Our last interview with the late, great Peter Cooper was about Nanci Griffith, whose tribute album More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith again tops the Alt.Country Specialty Chart this week. Following are excerpts.
“I would go straight to the Jim Rooney-produced projects if someone asked me why Nanci was so good,” the former Country Music Hall of Fame curator said. “Albums like Once in a Very Blue Moon, The Last of the True Believers and the first Other Voices Other Rooms really show her genius.”
Alt.Country Specialty Chart: Explain how you discovered Nanci Griffith.
Peter Cooper: I was a high schooler living in the Washington, D.C. area when Nanci often played the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. I remember reading a review of her Little Love Affairs album in the Washington Post. The review quoted her lyrics, “I remember waving back at you from a silted windowpane” (from “So Long Ago”). I thought, That is a different level of poetic country music.
Did you see her frequently back then?
Well, she was coming to the Birchmere shortly thereafter. My habit during those days was to go really early to shows because the Birchmere show wasn’t assigned tickets. They were general admission. The doors opened two hours before the show, so I got there four hours before the show so I could be at the front of the line. I remember you could hear sound check even from outside.
What songs was she sound checking with?
The first one I heard was Nanci playing “Listen to the Radio” with her band. I thought, This is something else. Nanci’s voice had such a power. Then I saw she had such charisma when I did get in there to see the show. I knew I was in the presence of something very special. Of course, Nanci was beautiful. I had a crush on her instantly.
Describe Nanci’s stage presence.
I remember her eyes searching the room to make sure everyone there knew she was paying attention and not going through the motions. She would set those eyes on you, which was magnetic when you’re a high school student who had showed up four hours early. Plus, she was doing that while playing guitar at such a high level.
Yeah, her guitar work was way underrated.
Totally. Her guitar playing gets overlooked. Nanci came from a guitar tradition that went from Lightnin’ Hopkins to Eric Taylor to her generation, which included Lyle Lovett. Nanci was a masterful guitarist. Having that lyrical command at the same time as the instrumental command was very rare.
Was she still playing guitar with a thumb pick?
She was. Nanci played with these finger picks that had been developed by Eric Taylor. The thumb pick was plastic that was bradded to a metal pick. She often used alternate tunings. Hers was a fascinating way to play, and I know Eric had a lot to do with that as he did with Lyle Lovett. She was something else. I don’t just mean she was wonderful. I mean she was something else.
Eric was Nanci’s ex-husband but also probably her greatest influence.
There’s no way to overstate Eric’s influence on Nanci.. Listen to his song “Dollar Matinee,” which Nanci recorded on her first album. The song is so rich in imagery. Then there’s Eric’s song “Deadwood,” which Nanci retitled “Deadwood, South Dakota” to Eric’s eternal aggravation. You got the story of American racism in the way that’s never been told.
Nanci deserves a lot of credit for releasing “Deadwood” on a major label on One Fair Summer Evening, the live at Anderson Fair album. Also, Nanci recorded Eric’s incredible song “Storms” after they were divorced. She then had Eric involved with the Other Voices Other Rooms project. Nanci could be incredibly gracious.
She loved introducing songwriters. Did you discover anyone else through her?
James McMurtry was another person she effectively introduced me to. I was nineteen, living in San Francisco and working at the Wharf gift shop. Nanci came to the Fillmore West with an incredible band that included David Halley, Doug Hudson, and Denice Franke. I did my same trick getting there very early so I could have a seat at the front table. Her opening act had had an album out for about a week.
The opener was James McMurtry, who was supporting his incredible debut album Too Long in the Wasteland. His explosive band included David Grissom. Amazing. Some headliners don’t want an opener who will be incredible, but Nanci seemed so gracious and thankful to have James there. His performance was masterful.
– Brian T. Atkinson
Artist: Todd Snider
Hometown: Beaverton, Oregon
Album: Crank It, We’re Doomed
Release Date: November 10, 2023
Record Label: Aimless Records
Artist Website: toddsnider.net
On recording the album: “It was very much a blur. Not because of the party going on, but because of how many songs I was coming up with. It was probably the pinnacle of my time making up songs. They were really coming at me and I didn’t know what to do with them all” – Todd Snider
- Brian T. Atkinson
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