It must have crossed the mind of the great John Prine sometime in his colourful life that he could – and maybe should – have written “Love at the Five & Dime,” one of the great romantic classics of everyday life. Instead that honour went to another song-writing star Nanci Griffith.
Sadly both Griffith and Prine are now gone. Griffith died aged 68 in August 2021, just 16 months after Prine died of a COVID-related illness at the age of 73.
So it is heaven-sent, as some may say, that a recording of Prine doing “Love at the Five & Dime” –as a duet with Kelsey Waldon – has been included on a superb 14-track tribute album More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith.
The delightful tale of young Woolworths counter-assistant Rita falling in love with Eddie, who plays in a bar-room band, fits Prine’s whimsical writing – and singing - style like a well-worn glove. And for an artist who made an art form of duetting with females, his pairing with Waldon is just perfect.
Glow in the warmth as they swap stanzas through one of the most inventive lyrical compositions in Americana music.
One of the boys in Eddie’s band took a shine to Rita’s hands
So Eddie ran off with the bass man’s wife
Oh but he was back by June, singing a different tune
And sporting Miss Rita back by his side.
“Love at the Five & Dime” is the star track on Griffith’s fourth studio album The Last of the True Believers (1986) and there is another endearing twist to the tribute album in that a big name who supplied backing vocals on many of that album’s tracks, Lyle Lovett, also has a duet on the More Than a Whisper compilation.
Just to provide one more fascinating aside, Lovett actually appears on the cover of The Last of the True Believers. On it, Griffiths poses outside a Woolworths store and to her right, in a dancing pose, is Lyle as “Eddie” waltzing with “Rita” in front of the five and dime.
On the tribute album, Lovett teams up with Kathy Mattea for a majestic version of the haunting “Trouble In The Fields,” off Lone Star State of Mind. In fact, Lovett - a Texan like Griffiths - could have easily composed these emotional lines of life’s struggle on dusty land:
And then we’ll work these crops with sweat and tears
You’ll be the mule I’ll be the plow
Come harvest time we will work it out
There’s still a lot of love, here in these troubled fields
There is also context in Mattea’s contribution to the tribute album. For her own career was reignited in 1986 when her cover of “Love at the Five & Dime” reached #3 on the country music charts
In fact, the celebration album is simply littered with some of the biggest names in Americana music - from the old guard who shared stages with Nanci, like Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Iris DeMent and Mary Gauthier, to such rising stars as Brandy Clark, Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and The War and Treaty.
It is somewhat ironic that such an esteemed collection are congregated together to interpret her own music because Griffith did just when she recorded probably the finest covers album in Americana music, Other Voices, Other Rooms. It won both Griffith and producer Jim Rooney Grammys in 1984. She was inspired to make the album by songwriters who influenced her and indeed some, including Bob Dylan and Prine, actually appeared on their own compositions.
Another who contributed to that classic album was Emmylou Harris, not surprising for the artist who perhaps best defined the art of interpreting various musical genres. And her contribution to this compilation is a distinctive version of “Love Wore a Halo (Back Before The War),” a somewhat under-rated composition Griffith once referred to being about “the sleaziest couple on my Little Love Affairs album.”
What is probably Nanci’s most politically-aligned song, “It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go,” has been suitably assigned to Steve Earle, a writer has always worn a political heart on his sleeve. This is a song, written in 1989, in which Griffith purposely links the “troubles” in Northern Ireland to the toxicity of racism in America.
It flows effortlessly from Earle, as he begins in Falls Road, Belfast:
I am a backseat driver from America
They drive to the left on Falls Road
The man at the wheel’s name is Seamus
We pass a child on the corner he knows
The song later crosses the Atlantic to the American mid-west:
A cafeteria line in Chicago
The fat man in front of me
Is calling black people trash to his children
Ah he is the only trash here I see
One of the dearest personal tributes to Griffith when she died came from singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, who recalled her early days in Nashville when she was struggling to find gigs. One night Nanci spotted her in the crowd and invited Mary onstage. She then handed her a guitar and they performed.
“When I was done, I handed Nanci her guitar back. She shook her head and said: ‘Keep it.’ I froze, holding her engraved signature Sunburst Taylor 612 cutaway guitar in mid-air, question marks in both of my eyes. ‘It’s yours,’ she said. ‘When I moved to Nashville, Harlan Howard gave me his guitar. I’m giving you mine.’ I was speechless but somehow found the courage to say: ‘Will you sign it?’ She signed: For Mary because YOU WILL sing,” Gauthier posted on Facebook at the time.
So it seems very fitting that the honour of performing the title track of the tribute album has been afforded to Gauthier. Griffith co-wrote “More Than A Whisper” with Bobby Nelson, for the classic Last of the True Believers. Gauthier’s melody stays true to the original, though her deeper vocals contrast sharply to Nanci’s distinctively-soprano strains.
Griffith would have turned 70 in July, and so the release of More Than A Whisper: Celebrating The Music Of Nanci Griffith was clearly timed to coincide with this anniversary, as was another significant deliverance on the music market.
A fortnight earlier saw Rounder Records and Craft Recordings honour her legacy by releasing a 4-CD/4LP box set of her first four, out-of-print early albums titled Working in Corners. The set includes her 1978 debut album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, 1982’s Poet in My Window, 1984’s Once in a Very Blue Moon and The Last of the True Believers.
The set not only includes the four albums, but also rare photographs, very detailed linear notes from her long-time producer Rooney and a myriad of memories from friends and collaborators collated by writer Holly Gleason.
Trawling through Griffith’s evolving early work adds an ideal prelude to the 14 songs chosen for the all-star More Than A Whisper interpretation.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Association