Nanci Griffith’s long love affair with Ireland

TEXAN SONGWRITER Nanci Griffith released her debut album Lone Star State Of Mind in 1987 and made an immediate impact when it peaked at number 23 in the US charts.

She had originally trained to be a kindergarten teacher but when she started doing some open mic nights to earn a few extra dollars she was drawn into the world of music. Over the next two decades she would dominate the ‘folkbilly’ genre and win a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album with her Other Voices, Other Rooms album.

Nanci returns to Galway to play the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday August 7 and Friday 8 at 8pm. Indeed Ireland is a country she has had something of a love affair with since scoring a number one hit in Ireland with her interpretation of ‘From A Distance’ in 1988.

She has spent a lot of time in Ireland over the past decade and at one point in the 1990s owned a house in Dublin.

“I still think of Ireland as my home away from home,” she tells me. “The leader of my current band James Hooker is actually living in County Tipperary right now and I’ve got such good friends in Galway such as Jim Rooney and John Prine.

“I played with the Chieftains for a while in Dublin and they are such characters. It was so much fun to work with them because you just get up there and it's such a wild abandon and you just lose yourself in the music.”

Last year Nanci Griffith released Ruby’s Torch, an album of torch songs where she was backed by a 13-piece string section for songs by Jimmy Webb, Tom Waits, and Frank Sinatra. Although she toured Ruby’s Torch in Ireland last year she didn’t get a chance to make it to Galway but she is excited about the prospect of returning this time around.

“I’m really excited about this current tour because we haven’t been to Galway - a place I dearly love - in several years,” she says. “I hope to meet up with my friend Dolores Keane when I’m there because she’s one of my favourite singers in the world.”

Ruby’s Torch was a dramatic departure from her country and folk roots but she clearly found the experience liberating.

“This record was great to make because these are songs I’ve known all my life,” she tells me. “It was a joy to walk into the studio and just sing and not have to play guitar or sing harmony vocals. It was also a bit nerve-wracking because I was singing ‘When I Dream’ and that was a hit for my good friend Crystal Gayle.

“Her musical director Jay Patten was playing on my recording of the song and the whole time I was thinking ‘What’s Crystal going to think of this?’ I was always wondering if I could make the songs my own. I wanted to take them into my heart and to make them my own voice.”

Since then the album has received much critical acclaim and Nanci has toured it around the world.

“It’s been wonderful,” she says. “This last weekend we were on the road and we got a review of our show in Albany, New York. The review was entirely based around my interpretation of ‘When I Dream’ and the reviewer was evidently overwhelmed by the song. I was delighted with that.”

Nonetheless Griffith never strays too far from her country and folk origins. Around the time of ‘From A Distance’, she was part of an emerging new group of songwriters, alongside Steve Earle and Mary Chapin Carpenter, to come out of Nashville.

These songwriters were upfront in their lyrics and forthright in their opinions about politics and the role of America in the world. In 1999 they undertook a tour across the US under the Campaign for a Landmine Free World and to this day Earle and Griffith and remained close friends.

“I’ve known Steve since I was 19,” says Nanci. “I run into him all the time and we’re both very much on the same page politically. We see each other quite often and discuss things.”

Griffith has been famed down through the years for having an ‘LBJ’ (Lydon Baines Johnson, 36th US president ) badge attached to her guitar strap and was a supporter of the man who took over at the White House after the assassination of John F Kennedy. So in November, will Griffith be voting for Obama or McCain?

“Definitely Obama,” she says. “I think he just represents hope for my country because these past eight years have been a nightmare. I hope in my heart of hearts that Obama wins.”

Nanci has had many highlights during her career, including being personally requested by Bob Dylan to perform at his 30th anniversary concert in 1993. However, her ‘finest hour’ occurred last year in Ireland.

“I think the greatest highlight of my career was late last year at the Belfast Nashville Festival when I got to work with children in schools in the area,” she says. “I’m delighted to see the political settlement in Northern Ireland and it renders the first verse of my song ‘It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go’ totally irrelevant.”

For tickets contact the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.

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