Nanci Griffith Gets Comfortable With Big Production

Former schoolteacher who drove 'beat-up old car' between shows now touring with symphony.

The woman Rolling Stone magazine once dubbed "the queen of folkabilly" would appear to have gone pretty far uptown with her Dust Bowl sound: For a string of tour dates this summer, Grammy-winning songwriter Nanci Griffith will be backed by a symphony orchestra.

The idea of putting her songs in an orchestral frame, Griffith said before leaving for upcoming performances in England, Ireland and Scotland, "was just something that had been growing over the years."

When she was asked to collaborate with the Nashville Symphony and the Nashville Ballet on a production called "This Heart" in 1999, the idea became reality. Seven of Griffith's tunes, including "The Wing and the Wheel" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Nobody's Angel" (RealAudio excerpt), helped the dancers tell the story of a day and night in the life of a relationship.

But the combination hasn't been without its quirks.

"In Seattle," Griffith said, "a union guy stopped the show because the stage temperature dropped below 63 degrees. The orchestra didn't want to stop, but those were the rules. So the band and I said the heck with it and played rock 'n' roll for an hour. The audience loved it."

Griffith decided it was time to put her orchestral collaborations on record, resulting in Dust Bowl Symphony (1999) which she recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra. The most surprising thing, Griffith revealed, "was how easy it was.

"It was great to have Andrew Jackman as conductor and I could just disappear into the music instead of conducting myself. It was like being taken out of the control tower for a while — it was wonderful! And we recorded it in London at Abbey Road — I don't think anything's changed there since the Beatles."

But don't expect Griffith, Grammy winner for Other Voices Other Rooms (1993), an album in which she pays tribute to her folk roots, to change her style completely.

She'll be playing familiar songs such as Townes van Zandt's "Tecumseh Valley" (RealAudio excerpt) and her own "Love at the Five and Dime" (RealAudio excerpt) on this tour, whether she's backed by the LSO or her own considerably smaller road ensemble, the Blue Moon Orchestra.

Originally from Austin, Texas, Griffith honed her music skills in honky-tonks by night while working as a kindergarten teacher by day. "I found there wasn't much difference between controlling the kids and controlling the drunks," the soft-spoken woman said.

The fiercely independent artist was part of the new country traditionalist resurgence in the late '70s and early '80s, a movement that included artists such as Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle.

Though she's found loyal fans (Bob Dylan specifically requested her to play at his 30th anniversary concert) her mix of narrative ballad, Texas rock 'n' roll, folk sensibilities and wry observation never quite found her a home along Music Row, though several of her songs did become hits for other singers, notably "Love at the Five and Dime" for Kathy Mattea and "Outbound Plane" for Suzy Boguss.

Nevertheless, "I've been able to make a living doing what I love all these years, from when I drove myself all across America in a beat-up old car to play folk music," Griffith said, "until now when I get to work with symphonies. I think my next record will be straight Nanci Griffith, no hoopla. I'm already writing songs for that. But right now I want to follow this path and see if it will bring the music to more audiences."

Nanci Griffith tour dates:

May 23–24; Dublin, Ireland; Olympia

May 25; Belfast, Ireland; Waterfront Hall (with symphony)

May 27; Derry; Great Britain; Rialto

May 29; London, Great Britain; Royal Albert Hall (with symphony)

May 30; Portsmouth, Great Britain; Guildhall

June 1; Glasgow, Scotland; Royal Concert Hall — Symphony Date

July 7; Atlanta, Ga.; Chastain Park Ampitheater

July 12; Highland Park, Ill.; Ravinia Festival (with symphony)

July 13; Interlochen, Mich.; TBA (with symphony)

July 15; Louisville, Ky.; TBA (with symphony)

July 16; Stamford, Conn.; Frost Amphitheater

July 22; Lakewood, Ohio; Lancaster Festival/Ohio University

Aug. 4; Salt Lake City, Utah; TBA (with symphony)

Aug. 5; Deer Valley, Utah; TBA (with symphony)

Aug. 19; Estes Park, Colo.; Rocky Mountain Folk Festival