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Torch bearer: an interview with Nanci Griffith

by Gregg Shapiro

Griffith will perform in Lenoir Feb. 16 and Greensboro Feb. 17.
Singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith has long included cover songs on her albums. In fact, a few years before Bette Midler recorded and had a massive hit with Julie Gold’s “From A Distance,” Griffith featured it on one of her albums. “Ruby’s Torch” (Rounder), Griffith’s latest album, features cover tunes ranging from a standard such as “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” to compositions by Tom Waits, Jimmy Webb and others. She also re-imagines a couple of her own compositions in a torch setting, and the results are stunning and rewarding.

Set to appear in Lenoir and Greensboro next month, Griffith took some time to answer a few questions.

As a songwriter, you are someone who has always performed your fair share of cover tunes. What are the qualities you look for in a song before trying it on for size?

The main thing that I look for is if I hear a song by another writer and think to myself, “I wish I’d written that.”?

What was involved in selecting the material for “Ruby’s Torch?”

The songs on “Ruby’s Torch” are songs that I’ve admired from afar for a long time, except, of course, for the two that are mine, and have always wanted to record. Because my records have always had a central thread in them, these songs never had a place on my records. To do them all on one lush recording is kind of my Julie London moment.

Tom Waits — whom you’ve covered before (“San Diego Serenade”) is featured prominently on “Ruby’s Torch.”

Of all the songs on this record, the one that I still can’t get through singing without coming to tears is “Ruby’s Arms.” I’ve always wanted to record that song. I’m so excited that I was able to change it into third person so that it made sense for me to record it. It’s such a timeless song and story, especially at this time in America.

You also cover, “If These Walls Could Speak,” a song by Jimmy Webb. With someone as prolific as Webb, how do you go about narrowing down the selection process?
Many years ago, I recorded “These Old Walls” with Jimmy as a duet. That was for a special project called “Red Hot + Country.”

Of course, the AIDS benefit CD.
Yes. And I’d always wanted to come back to it, and this was the opportunity. It’s amazing to me, and I don’t know if you’ve heard it yet, but my friends The Kennedys, Pete and Maura, have a new album out called “The Open Road” and it’s all covers. They did (Webb’s) “Galveston”— and it’s just amazing. This is kind of Jimmy’s year to get covered.

Michael Feinstein did a disc of Webb songs a few years ago, as well. It’s almost as if he’s constantly being rediscovered.

There’s nothing more complicated than a Jimmy Webb song or a Tom Waits song. It sounds so simple, but it’s not (laughs).

Male songwriters dominate on “Ruby’s Torch.”
Of course, the most beautiful, heartwrenching song on the record is “When I Dream” and that’s a Sandy Mason song, and she is definitely a woman (laughs). It was daunting covering that song because Crystal Gayle is a friend of mine, as is Sandy Mason. I kept thinking, “What’s Crystal going to think about this?”? And Crystal ‘s music director Jay Patton worked on this record, so I asked him what Crystal thought about me covering “When I Dream”? and he said, “She’s definitely put it back in her set (laughs).”

You revisit a couple of your own compositions, “Brave Companion of the Road” and “Late Night Grande Hotel,” with new arrangements, something that Joni Mitchell did a few years ago and Cyndi Lauper did last year. Can you say something about that trend?
For me, “Late Night Grand Hotel” and “Brave Companion of the Road” are both definitely torch songs. Revisiting them was my way of saying, “I don’t think they got heard the first time around.” Because “Brave Companion of the Road” was on my “Storms” album and so many other songs got attention on that record. “Brave Companion”? was a little sleeper, a little holiday song, and I just wanted it to get heard.

Recording an album of torch songs has put you in full-tilt diva mode!

(Laughs)
Which is something that is sure to appeal to queer listeners, because we love our divas!

(Laughs)
Are you aware of a LGBT contingent in your fanbase?

I know it’s there. But I’ve never really paid that much attention. More than anything else, I have noticed that most of my fans in the audience, most of my listeners wear glasses. That’s the only thing I’ve ever really noticed (laughs). It’s sort of like the intellectual level of my listeners.

The disc has a touching dedication which reads: “These recordings are dedicated to the memory of Governor Ann Richards.” Do you think she would have appreciated your renditions of these songs?

Oh I definitely think she would have. I had the honor — she had requested that I sing at her graveside, which was a private ceremony for family and friends. When her daughter Cecile asked her, “What do you want Nanci to sing?” She said, “Oh, I don’t care. She’ll do the right thing.” She was just the most brilliant woman. These recordings — I think she would have just adored it. I think she would have loved it and she would have loved the fact that I no longer smoke cigarettes. (Laughs) because she gave me hell about that for years. If I did, I couldn’t sing these songs. I think she would have been very pleased with this record.

Your first few albums were released on Philo, an imprint to Rounder, and “Ruby’s Torch” is on Rounder. Do you feel as if you have come full circle with this album?
I love Rounder Records! They never get tired of me and they never take me for granted. They’ve always been so good to me and so supportive. I loved MCA and I’ve loved Elektra — they’ve been great to me over the years. But Rounder is always home.

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