Nanci Griffith made her major label debut as part of a marketing campaign that MCA Records labeled “country and eastern”, a moniker which also included Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle and the Desert Rose Band. All were on the fringes of the mainstream and hoped to find acceptance at country radio. None of them enjoyed any long-term success, however, and the genre is poorer off as a result. Griffith barely made a dent in the country charts as a recording artist, but she released a handful of very well crafted albums during her tenure with MCA, the first of which was 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind, which she co-produced with Tony Brown.
Up to this point Griffith had released several successful country-flavored folk albums which were released on the independent Philo label. To the extent that she was known to mainstream audiences it was for having written “Love at the Five and Dime”, which had been a Top Five hit for Kathy Mattea in 1986. Lone Star State of Mind consisted of six songs that she wrote or co-wrote, and five other songs penned by outside writers. A conscious effort was made to appeal to country fans by incorporating a generous amount of fiddle and pedal steel into the mix. Though it sold only modestly, the album was Griffith’s most successful during her tenure in Nashville.
The title track, written by Fred Koller, Pat Alger and Gene Levine was the album’s first single. Upbeat and featuring an energetic vocal performance, it rose to #36, becoming Nanci’s highest charting single on the Billboard country chart. It was followed by one of Nanci’s own compositions, “Trouble In The Fields”, which was co-written by Rick West. It tells the story of a farmer and his wife, on the brink of financial ruin due to a drought, and draws comparsions to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. But despite the hardships they face, the couple is determined to soldier on and save their farm from foreclosure:
All this trouble in our fields,
If this rain can fall, these wounds can heal,
They’ll never take our native soil.
And if we sell that new John Deere,
And we work these crops with sweat and tears,
You be the mule, I’ll be the plow,
Come harvest time we’ll work it out,
There’s still a lot of love, here in these troubled fields.
This is a beautiful song, my favorite of anything Nanci has ever done, but sadly it only reached #57. Irish singer Maura O’Connell later covered the song, bringing it to the attention of international audiences. The album’s third and final single, “Cold Hearts/Closed Minds”, another Griffith composition, is more folk than country. It too was more or less ignored by radio and topped out at #64.
Surprisingly, the song for which Nanci is best known was not released as single in the US. She was the first artist to record Julie Gold’s “From A Distance”, which four years later would become a major pop hit for Bette Midler. Nanci’s version is virtually unknown to American audiences, but it became a huge hit in Ireland where it topped the charts and established Nanci as a major star in that country.
“Ford Econoline”, another one of my favorites, is a light-hearted number about a controlling husband who makes the mistake of buying his wife a car, which she promptly uses to escape his clutches and start a singing career. The more contemplative “Nickel Dreams”, written by Mac McAnally and Don Lowery, had been recorded by Reba McEntire a few years earlier. Tanya Tucker would borrow the title for autobiography a few years later, despite never having recorded the song.
The album closes on a very personal and introspective note. “There’s A Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)” is a re-recording of the title track of Griffith’s 1978 debut album. She uses the occasion to address a childhood friend and to reminisce about key events of their lives, including meeting Nanci’s boyfriend John, and his subsequent death in a motorcycle accident shortly after their senior prom.
Nanci’s sometimes quirky vocal style may not be to everyone’s taste, and this may have been a factor in hampering her commercial success. She did, however, write and record many literate and substantive songs, some of which went on to become hits for other artists. Lone Star State of Mind reached #23, making it Nanci’s highest charting album on the Billboard Country Albums chart. Regrettably, commercial success continued to elude her and she eventually moved in a more pop direction and had her contract transferred to MCA’s L.A. division. Shortly thereafter she departed the label altogether and began to revisit her folk roots on Elektra Records.
Lone Star State of Mind is easy to find on CD and in digital form. New copies tend to be expensive, but used copies are quite inexpensive.