She drove west from Salt Lake City, to the California coastline/ She hit the San Diego freeway doin' 60 miles an hour/ She had a husband on her bumper, she had five restless children/ She was singin' as sweet as a mockin'bird in that Ford Econoline. - Lyric by Nanci Griffith
Nanci Griffith herself sings as sweetly as a mockin'bird and as powerfully as a Ford Econoline. And the career of this country-flavored singer/songwriter, has just shifted into high gear.
Though she has toured for years and has recorded several albums on smaller labels, she's just now starting to get mainstream recognition. Miss Griffith received a Grammy nomination this year. And her first major-label album, ``Lone Star State of Mind,'' is No. 34 on the country charts.
Griffith's success is part of a resurgence of country music. Record sales in this category have climbed back up to $200 million annually, from a slump of $175 million, and a new generation of country performers is being snapped up by Nashville record companies. These ``new traditionalists,'' as they're called, combine country with other kinds of music, from '50s rockabilly to folk.
Griffith has her feet planted firmly in both country and folk markets. Her past four albums were on the Cambridge, Mass., folk label Philo/Rounder. This latest is on MCA.
Some of the songs on her albums are rambunctious country ones, and some are poetic, finely etched ones about lost loves, cold winters, and best friends. But a clear-eyed folk strain saves them from the cloying self-pity often found in country music. Her voice is unusual, as well, with the sweetness of Dolly Parton and the growl of Linda Ronstadt.
In the Boston area recently on a national tour, she took some time out at the Somerville Theater to talk about her music.
``What I do shows a combination of influences ranging from Woody Guthrie all the way to Carolyn Hester, Loretta Lynn, and Lynn Anderson,'' she says, trying to get comfortable on a foam rubber futon in a tiny backstage hallway. ``So that hillbilly influence and the folk influence kind of merge. I call it folkabilly.''
Marian Leighton, owner/founder of Rounder Records, points out that the young Texan seems to have more in common with the best of the new regional fiction writers than with traditional folk singers.
Griffith says her native Texas is an important theme in her songs, which are often about ordinary people living elsewhere (she now lives in Nashville) and yearning for home. ``I'm real proud of my home state,'' she says. ``I think there's something very ornery and peculiar about Texans, and something very strong about the backbone of Texans.''
Why do small-town folks attract her?
``I don't think they've had a champion for a long time,'' she says. ``And in traveling around for many years [as] a solo act or with one side man, I drove myself around America, playing. So middle-class America always took care of me, always supported my music. ... Their lives are very complex and yet at the same time interesting and intriguing to me, since I don't live a very normal life. And I respect people who keep their homes and their lives together.''
Griffith has spent 75 percent of her time on the road for the last 10 years. Social life, she says, is her audience and her writing, both songs and fiction. Lugging along a portable typewriter, she has written two novels. She says two publishers have expressed interest in the first, ``Two of a Kind Heart.'' The second is about a couple in the 1940s who run a hotel on the New Jersey shore. She's never been there, but never mind: She'll get there through her writing.
Griffith grew up in Austin, Texas, where her father sang in a barbershop quartet and her mother was an actress. They encouraged her musical talents, taking her to sing at 14 in clubs. ``I was somewhat the Austin music-scene child. The doormen all knew me and would kill me if I ever got anywhere near a beer.''
Later that evening, at her show, the willowy, shiny-haired Griffith was dressed in a sedate gray skirt and black linen jacket with a rhinestone pin in the shape of Texas. But she played a ripping guitar, along with other members of her four-man band, the Blue Moon Orchestra. Despite a muddy sound system that occasionally drowned her out, it was a fine concert.
And the audience, many of whom had seen her at her five previous engagements here, were in a Lone Star state of mind themselves, hooting and hollering.
The most popular song was not a twangy, hard-driving one, however. It started with a gentle piano, and showed Griffith in a new light - as a regional singer whose vision goes far beyond just Texas. Written by Julie Gold, ``From a Distance'' is a stirring call to wake up and see the world from God's perspective.
``I think Julie's written a little masterpiece,'' said Griffith. ``If enough people hear this, it could be the anthem of our generation.''