Much of Nanci Griffith’s work has tended to fall closer to the contemporary folk side of the border with country music, but regardless of genre, her music has been of consistently high quality. Her 20th album is out now in the UK and Ireland where she is currently touring, and is set for release next month in the US on her own Hell No Records, distributed by Sony. She has had a tough time in her personal life in the past few years, and the album is reportedly very personal. Production was a joint effort by Nanci, Pete and Maura Kennedy, and Pat McInerney, with very few outside musicians being involved.
The catchy but abrasive ‘Hell No (I’m Not Alright)’ is angry handclapping protest-folk, and is the first single. Supposedly it is inspired by the Occupy protest movement, but while the official video portrays the latter, I cant detect any overt polical aspects at all in the lyrics. When the song stands on its own merits, it appears to be about a thoughtless man who has let the protagonist down in a personal relationship. Nanci’s personal views about the socio-political situation may have informed her sense of malaise, but standing on its own merits I don’t hear this as a political song at all. The seething anger she expresses at the man’s patronising response to her is universally relateable on a personal level:
Hell no, I’m not alright
You can talk all day and ask all night
Nothing’s gonna change, no end in sight
Hell no, I’m not alright
Did you really think it would be okay
To leave me stranded alone that day?
Did you really think you could wait so long
To call me up to see if you’re alright?
You’re on the bow and I’m alone
And when you’re alone you’re all alone
I’m still gone, it’s all the same
But I’m takin’ notes and I’m namin’ names
Am I the one to get you to forget
That the one is gone, is gone, is gone?
Am I supposed to say you’re okay?
Cause you’re not okay and you’re not okay
The insistently bluesy ‘Come On Up Mississippi’ is more political in the widest sense. It is very short, closking in just under twwo minutes and uses a small children’s choir with unusual restraint. Perhaps the most political song here, it’s an angry response to the poverty of the state of that name and a stirring call for solidarity from other Americans:
Come on up Mississippi
Come on up
I’m coming on up to you
And if only America knew
Of your poverty, your dirty streets, your children with their barefoot feet
They’d all be coming on up to you Missisippi…
Come on up Mississippi
America’s for you
The opening ‘Bethlehem Steel’ laments the closing of a Pennsylvania steelworks in the 1990s and its effect on the town that relied on the jobs it had provided. She paints a detailed and atmospheric picture of “an American icon”, and a sympathetic portrait of a woman remembering childhood memories of the area’s past prosperity gives it a human face. Ethereal backing vocals add to the elegaic mood.
The catchy but repetitive ‘Stranded In The High Ground’ was co-written by all four producers, and has a bright feel but doesn’t really go anywhere lyrically. Nanci also revives her own 20-year-old ‘Just Another Morning here’, with Eric Brace and Peter Cooper on harmony; it is on the folkier side of her repertoire and not one of her more interesting songs.
I enjoyed the surprisingly upbeat defiance of ‘Bad Seed’, written by Nanci and Maura about a deeply troubled father-daughter relationship. This is one of the overtly personal songs, with a scorching indictment of the man who has rejected her, with a twist of humor to leaven the soul searing honesty:
I look like him without the mustache
I’ll have that too if I live that long…
When I’m winning he knows me
When I lose I’m his bad seed
After all he told me
Nothing good would become of me
Now that I’ve gone crazy
With no love from my father
Am I the bad seed he always said I would be?
The title track’s mellow laidback sound underpins the resigned lyric about facing failure and having to move on:
It’s time to walk away though I’ll live to curse this day
Sometimes making the best is doing the worst to yourself
And I will not complain
It’s all still the same
I’ve had a hard life and I write it down
I’m at this intersection here between my hopes and dreams and fears
Traveling love boulevard on a green light
Hitting similar notes thematically, the pensive mid-tempo ‘Never Going Back’, written by Mark Seliger, reminisces gently about moving on from a restrictive neighbourhood. Nanci has always been willing to include other writers’ material alongside her own, and the songs selected from outside writers fit in well with her own material here. Blaze Foley’s mournfully beautiful ‘If I Could Only Fly’ is impeccably done. The gentle ‘Davey’s Last Picture’ (written by Robbin Bach and Betty Reeves) is a sensitive and touching tribute to a young firefighter killed on 9/11. Bach sings harmony on this track.
I particularly enjoyed an unexpected and very charming version of ‘Waiting On A Dark Eyed Gal’, written by Ron Davies (brother of Gail) and recorded some years ago by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Nanci’s wistful version changes the song to make it a third person narration, and gives it an attractive acoustic arrangement. There is also a delightful hillbilly cover of a lesser known Loretta Lynn song, the joyful ‘High On A Mountain Top’, with the Steel Drivers’ Richard Bailey contributing rhythmic jangling banjo. This ends the album on a high note.