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Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith With Superb New Releases from Craft Recordings and Rounder Records

09-28-2023 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 129

Craft Recordings has just released Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners, a new box set which anthologizes the country-folk icon's first four, long-out-of-print catalog albums. As a companion to the box set, Rounder Records (a Craft imprint) has announced More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith, a tribute album that features performances from a diverse group of artists that were associated with Nanci Griffith or have been deeply influenced by her music. Fans of Nanci Griffith and her music will be overwhelmed by the goodness of these two new releases from Craft and Rounder. The LPs and CDs are sold out at Craft's webstore, but can be ordered from Amazon; Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners can be ordered HERE and More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith can be ordered HERE. And of course, they can usually always be found at your local independent record store.

Nanci Griffith was raised in the music mecca of Austin, Texas, where her father exposed her to the local music scene as a teen. She soon started playing coffee houses and cabarets; she described her performance style as "folkabilly." An abundantly creative songwriter, artist, and performer, she toured and recorded frequently, ultimately releasing eighteen studio albums over the course of a prolific career. Early on she became fast friends and often shared stages with Lyle Lovett, who was awestruck by Griffith's ability to craft a nearly perfect song. Many of which were covered by and became hits for some of country and pop music's leading performers. Nanci Griffith died from natural causes in 2021; the release of both of these collections closely coincides with what would have been her 70th birthday. 

Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners includes her 1978 debut, There's a Light Beyond These Woods (originally released on B.F. Deal Records), followed by 1982's Poet In My Window (originally released on Featherbed Records), then 1984's Once In a Very Blue Moon, and finally 1986's The Last of the True Believers (both released on Philo Records). The box is being made available with your choice of four 180-gram LPs or four CDs, and also as a CD-quality, lossless digital download. All of the originals have been out of print for almost four decades, and haven't been available since they were all gathered under the umbrella of Philo Records in the mid-eighties; the LPs were last released domestically in 1985 and 1986. The first three albums are also being made available on digital streaming platforms for the first time ever. 

Rounder Records' More Than a Whisper: Celebrating The Music of Nanci Griffith is a loving tribute that features the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, Shawn Colvin, John Prine and Kelsey Waldon, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Todd Snider, Brandy Clark, and Steve Earle performing Nanci Griffith's songs. The album's being made available as a 180 gram LP or a CD that includes bonus tracks, and it's also available for streaming losslessly in CD-quality and high resolution digital on most major streaming sites.

Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners. (4) 180 gram Craft Recordings LPs, $125.00 MSRP

This new set from Craft focuses on the first decade of Nanci Griffith's career, and highlights the sparsely-instrumented but sparkling country-folk of her first two albums and her eventual transition into the more sophisticated arrangements that populated her final albums for the Philo label. This reissue will help fill a very large gap in the country-folk genre created by nearly four decades of their absence from mainstream availability. For those who may not have heard these records, her performances here are revelatory. Many of them feature artists like Eric Taylor, Philip Donnelly, Bela Fleck, Lyle Lovett, Roy Huskey Jr., Mark O'Connor, and Pat Alger accompanying Nanci Griffith.

Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners, takes its name from the song "Workin' In Corners," which is the side two lead track from her sophomore album, 1982's Poet In My Window. It's a hauntingly beautiful song that's tinged with a trace of sadness: "I've been workin' in corners all alone at night... Pullin' down whiskey... Keepin' my eyes away from the lights... I'll never be a fool but I will gamble foolishly... I've never let go of love... Till I lost it in my dreams... I don't want to go to sleep... 'Cause I just might dream." Griffith's vocal in this song rings out with a sparkle and clarity that I found very nearly addictive, and I could definitely hear comparisons to Emmylou Harris in her vocal delivery. I dropped the needle on this track repeatedly—the breathtaking synergy of acoustic guitars and Nanci Griffith's dazzling vocal was seriously irresistible, as is the entire album!

All tracks for the box set were remastered from the original quarter-inch analog master tapes by Jeff Powell at Take Out Vinyl in Memphis. Take Out Vinyl is located in the building previously occupied by Stax Records, and the same Neumann VMS 70 lathe that was used to create the cutting masters for countless classic Stax sessions was employed for this project. The 180 gram LPs were pressed at Memphis Record Pressing (MRP), and they were all perfectly flat, and had flawless, glossy surfaces. The LPs arrived inserted into white paper inner sleeves, along with a printed lyric sheet; I dusted the LPs, then replaced the stock paper sleeves with non-scratching rice paper replacements, which is my usual practice in this situation.

