Nanci Griffith was sure she wouldn’t be around to see the domestic release of her new album, Hearts In Mind — around meaning on U.S. soil. A singer and songwriter who has long worn her lefty politics on her sleeve and skirt, too, she had sworn if George Bush was elected president, she would leave the country. The prospect of living through four more years of his administration, she said, was too painful to contemplate.
But her friend Brenda Lee convinced her to stay. “She said we need you, we need your voice, we need the dissent to be there,” Griffith explained. “And she was right. I’ll have a place to run away to when I get to the point where I feel my head is going to explode. But I’m going to stay and keep saying what I’m saying and believe there is hope.”
Griffith knows a thing or two about the power of hope. During the mid-’90s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, then thyroid cancer, and beat them both. In the aftermath, she said, her approach to life changed a bit. “I learned not to put off happiness until tomorrow, to go after it,” she says. “I think that’s been the major difference in my life, and I also think it’s kept me healthy.”
Having recorded nearly two dozen albums since emerging from the Austin, Texas, scene a quarter-century ago, Griffith has taken on the mantle of distinguished artist. She is beloved by her fans for her personal reflections on love lost and found, and for her politically tinged songs. Some of them document her travels to places such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Kosovo and Angola on behalf of groups including the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (her ex-husband, singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, fought in Vietnam) and the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. A former schoolteacher, she has held onto the instructive side of her personality in her art and in her relations with her followers.
Hearts In Mind was released in England four months ahead of its February 1 domestic release to coincide with Griffith’s fall tour abroad. She’s on a new label, New Door, which is aligned with one of her former companies, MCA, via Universal Music. The album, her first studio effort in four years, straddles the new and the familiar. It’s the first one Griffith has produced herself (in collaboration with Pat McInerney), and it features new wrinkles, including the use of backup singers (she usually does her own harmony vocals) and the employment of Keith Carradine, whom she met on the set of the forthcoming independent movie Our Very Own.
True to form, Griffith mixes songs about love and family and place, draws upon her roots in folk and country, offers new songs of her own and interprets tunes by artists she admires, throws in literary allusions, flexes her feminism — and, yes, most definitely, vents her anti-war feelings.
I. ART AND POLITICS WALK HAND IN HAND
NO DEPRESSION: On the first song on the new album, “Before” [written by Griffith and Le Ann Etheridge], you sing, “Now everything is twilight/It’s a time too dark to see.” Many Americans were feeling that following the September 11 attacks, which inspired another song on the album, Julie Gold’s “Mountain Of Sorrow”. Are things still dark for you?
NANCI GRIFFITH: Oh, yes. I try not to let it overwhelm me, but there is an extreme amount of anxiety. This is a very, very dark time in American history. What we’ve done in Iraq is devastating, devastating to the whole world, not just for our nation. For me as a pacifist, the war in Iraq is just overwhelming. We as a great nation should be more evolved. We should be out there making peace, out there trying to promote peace, because it just can’t go on this way. It’s all very sad and troubling.
ND: As a member of Music Row Democrats, the coalition of Nashville musicians and music business people who worked to get John Kerry elected — and, in the process, puncture the right-wing image country musicians have for many people — you have to be extremely disappointed the presidential election went the way it did. But did something good come out of that movement nonetheless?
NG: I think so. I think a lot of people came out of their liberal closet and said it’s OK to be a liberal, that it’s not a bad word. And I think that’s going to continue to happen. I don’t think we’re going to go away. I think we’re gonna stick around and make a difference in 2006 with midterm elections.
ND: The Dixie Chicks debacle was the most notorious recent example of what can happen to popular musicians who make unpopular political statements. But there were other cases of artists facing fans who wanted them to stick to the music and leave the politics to someone else. Linda Ronstadt got kicked out of a Las Vegas hotel for being critical of Bush. You’ve always been pretty outspoken from the stage. How did you feel about this trend?
NG: Well, first of all, I don’t dictate to my audience. I don’t walk out there and preach to them. All I told them was you have to vote, go vote. But look, art and politics walk hand in hand. We learned that from Picasso, we learned that from all artists in history, and nobody’s going to silence us.
But, you know, they’re not really calling for the Nanci Griffiths of the music world to shut up, and they certainly don’t want the Toby Keiths of this world to shut up. It all depends on who you’re talking about. I try to deal with things that disappoint me, with the horrors of the war in Iraq and the terrible situation we’ve gotten ourselves into there, with as much respect and humor as possible, and I think that keeps me grounded.
ND: Do you think women artists have drawn nastier responses for speaking out than men with similar views?
NG: I think this kind of boorish, childish response cuts wider than that. But in the end, it had to do more with a giant radio chain [Clear Channel] pursuing an ill-advised agenda than anything else. The whole pop scene right now, it’s just as fluffy as it was when I was a teenager. I don’t think it’s ever gonna change. Pop music when I was a teen had that other side of it — it had Jackson Browne and other artists who were making a difference in expressing these important things.