Pop Goes The Folkabilly Singer

Featuring a duet with Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker.

Down-home Texas songwriter Nanci Griffith has gone and made a pop record.

Not that it comes totally out of left field; the Grammy-winning singer/

songwriter worked with an orchestra on her 1997 album Blue Roses From

the Moons. But with The Dust Bowl Symphony, she has revisited

some of her most cherished songs and returned with expansive new versions

that will make a lot of moms happy. And she's thrown in a few surprises

as well.

As far as career retrospectives go, this one, spanning more than 20 years

of Griffith's songwriting and performing, offers plenty of value and

artistry for the money. The sweet-voiced Griffith has re-recorded some

of her most cherished songs — "The Wing and the Wheel" (RealAudio

excerpt), "These Days in an Open Book," "It's a Hard Life Wherever

You Go" — with the graceful accompaniment of the London Philharmonic

Orchestra, known for recording several "Star Wars" scores and discs of

songs by rockers like Sting and Queen. This new setting gives the songs

roomy arrangements in which to breathe, while Griffith preserves some of

the intimacy of her earlier recordings with her honest, no-frills delivery.

Fans of her past work will likely warm to these newer, fancier versions,

and their slick, new face should open Griffith's songs to a broader audience,

one that more often shies away from folksingers with banged-up acoustic

guitars. Griffith's retelling of "It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go" (RealAudio

excerpt), for example, maintains the purity and gritty truthfulness

of the song while adding a Celtic flourish with Uillean pipes, in addition

to the orchestra's lush backing. Griffith has always had a kinship with

Irish traditions, and this track is a lovely testament to that.

One surprise that works better than might've been expected is Griffith's

duet, on "Love at the Five and Dime," with Hootie & the Blowfish crooner

Darius Rucker. While Rucker's low, earthy tones provide a nice foil to

Griffith's clear-as-creek water delivery, the airy string arrangement

— the song's primary musical backing — threatens to whisk it

away. A suppler underpinning might have given the recording more grounding.

Sweet as sugar is Griffith's take on Buddy Holly's "Tell Me How" (RealAudio

excerpt), which she sings as a duet with Sonny Curtis of Holly's

Crickets. Even the plush strings can't shake the gentle rock 'n' roll of

the melody.

But this mature, sophisticated collection remains Griffith's affair, and

an interesting new phase for an artist that's dipped into folk, country

and vocal pop traditions throughout her career. Even so, she promises

that her next work will be a return to her more familiar, pared-down

sound, and the charm in her more intimate recordings suggests that's

where her roots truly lie.