The box set places the four individual albums into an elegant, linen fabric-wrapped, tip-on style heavy outer slipcase that's debossed and varnished with the logotype on the front cover and along the spine. A beautiful, 46-page perfect-bound booklet is also inserted into the case; it includes a foreword written by project co-producer and longtime Griffith associate Jim Rooney. Insightful remembrances of Nanci Griffith from almost everyone who either knew her or worked with her in the early days then follow. Music journalist (Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Times), publicist, and songwriter Holly Gleason wrote the excellent liner notes for the box; her initial exposure to and complete obsession with Nanci Griffith came from seeing her on a 1985 Austin City Limits performance. The booklet is printed on glossy, heavyweight cover stock, and features a trove of photos and images of memorabilia from throughout the first decade of Nanci Griffith's career, as well as a commemorative postcard with tour date info and notes from the artist. The image quality of the printed album jackets is variable among the four, and the print quality isn't particularly crisp on some of the surfaces—the affected images almost appear to be slightly out of register. From what I can tell, that was also the case with the originals, and while that's a less than perfect situation, my main focus is the sound quality of the LPs. In this case, the impressive sound of the reissue LPs more than makes up for minor appearance issues.

Paul Blakemore at CMG Mastering mastered the digital files that were used for CDs and downloads. Craft Recordings sent links for CD-quality digital download files that were supplied as WAVs; since WAV files don't support metadata, my usual practice is to convert them to uncompressed FLAC files using dBPoweramp. After populating the metadata, I then loaded the files onto my digital music server for easy playback and comparison to the LPs. 

More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith. 180 gram Rounder Records LP, $22.98 MSRP

More Than a Whisper: Celebrating The Music of Nanci Griffith is a loving tribute that features interpretations of many of Nanci Griffith's most noteworthy songs from a diverse group of musicians. Including classic songs like the tender "Love At The Five And Dime," featuring the late John Prine and Kelsey Waldon; a rollicking "Listen To The Radio," featuring Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings; and the very poignant "Trouble In The Fields" that features the inimitable Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea. There's also a tender and lilting version of "Gulf Coast Highway" from Brandy Clark, along with a heavily Irish-tinged "It's A Hard Life Wherever You Go" from longtime Griffith associate Steve Earle. Singer, songwriter, and author Mary Gauthier wrote the liner notes for the album and also performs the title track and classic The Last of the True Believers tune "More Than a Whisper." 

In Gauthier's excellent essay, she says: "[Griffith] was a songwriter's songwriter in a time when the word songwriter, especially in Texas, was synonymous with male. She was an absolute trailblazer, and more often than not, the only woman in the room... She had to fight for every square inch of every stage she stood on, and she did it on her own terms. She led with her mind, not her body. In spite of the back-breaking yoke of bias against women in music who do not lead with their sexuality, Nanci broke through." Wow—that's impressive, especially given the almost pixie-like demeanor Griffith presented in most of her early album cover and publicity shots!

The LP arrived in a really beautiful tip-on style outer jacket with a gorgeous late-period image of Nanci Griffith on the front cover. The masters for the LP were cut by Paul Blakemore at CMG Mastering; he also mastered the digital files for CDs and downloads. The 180 gram LP was also pressed at Memphis Record Pressing, and arrived encased in a white paper inner sleeve. As is my usual practice, I immediately dusted the LP and replaced the paper sleeve with a non-scratching rice paper alternate. The LP's glossy surfaces were free of scuffs, and it was perfectly flat—that's always been my experience with many records that were sourced from MRP. A printed insert with the liner notes and track listings was inserted into the album jacket along with the LP. No digital files were supplied, but I was able to easily access the downloads with Qobuz.

Listening Results

Clicking on my name in the header above will reveal the contents of the systems I utilized during my evaluation of each of these releases. For playback of the LPs I used my all-analog system that features a Project Classic turntable that's fitted with a Hana SL moving coil cartridge; the setup then plays into a Musical Surroundings phono preamp. That signal is fed into a PrimaLuna EVO 300 tube integrated amplifier that plays through a pair of KLH Model Five loudspeakers. The PrimaLuna amp offers the choice of triode or ultralinear playback on the fly; triode seems to offer a more nuanced and detailed presentation with greater emphasis on the midrange, whereas ultralinear offers a bit more punch where the music demands it. For this mostly acoustic music, I listened to both, but ultimately settled on triode mode. Which offered a greater degree of warmth and liquidity to Nanci Griffith's crystalline vocals throughout the four LPs of Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners, as well as those from the all-star cast of interpreters heard on More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith.

