Last Of The True Believers by Nanci Griffith

1986

Today is the last day of our week’s holiday in Cranborne Chase, right in the middle of Wiltshire. It’s a lovely area, the weather has been sublime and the place we are staying in is stupendous. Roo told me today that it might be the last holiday we have because she is finding everything so difficult. I can understand that there’s no pleasure in going away from home when her disability makes her uncomfortable. At home, she has a comfortable armchair, it’s easy to get into and out of bed and everything is within reach when she has a shower. I had a brief insight into her disability when I was recovering from my hip operation and found the smallest movement difficult. The difference was that I knew I was going to improve but for anyone with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, things are only going to get worse.

So, quite understandably, Roo is anxious to get to a place where comfort, relaxation and an easy life awaits. As it happens, that is a common theme of the songs on Nanci Griffith’s fourth album, “The Last Of The True Believers”. Tied in with a longing to be physically elsewhere, many of the songs are about the breakdown of a relationship. Despite a disagreement today about whether or not Poole was near Weymouth, we are not at that point yet. Most of the songs are about moving on – literally moving location and also moving on from someone she thought was special. The last five songs on Side Two, tell a sequential story from infatuation to a resigned acceptance of her fate.

The title song, “Last Of The True Believers”, has a torrent of words describing a restless spirit who is wrestling with the problem of whether to stay where she is and make a home or to keep wandering from place to place (and lover to lover). This theme is evident in a lot of her songs. In 110 seconds, everything I could ever want from a song is evident: an emotional voice, intelligent lyrics, a memorable chorus and an instrumental break featuring sensitive guitar playing and intense fiddle playing. Every time the song ends, I’m left wanting more.

As if that start wasn’t fantastic enough, “Love At The Five And Dime” is even better. It’s a whole novel, told in the space of 270 seconds. Rita works in Woolworth’s and Eddie is a musician, working bars. When Rita finishes her shift, Eddie comes into the store and they dance in the aisles of the shop. They marry and Rita has a miscarriage. She has a quick fling with the bass player in Eddie’s band so he runs off with his wife. However, they realise what they are losing emotionally by moving away from each other and they quickly get back together. Many years later, they are still together and still in love. They like to spend the evenings dancing to the radio. There’s a life of fulfilment to be gained by appreciating simple pleasures rather than restlessly seeking something better.

In the late 19th century, “variety stores” begun to flourish in the USA. The first such store was opened by Frank Whitfield Woolworth in Utica, New York, in 1879. Every item cost five cents (a nickel) but when the store did poorly, he changed his plan to offering goods that cost either five cents or ten cents (a dime). When other entrepreneurs opened variety stores, they became known by the generic term “five and dime”.

Large Woolworth’s stores had lifts (or elevators) between floors which would play a short musical note when the doors opened. Magically, Nanci Griffith was able to include a harmonic note on her guitar to signify this.

The opening to “More Than A Whisper”, in which Nanci Griffith hums the melody before breaking into “How I wish that you would call”, is sublime. The song is written from the viewpoint of a woman who, physically distant from her lover, yearns for a call from him. She is unhappy and restless where she is and needs the reassurance and comfort that he can provide. She needs to hear that he loves her and the hints (“the whispers”) are not enough to satisfy her. As always, the range of emotions, from sadness through anger to resignation provide a spellbinding vocal performance.

When Paddy and I left New Orleans on our first American trip, I made one small mistake in my map reading. We intended to travel across the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which is 24 miles long. One “left” followed by a “sorry” caused us to head West instead of North and finding a way back proved impossible.

On “Lake Pontchartrain”, the singer is in Montreal where she hears a lot of French-Canadian voices and it’s so cold that “the rivers stand imprisoned ‘till the thaws”. She determines to catch a “southbound train” and “roll across America” to go home to Lake Pontchartrain. She is yearning to get back to the better weather and her friends, where she can properly be herself.

Goin’ Gone” describes someone who has been rootless and searching for love, who now thinks she has found it. “Deep in the waters of love, I am falling, sinking like a stone”. “One Of These Days” is a follow-up to finding love and suggests a possible future whereby the two lovers have moved from Texas to New York. The singer wishes that she was back home, where both of their parents still live and where the weather is better. When they got on the bus from Texas, “it was 102 in the shade”. Sadly, things didn’t work out and in “Love’s Found A Shoulder”, he has fallen in love with some else and she is left “standing in the cold winter rain”. “Fly By Night” is an angry song as she is going out without him. “The heat is rising” could refer to the weather or their tempestuous relationship.

As with many albums which dissect the breakdown of a relationship, the last song is one of resignation, if not redemption. “The Wing And The Wheel” is a gorgeous song, with a great melody and Nanci Griffith’s trademark vocals, mixing vulnerability with strength. In the song, she accepts that she was never going to be one to settle down “in the suburbs”. Her dreams are bigger than that and she can hope that her “open heart finds rest.”. She recognises that she is likely to remain unsettled and, possibly, lonely but knows that she will “have memories for company long after the songs are gone.”

These songs will never be gone and for those of us lucky enough to have felt the beauty and sensitivity of this music, the memories will never fade. Nanci Griffith died in August 2021, aged 68.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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