Hell No — I’m Not Alright: Nanci Griffith in Performance and New Album, “Intersection”
“Intersection” is Nanci Griffth’s twentieth album in a recorded journey that began 34 years ago in 1978 with “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” The title “Intersection” should come as no surprise as Ms. Griffith has always mingled the highly personal emotional experiences with highly emotional social/political beliefs, always mixed bittersweet love stories with with a sense of outrage. This new collection of songs again intersects new originals with favorites of others.
I first heard her sometime in the early 1980’s on the local NPR station’s broadcast of a live performance. Yes, that distinctive voice with an accent that had not schooled out of her was what first caught my undivided attention, but it was her overall sensibility to the music that struck me the most. Within days I sought out the “Once In a Very Blue Moon” album with that great photo of her in a flowered red skirt that featured some soon to become household names, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor and Lyle Lovett before his Eraserhead hair. I was hooked and have followed her ever since, and I remember with great fondness her appearances and championing others on The Nashville Network when TV was still good and there was hope for us all in the arms of country music.
But, country music, like our country, turned the other way. The album begins with a lament for the hope and the future that was once our country, epitomized by the working men and women in a symbolic US industry, “Bethlehem Steel.” The song originated from a performance where a closed Bethlehem Steel plant served as backdrop. When mills, like other businesses that actually created something, shut down the interconnectedness was lost, the community lost its vibrancy.
I think that is at the heart of the great divide, one side ships jobs overseas then cynically blames the jobless in our country for being poor and the rest of us seemingly just trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Ms. Griffith stands her ground with what has become a new anthem, “Hell No (I’m Not Alright),” not just with the Occupy movement and Move On, but with anyone who does not like the direction the ultra right is pushing our country. The video, like the song, is something to behold.
So, it was with that backdrop I saw her again for the first time since an anti-Bush rally on Labor Day 2004 on the first stop on her U.S. tour in Blacksburg, Virginia. The historic Lyric Theater contrasted with the gleaming new college campus that surrounded it was nearly as obvious as the students in shorts on a chilly April evening and the mostly older audience inside.
“Intersection” in many ways is reminiscent of her earlier albums, and has a lively home-made feel to it. Later I found out that was because it was recorded in her Nashville home. Her friends and co-musicians, Pete & Maura Kennedy, moved their New York studio so she could record the album the way she wanted, at her own speed and inclination. This results in an album that feel both relaxed and immediate at the same time.
While most performers use current tours to promote the new record, it was not until the with song in the set that Ms. Griffith sang a song from the album, that love song to a lost America, “Bethlehem Steel,” and a young Robert DeNiro running naked — at minute 47 in the movie — in the streets. But neither was the performance a walk down memory lane; they were like chapters in a novel, each one peeling away another layer revealing a little more of what it’s all about, including the essential stories behind the songs. I could sit and listen to the stories alone. The songs I can hear most anytime, but the stories are to die for.
While a setlist is below, the high point for me was the Kate Wolf song she sang on a tribute album some years ago, “Across the Great Divide.” Not only have I long been an admirer of Ms. Wolf — a name far too many people do not recognize — I heard her years before first hearing Ms. Griffith.
But then again, she has always seemed to promote others and their works just as much as her own. As epitomized by her “Texas Connection” appearances on TNN of 20+ years ago, its about community, music and otherwise, and raising the audience’s awareness level to performing songwriters they ought to know about.
While my personal highlight on the album is The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Waiting on a Dark Eyed Gal,” the rousing high point of both the album and the performance is/was “Hell No (I’m Not Alright)” with the duly appointed Clap Brothers. Coming in the middle of the album, it makes you get up and dance, and as the lone encore, it serves to send you home knowing there are other people out there just as pissed off as you are!
I know I have not “reviewed” the new album, but with so many ways to hear individual songs from it and snippets of songs, I figure you can do that just as easy as I can describe them for you. Besides, it’s a new Nanci Griffith album, so what else do you really need to know?
All performance photographs taken at the Lyric Theater, Blacksburg, Virginia on April 12, 2012 by Amos Perrine with the kind permission of Nanci Griffith. And the folks at the Lyric were great. Go out of your way to see a performance there.
Including more show in the East.
Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
I Want a Simple Life
Love at the Five & Dime
Never Going Back
Just Another Morning Here
From a Distance
Trouble in the Fields
The Loving Kind
Across the Great Divide
The Tequilia Song
Listen to the Radio
Hell No (I’m Not Alright)