

Rather than the commercial gesture that might pull that off, the new "Other Voices, Other Rooms" is a tribute to the songwriters who have influenced her, and to the tradition that's the wellspring of her music.

What the blues is to Raitt, folk music is to Griffith--a personal passion and a musical foundation, and she speaks of it with the same zeal Raitt applies to the blues.

"It's always made me incredibly angry that the music industry turned its back on folk music and said it's not commercially viable," says Griffith, sitting in an office at Elektra's Beverly Hills headquarters. "We all know that's not true. The Weavers sold a lot of records. Bob Dylan sold a lot of records.

"Folk music and rap music are the only two American forms of music that have any kind of social conscience whatsoever. So I think it deserves to be on the radio, deserves to be heard."

Does she see any encouraging signs?

"I do. I see R.E.M., I see the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman. And the fact that I'm still surviving, I'm still here. I won't go away."

In "Other Voices, Other Rooms"--named for Truman Capote's first book--Griffith has assembled songs representing each folk revival, from the Carter Family's 1877 composition "Are You Tired of Me Darling" to works by such contemporary writers as Buddy Mondlock and Frank Christian. In between are Woody Guthrie and the Weavers, Dylan, Tom Paxton and John Prine, Janis Ian and the late Kate Wolf, among others. (See review, Page 74.)

Guest musicians include Emmylou Harris, Dylan, Prine, Carolyn Hester, Iris DeMent, Guy Clark and Chet Atkins. Clark and heralded newcomer DeMent are part of Griffith's concert tour roster, which plays April 16 at the Wiltern Theatre.

The project was something Griffith had often thought about, but it took solid form in the final hours of 1991, at her traditional New Year's Eve get-together with Harris.

"Emmy and I were talking about Kate Wolf, and the fact that Kate has been gone since 1986 and that no one was recording her songs," says Griffith, telling the story she recounts in the album booklet.

"And if you don't record the songs, they just die, they go away, no one sings them. Emmy said the most marvelous thing, which was that songs need to be sung in new voices in places that they've never been heard before, in order to stay alive and have new life. It really was a statement that said it's time for me to do this record."

Financing the project herself while extracting herself from her MCA Records contract, Griffith reunited with producer Jim Rooney. Their collaboration was as smooth as their first work together nine years ago, when they recorded the 13 songs of "Once in a Very Blue Moon" in two days.

"She still has that ability to focus and concentrate, and yet be pretty relaxed at the same time," Rooney says. "What I'm always after is a performance, and Nanci is fully capable of performing live in the studio."

Griffith says it wasn't that relaxed.

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