Nanci Griffith emerged from the Austin country scene in the early 80s, crafting music she calls “folkabilly.” A gifted singer and writer, she has racked up an impressive array of critically acclaimed albums. Sadly sidelined by label executives who deemed her distinctive, crystalline voice “uncommercial” she has achieved her biggest chart success when others have covered her tunes for Country gold. (Notable are Kathy Mattea’s cover of Love At the Five and Dime [#3 in 1986] and Suzy Bogguss’ spot-on reading of Outbound Plane [#9 in 1992].) A gifted writer in her own right, Griffith also has an ear for the perfect songs to cover, including an early reading of Lyle Lovett with If I Were the Woman You Wanted. Her version of Julie Gold’s From A Distance is achingly beautiful — unlike Bette Midler’s bombastic reading — and has become a staple of her live shows. Griffith’s finest recording is her fourth album, the disc that launched her larger career.
Last of the True Believers was Griffith’s fourth album on Philo, a Rounder subsidiary. By 1986 she had moved to Nashville and expanded her musical circle. Her songwriting sophistication had grown substantially from its promising start, and she turned out an amazing set of 11 songs that is notable for its beauty and its consistency.
The album starts strong with the title track, an energetic tribute to wandering and to the power of having a place to call home. This theme carries through the album — and indeed through much of Griffith’s work over the years. The second track builds an intimate portrait of these themes. Love At the Five and Dime is a perfect story song, telling the tale of a musician and his wife from their meeting at the dime store through the travails of his career and the love that keeps them strong over the years. It’s sweet and reflective without being cloying and shows Griffith at her songwriting finest.
After these two originals we’re treated to one of the two covers on the disc, Tom Russell’s St. Olav’s Gate. Another story song, it is a tribute to making the most of the moments you get and a wonderfully danceable song of love’s lessons. Griffith then goes reflective with More Than A Whisper, a bittersweet plea for a true declaration from an often-distant lover. The song has just the right ache, leading into the next song, the nostalgic Banks of the Ponchartrain. This song yearns for simpler times and the comfort of a familiar lover.
From there, things take a more whimsical turn as Griffith channels a “workin’ girl” in Lookin’ For the Time. A delightful romp of independent spirit, it’s delivered in a tasty growl, something the singer uses sparingly but to great effect. The next track is one of the highlights, Goin’ Gone. Written by long-time Griffith associate Pat Alger, it is a lovely surrender to the power of love, delivered in one of Griffith’s finest vocals.
From there she moves to nostalgia again with One of These Days and Love’s Found A Shoulder, two solid tracks that carry on the album’s themes nicely. Griffith gets rambunctious again with Fly By Night. A powerful statement of independence, it’s a gritty kiss-off to an unfaithful lover with just a touch of that growl coming back to bid him goodbye. Things wrap up with the sweet The Wing and the Wheel, a straightforward song about travelling — its powers and its perils. It closes the album perfectly, wrapping up the themes set up at the beginning with a quite finality and a hopeful wish.
Last of the True Believers was powerful enough that it landed Griffith a major label contract with MCA, where she stayed for a decade before moving to Elektra. She’s recorded over a dozen more wonderful albums, each with its particular charms, but nothing quite captures the magic like this early disc whose songs remain stalwarts of her live shows today.
FURTHER LISTENING: A close second is Griffith’s second MCA disc, Little Love Affairs from 1988. It’s a great set of originals and covers (including her original version of Outbound Plane) and features a stellar cast of guests. It was followed by the wonderful live disc One Fair Summer Evening, a great showcase of her songs and her live energy. Given Griffith’s knack for picking collaborators and writers to cover, it’s no surprise that Other Voices Other Rooms, a disc filled with both, is also a stellar listen.