If a Grammy were ever awarded for the clearest, sweetest voice in folk music (and perhaps all of country music), Nanci Griffith has that award in pocket.
But Nanci won't need that category to win a Grammy. She'll win it all on the merits of her songwriting and vocal talents. If there are any remaining doubters, "Little Love Affairs" should put them all to rest.
Not that "Little Love Affairs" will win a Grammy (although by all rights it should be nominated). Rather the album is a barometer of Nanci Griffith's career: It's still on its way straight up.
In fact, "Little Love Affairs" might finally establish Griffith as the premier female folk singer in the business today, apologies to Tracy Chapman and Michelle Shocked.
Unlike her competitors, Griffith's delivery is distinctive, alternating between growls and crystal-clear sensitivity. She also manages an air of vulnerability and innocence, while injecting sincerity throughout.
The result is a captivating blend of Carole King and Emmylou Harris.
On the other side of the Nanci Griffith coin is her "folkabilly" songwriting abilities, which aren't so much traditional pop or country songs as they are story songs about people ("vignettes of couples," as she calls it).
Said Griffith, "What I do is just a little bit left of mainstream. I think when you're out there forging a path, it's very difficult to package that, because there's not a path to follow. I didn't see that that I fit in at all."
These are songs that hold the listener enraptured time after time. They are not really "country" songs or "folk" songs. They are "people" songs delivered in such a way as to bring joy to those who peek into Nanci's world.
MICHELLE SHOCKED _ "Short Sharp Shocked," Mercury-Polygram Records***
Folk music can mean a lot of different things these days. You can have Bruce Springsteen's style of folk, which is basically rock 'n' roll. You can have Sting's jazz-oriented folk. And there are Peter Gabriel's stinging political condemnations, which can loosely be labeled as a slick synth-folk.
But folk music in the Woodie Guthrie sense of the word seems to have become almost a lost art. Enter Michelle Shocked _ a firebrand political activist with an uncanny knack for hard-boiled populist music.
No sweetness here. No romanticism either. Just rough and tumble character studies that mirror average, hard-working, dream-seeking people.
Shocked, who never reveals her real name, fled her east Texas home as a teenager, acoustic guitar in hand, to live her life on the road as a socially engaged dissident folk singer (a photo of her being arrested during the 1984 Democratic convention makes an interesting album cover).
Unlike most modern female folk singers that draw their influences from the likes of Mary Travers or Judy Collins, Shocked draws her influences from folk-bluesmen like Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
Shocked has caused quite a buzz in the music industry this year. Last April, Mercury-Polygram released the crude but captivating "Texas Campfire Tapes," a collection of tunes recorded on a Sony Walkman during the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas four years ago.
"Short Sharp Shocked" is her studio debut and it's a good one. While it lacks the intimate charm of the "Campfire Tapes," it nevertheless is a powerful lineup of acoustic folk and Texas rockabilly.
Though she now lives in England, Shocked draws heavily upon her east Texas roots with colorful vignettes like "(Making the Run to) Gladewater," "Memories of East Texas" and "V.F.D." But the best of the bunch are thoughtful tunes like "Hello Hopeville," "Anchorage" and "The L&N Doesn't Stop Here Anymore."
They are mostly story songs rich in detail and sung with passionate commitment (comparisons to John Prine come immediately to mind). Despite her political beliefs, these are populist songs, not political diatribes or social broadsides.
As she told one reviewer, "I have no strong compulsion to speak out publicly with my music. I'm committed to letting people draw their own conclusions. I'm a populist in the broadest sense of the word."