Whether performing her own poetically evocative material or the compositions of her influences, friends, and peers, Nanci Griffith possesses a powerful gift for inhabiting the songs she sings - for communicating unspoken intimacy and heartache through her tender voice and lilting, delicate phrasing. At the outset of a career that has now spanned nearly three decades, Griffith first emerged as a writer of startling depth and subtlety, crafting sparse uncluttered vignettes that revealed a wealth of emotion in even the most humble of characters and settings. With her gifts as a songwriter lending invaluable insight, Griffith has also grown into a formidable interpreter of other people's songs, as demonstrated on such albums as the Grammy® Award-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Available November 14, 2006 on Rounder Records, Ruby's Torch is an intriguing experiment that brings together both Griffith originals and a selection of material from some of her favorite writers, giving them a unified, intoxicating treatment which pairs Griffith's longtime band the Blue Moon Orchestra with rich strings and gently punctuating brass.
The title Ruby's Torch is a subtle nod of acknowledgement to the genre of torch songs - the haunting ballads of love, regret, and loss best heard in cabarets and saloons in the hours that bridge midnight and dawn. Griffith's own take on torch is as personal and unique as everything she has done. “Recording an entire record of torch songs has been a dream come true for me,” she says “and something my listeners have been asking me to do for many years.” As with her country-influenced efforts, she draws inspiration from the form while fearlessly, naturally imparting her own distinct sensibility. The result is a sound rich with the timeless echoes of her inspirations, yet entirely contemporary and entirely, uniquely Nanci Griffith.
Rather than populate Ruby's Torch with tried-and-true staples and standards, Griffith casts a wide net that encompasses a range of influences. The opening “When I Dream” has been heard in versions by Crystal Gayle and Willie Nelson, and represents country balladry at its most sophisticated and poignant. “Ruby's Arms,” “Grapefruit Moon,” and “Please Call Me, Baby” all come from the pen of Tom Waits, a songwriter with his own multifaceted slant on torch traditions. Jimmy Webb, who has become a widely celebrated figure for his masterful amalgam of pop, country, folk, and art-song forms, is heard via his touching “If These Walls Could Speak.” It is a testament to Griffith's creative vision and interpretive grace that the one song with a genuine torch pedigree, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” fits in seamlessly with the rest of the selections.
Also included is “Bluer Than Blue,” the bittersweet ballad penned by Charles Goodrum and popularized in the late '70s by one of the masters of mellow country-pop, Michael Johnson. Griffith also offers her take on the bluesy, winsome “Drops From the Faucet” written by former Blue Moon Orchestra Guitarist, Frank Christian as well as the delicate yearning of “Never Be the Sun,” by Irish balladeer Donal MacDonagh Long.
The most fascinating element of Ruby's Torch may just be the way Griffith integrates her own worthy legacy into the tapestry. “Brave Companion of the Road” was first heard in 1989 on her striking Storms album, and is reborn here, its themes of weariness and resilience resonating beautifully in the lush musical surroundings. The title track to her 1991 album Late Night Grande Hotel is similarly revisited, beginning as a haunting piano/vocal duet before a gentle cascade of strings and woodwinds enter, underpinning a devastatingly heart-felt vocal from Griffith.
Born in Austin to “West Texas liberal” (her words) parents, Griffith began performing at the tender age of 14. Legendary songwriter Tom Russell, her earliest champion, heard her singing around a campfire that year at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Her career started to blossom in the late 70s and early 80s, with the release, and eventual re-release on Philo/Rounder, of her first two independent recordings, There's A Light Beyond These Woods and Poet In My Window. These were followed by the release of two other albums on Rounder, Once In A Very Blue Moon and Last Of The True Believers, which included Nanci's signature songs “Love at the Five and Dime” and “The Wing and the Wheel.” Last of the True Believers was nominated for a Grammy in Contemporary Folk in 1986, and “Love At The Five And Dime” was nominated for Country Song of The Year for Kathy Mattea, who sang it. Upon arriving in Nashville, Nanci Griffith swept Nashville off its collective feet with what Rolling Stone later described as her unique form of “folkabilly” music. She came to Music City as one of the brightest lights in a new generation of artists merging country with folk and pop music that included Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, and Steve Earle.
Her admirers are legion (Bob Dylan specifically requested that she sing “Boots of Spanish Leather” at his historic Madison Square Garden anniversary concert), and her awards appropriately numerous: five Grammy nominations, including a win for her gracious 1993 recording Other Voices, Other Rooms celebrating other songwriters, and two more for her dazzling performances on albums by The Chieftains. She has penned some of country music's most enduring compositions, including Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson's “Gulf Coast Highway,” Kathy Mattea's “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Listen to the Radio,” and Suzy Bogguss's “Outbound Plane.” And Nanci was the first to record Julie Gold's Grammy®-winning classic, “From a Distance.”
Griffith is a fiercely loyal person - her band, The Blue Moon Orchestra, has been with her since 1986. With the release of Ruby's Torch, Griffith returned to the Rounder Records imprint, where she is enjoying the best kind of homecoming. For someone who's hardly been home for more than two weeks at a time in two decades, warm welcomes mean a lot. “There are so many of the same faces, changed and grown of course, but they [Rounder] really are people who only put out the music they believe in and it shows. They make me feel as though I never left.”