Nanci Griffith has been unplugged for years. Which is to say that Nanci Griffith is what was once known in America as a folk singer. For more than two decades the term has languished as a symbol of an earnest, bygone era long ago supplanted by the power chords and swagger of rock and all that has come after.
Although the tradition never really went away, many of its practitioners vanished into a kind of artistic lost generation, struggling to support themselves on independent record labels and in tiny clubs and church coffeehouses. Some fell by the wayside, but Griffith, a Texan whose frisky contralto and earthy art songs are, as they might say in Hollywood, character-driven, has not only survived but achieved the kind of acceptance generally thought to be beyond the realm of folkdom. Her latest album, "Flyer," made with the help of members of U2, R.E.M., Mark Knopfler and the Chieftains, has sold about 300,000 copies. On tour, she has been filling 1,500-seat halls across the country and in Europe. Last fall, she played four nights on Broadway and sold out three nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Griffith, it seems, has become something of a standard-bearer for a folk revival. No one agrees what folk music is anymore--if they ever did--but as rap, metal, grunge, post-punk rock and line-dance country continue to hammer the radio and record charts, it's tempting to view the success of performers like Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and even R.E.M. as a reflection of a renewed appreciation for the simplicity of acoustic instruments and lyrical storytelling that are the roots of blues and country music.
The MTV Unplugged shows, designed to scale down some of rock's biggest acts for living room-size semi-acoustic sessions, has been one sign of the back-to-basics movement that dates back to the late-'80s emergence of Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman. A more recent marker is the the surprising sales of the Chieftains' new album, "Long Black Veil," that ushered singers like Sting, Mick Jagger, Sinead O'Connor and Tom Jones into the traditional acoustic world with Ireland's fabled folk ensemble. (On April 1, that album reached reached No. 22 on Billboard's Top 200 chart.) Along with Griffith's "Flyer" and former Blaster Dave Alvin's mostly acoustic "King of California," the Chieftains' album has actually been getting airplay--something rare for folk performers. It's being played on stations flying the new banner of Adult Album Alternative, a format designed to combat the tiresome "just the hits" regimen and acknowledge some of the vibrant but radio-invisible folk and "roots" music being made.
"They're starting to find a place for all these acts that don't fit in anywhere," says Alvin. "Nanci Griffith may not sell as many records as Gloria Estefan, but she's doing OK."
"I'd say the folk scene is way more organized than it was even in the '60s," says Brad Paul, national promotions director for the leading independent folk record label, Philo/Rounder in Cambridge, Mass., that still distributes Griffith's first four LPs. "The end of the '70s was the low mark. There were maybe two clubs left in Boston in 1979 and two radio shows. Now, there are too many clubs and coffeehouses to even list, and you can hear the music seven days a week on the radio."
Rejected for years by commercial radio and the mass media, artists like Griffith, Christine Lavin, Robin and Linda Williams, David Wilcox, Lucinda Williams, Bill Morrissey, Cheryl Wheeler, Tom Russell and Townes Van Zandt continued making music at clubs like McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, at festivals and at house concerts, and in some cases found receptive audiences in Europe. Public radio and college radio have been a lifeline to their recordings.
"We're way up in attendance in the last two years," says John Chelew, who books the 150-seat space at McCabe's. "We're seeing a new generation of college kids and high school students/ Little girls with nose rings and purple hair are coming to see Doc Watson."
It says something about the fate of folk music in America that Griffith, who started out in Austin in the late '70s, got her first serious radio airplay in England and Ireland, where station playlists are less rigid. Her version of Julie Gold's "From a Distance" became a No. 1 song in Ireland in 1985, six years before Bette Midler had a hit with it in the United States during the Gulf War.