Nanci Griffith,
There's a Light Beyond These Woods
(self-produced, 1986;
Rounder/Philo, 2002)

Nanci Griffith has been on the music scene for longer than seems possible. She started performing in public when she was only 14 and released her first album, on an independent label, in 1978 when she was in her early 20s. This first album was later re-released by Philo/Rounder in 1986, and that company saw fit to do so again in 2002. There's a Light Beyond These Woods is Griffith's first full-length album. It's an album that even diehard fans from earlier decades might not have heard until the first reissue; newer fans have a chance to hear it again today. They might be a little surprised by what they hear.

This album doesn't show the sophisticated, worldly Griffith found on Clock Without Hands, her most recent release of new material. Here, she's still the young West Texas woman whose songs reflect the music she'd heard performed around her when she was young. She's incredibly earnest, though, and her material resounds with the feel of a lost time, further reflected in her lyrics. The opening track, "I Remember Joe," talks about "your golden lights of America" and heroes "that were ruthless soldiers who'd kill for gold." On "West Texas Sun," she sings to someone who is "still as wild as those old west Texas plains." There's "John Phillip Griffith," who "loved to gamble in his day, and he burned his bridges well." Already she's writing touching portraits of people, memories and dreams.

Although some lines sound trite ("I used to hide out in his pretty smile," she confesses in "Michael's Song"), and sometimes the music, as on "Michael's Song," probably the weakest track, feels forced to fit the words, the roots to Griffith's later songs clearly are here. She's firmly ensconced in country folk at this point; crossover status wouldn't appear until later. Her duet with then husband Eric Taylor, "Dollar Matinee" (also penned by Taylor), is laid back folkabilly. Her famous vibrato isn't yet always under full control. If her voice could be viewed and not just heard, the opening to "Alabama Soft-Spoken Blues" might resemble a woman whose curls just aren't willing to be tamed on a humid day. It's a little bit of a shock at first, but its wildness is nicely juxtaposed against the gentle acoustic guitars in the background. There are other times when more of that wildness would be desirable.

Probably the most famous song on the album is the title track, addressed to her long-time friend Mary Margaret. It makes its first appearance here, but it's been re-recorded and is most likely the only piece from this first album that's still performed live. Starting from when they're 10 years old and dreaming about their futures to Margaret's family years later, she talks about Maggie and about her high-school boyfriend John who died not long after the senior prom. Griffith confesses that she's living the fantasies they planned but that she hasn't changed. "There'll never be two friends like you and me," she sings confidently.

Griffith has walked a long road from this CD to her current status -- best-selling albums, Grammy awards, and fervent work with the Coalition for a Landmine Free World. This first full-length album is a necessity for hardcore fans. Others familiar with her music might find it a curious, fun discovery. Anyone new to her sound, however, might want to start a little later in her musical catalogue for his or her first listen.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 11 May 2002

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