I started reading David Hepworth’s new book yesterday, called “Overpaid, Oversexed And Over There”. It’s subtitled “How A Few Skinny Brits With Bad Teeth Rocked America” – it’s about how, in the Sixties and Seventies, British musical acts succeeded in the USA. It’s very well written and there’s none of the egotistical self aggrandisement of his podcasts. My favourite bit in one of the early chapters, compares British and American teenage culture in the early Sixties, before The Beatles. It’s all about how cars feature in teenage life. In the USA, “Junior was out in the borrowed passion wagon, hoping that under the cover of Wolfman Jack’s vulpine patter, he might get a girl to slide on over the bench seat and allow him to run a hand up her skirt. What did the British get for their part but a song about seven little girls sitting on the back seat kissing and hugging with Fred? This was not the same thing at all.” Apart from the gratuitous use of the word vulpine, that’s very funny.
And then, just as I switched the light out to go to sleep last night, I knocked over a glass of water and it went all over the book, ruining it completely. I now can’t read it because it’s gone, unreadable, spoiled, damaged, decayed, rotten, tainted. That’s how it felt last night anyway as I swore to myself, trying to reach dreamland. Of course, this morning, when I look at it, it’s not so bad – quite a few of the pages are wrinkled but it’s a hard back and the cover is fine. It’s perfectly readable but it’s just not as pristine as it was. It’s worth noting that I often find it hard to read the right hand page of a book because I don’t want to open up the book fully in case I damage the spine – when I hold it, it’s barely open. Roo, of course, being more pragmatic, reads everything on her Kindle but, the collector part of me wants to have and to hold. From this day forth. This is not an attractive trait in me, I realise. It’s something about control – I want my books to be in perfect condition, even when I finish them.
I was thinking about my list of the best albums ever and what a good album “Lone Star State Of Mind” is. I thought I should write about it today and I don’t have it on CD so this was a great opportunity to play the vinyl record on my new turntable. For some reason that I can’t explain, my disappointment at completely writing off my new David Hepworth book was lessened by realising that Roo and I own two copies of this album. A couple of years ago, we sold all our duplicate records (of which there were about ninety) but, clearly, we missed this. Or rather, I missed this because Roo never makes mistakes. So I got both vinyl copies out and looked at them and felt peaceful. In fact, I was so pleased that I took a photo along with the “ruined” book.
“Lone Star State Of Mind” was Nanci Griffiths’ fifth album, recorded when she was thirty three years old. It was on the MCA label, her previous albums having been released on smaller labels that released predominantly folk music (e.g. Philo). There was more of a country tinge to this album and there is an impressive list of great Nashville session musicians playing on the album including Bela Fleck (banjo), Lloyd Green (dobro, pedal steel), Roy Huskey Jnr (Upright bass), Pat Alger (guitar) and Russ Kunkel (drums). It was her most successful album, reaching Number 23 on the Billboard Country charts. As far as I am concerned, every song, without exception, is a gem. There are eleven songs and eleven different stories to be told. The playing is excellent, her singing is beautiful, her voice is emotional and the songs are well structured and immediately appealing. It’s one of the eight best albums ever made. That’s what I thought two days ago and nothing I’ve heard so far today has made me change my mind.
The first track is the title track, “Lone Star State Of Mind”. Nanci Griffith is in Denver, “sipping the California wine”, when she gets a phone call from an old friend that she knew in Corpus Christi, in Texas. She’s is in a lonely state of mind and the title is a clever pun on “The Lone Star” of Texas. There’s a fantastic guitar break, great singing and a memorable melody.
The first track on Side Two tells the story of Rosalie Sorrels. She was a folksinger who, in the early Sixties, left her husband and travelled around America with her five children in a Ford Econoline. Nanci Griffith’s powerful voice is great on this track. Across the album she is able to vary the style of her singing – sometimes powerful, sometimes tender but always emotional.
There was a great programme made by Andy Kershaw in 1987 called “New Country Gettin’ Tough” which featured Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle amongst others. The clip of Nanci Griffith singing “Lone Star State Of Mind” and “Ford Econoline” is utterly delightful.
“Cold Hears/Closed Minds” tells the story of someone who “made up my mind late last night” that she is going to leave her lover because he is unable to love her.
“From A Distance” brings to mind the concert that John and I went to at The London Palladium when we sat very high up in the back row and we could just about make Nanci Griffith out from a distance. It’s a wonderful song, written by Julie Gold in which the singer describes God looking down on humanity and seeing only harmony, hope and peace and not seeing any guns, bombs, disease or hunger. Anyway, that’s how I interpret it. One of the lines is “God is watching us from a distance.” Does that mean, don’t worry, God is watching over us or does it mean God isn’t paying very close attention? Or something else? I don’t know but it’s very moving. Unfortunately, Cliff Richard butchered this song and took it to Number 11 in the UK Singles charts. Bette Midler also sung the song and took it to Number 2 in the US.
“Beacon Street” is another song describing lost love. She is in a strange city and all she can hear is the sound of the trains in Beacon Street. He says it might be over and she agrees. “You say your love is lost. I’m not the kind who lingers on”. “Nickel Dreams” tells the story of someone who has made it big but is struggling to remember who she really is. Everyone tells her how great she is but it’s an effort and she’s not sure it’s worth it. “Now she wishes she looked like they tell her she looks all the time.” “Sing One For Sister” was written by Robert Earl Keen Jnr. The singer used to play songs at home for her Mum, Dad and sister but her parents have died and her sister has married. To make things worse, “Now you ran off and left me to live here all alone. So I will sing these sad old songs as I am leaving town.”
“Trouble In The Fields” is probably my favourite song on this album. Mark O’Connor plays a beautiful fiddle on a song that describes a farmer who is finding it hard to make a living. Other people in the area are “all buying their tickets out and they’re talking the Great Depression”. The farmer and his wife are still hopeful that they can make things work if the rains come and anyway, at least they still have each other. “You’ll be the mule, I’ll be the plow, come harvest time we’ll work it out. There’s still a lot of love here in these troubled fields“
“Love In A Memory” is also a beautiful song. The woman “sleeps alone in the warm nights of Memphis” and the man “works the toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike“. They used to be in love but “why she did leave him, well, nobody knows“. “Let It Shine On Me” is a lovely, simple song. It describes a star in the sky which Nanci Griffith hopes will shine on her “when the way seems so dark.“
“There’s A Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret)” is also the title track from her first album. Mary Margaret was Nanci Griffith’s childhood friend. Each verse of the song is taken from a different time in their friendship. In the first verse they are ten years old and dreaming big dreams. In the second verse Nanci Griffith has a boyfriend and in the third verse Mary Margaret leaves to live in New York but returns in time to find that Nanci Griffith’s boyfriend has died. Later, Mary Margaret settles down and has a family while Nanci Griffith has moved away but, looking back over their lives, she wonders what happened to their dreams. “What about the light, that glowed beyond our woods when we were ten?” Magnificent.
Every song is wonderful and tells a short story in a way that only the very best songs can. It’s right up there amongst the very best albums ever made.