The sound quality of the four LPs from Craft Recordings' Nancy Griffith: Working In Corners is beyond reproach; I'm especially impressed by the less commonly heard first two albums, which have probably never been reissued with the kind of sterling sound they enjoy here. Jeff Powell did a masterful job (pun intended!) with the new masters he cut for these excellent LPs; playback was exceptionally quiet, with deep, black backgrounds, and the LPs displayed levels of surface and groove noise that were microscopically low. That level of quiet especially benefits the more folky and acoustically oriented tracks—you can really hear through more clearly to the music, and Nanci Griffith's vocals really shine. I was quite literally stunned by the goodness of these LPs, and the impressive sound quality matched my previous experience with pressings from MRP.

That goodness of sound bleeds over to Rounder's More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith; the performances of Griffith's classic songs literally jumped from my loudspeakers. That said, while playback of the LP was entertaining and musically engaging, and its appearance was just as pristine as the LPs from the Craft Recordings box set, it was unfortunately also fairly noisy. As an old-school analog fanatic from way back, I live daily with the joy that vinyl playback offers, but that joy is often tempered with having to sometimes endure a less than perfect pressing. Listening to the Rounder LP wasn't unpleasant, and the individual performances from the tribute album were often as delicately nuanced as those found in the LPs of Nanci Griffith's originals. But the playback experience couldn't match the exceptional level of quiet that the pressings from the Craft box exhibited in spades. Rather puzzling, as both projects were pressed at MRP; perhaps a different vinyl formulation was used for the Rounder release.

I also used my digital system for streamed playback of the box set files supplied by Craft, and also streamed the digital files from the tribute album via Qobuz. The Craft digital files were CD quality, but the tribute album files were available in both CD quality and a high-resolution 24/96 option. Across my system that features the Euphony Summus/Endpoint streaming system, along with the Gustard X26 Pro DAC with its companion C18 10MHz Constant Temperature Clock, the playback quality of these excellent digital albums offered a superb level of musicality that quite nearly matched that of the LPs. Through this system, listening to the high-res digital files for the Rounder Records release was easily just as enjoyable as hearing the excellent LPs from the Craft Recordings box set. 


In Holly Gleason's illuminating liner notes for Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners, she offers an astute perspective on Nanci Griffith's appeal to the music world: "In Texas, she was part of the very fertile local music scene. To the rest of the world, she was a revelation. A stunning songwriter who dissolved the neon colors, the synthesizers and gated drums of that moment in favor of fingers on strings, [and] smiles between musicians as tales of local characters and best friends named Mary Margaret were delivered with great joy." Nanci Griffith was a singular artist, but first and foremost, she was a songwriter, and her stories and self-reflections wove tales that once heard are impossible to forget.

Craft Recordings and Rounder have given us a true gift with both of these excellent releases. Through Nanci Griffith: Working In Corners, we're offered a glimpse of her early, much more folk-oriented brilliance that newer fans of her music may have only had passing experience with—especially her first two excellent LPs. Of the four albums, only The Last Of The True Believers has ever been available on any streaming service. Paul Blakemore's excellent work with the digital versions has definitely rectified that situation. And Jeff Powell's superb remastering of the LPs presents them with the kind of sterling sound quality their original incarnations couldn't match; collectors will find them to be an invaluable resource. Minty originals of the early LPs are hard to come by, especially her debut album, There's A Light Beyond These Woods, which currently has zero copies for sale on Discogs. 

More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith presents the songs in a manner that respects the heritage of Nanci Griffith's originals, while offering a modern sensibility that will appeal to new fans as well as old die-hards. And many of the performances are genuinely compelling, and definitely on par with Nanci Griffith's originals. The superb mastering of the LP, CD, and digital downloads imbues them with an undeniable measure of goodness; kudos to Paul Blakemore for his dazzling job with each format. As tribute albums go, this one's not to be missed, and it complements the box set immeasurably. 

Having choices is always a good thing, and with equally outstanding LP and digital versions, these two excellent new releases are a must-hear, and must-have, and both come very highly recommended!

Craft Recordings


All images courtesy of Craft Recordings