Stranded in the High Ground: Conversations With Nanci Griffith and Adam Cohen


A Conversation With Nanci Griffith

Mike Ragogna: Nanci, your newest album, Intersection, seems to be an extremely personal one, and you recorded it in your home. Can you go into that a little?

Nanci Griffith: Well, Pete Kennedy was the one who came to me and said that he knew that I was writing a lot and he was also aware of the fact that I didn't want to be in a studio. Being in the studio involves transporting yourself to LA or New York, then actually getting to the studio daily. I don't want to do that. So, he suggested that he bring his studio down from New York and set up shop in my loft space. We just recorded at the house, kept it all-inclusive. The album came out very personal and very live. It's very live.

MR: Can you tell us about some of the musicians on the album?

NG: Pete and Maura Kennedy are the core of what I do these days. I have really bad arthritis in my hands, and they really help me with the things that I struggle with on the guitar these days. Then there's Pat McInerny who's been my drummer for 25 years. It was just us and a couple of visitors. Peter Cooper and Eric Brace came in and sang vocals, and all of the neighborhood children came in and sang on the song, "Come On Up, Mississippi." We only had one other person come in, and that was Richard Steele to play the banjo. It was just a really fun, all in the family kind of experience.

MR: Let's talk about a few of your songs, beginning with the anthem, "Hell No." That song is not only your first single, but it also has a message behind it.

NG: That song came to me so quickly, it was one of those songs that just stood up and said, "Hello." I was not satisfied with some of the things that had happened in my life in the past couple of years, and I just got to the point when I wasn't going to take it anymore. Don't ask me how I'm doing if you don't really wanna know, you know? The song is so universal, and has even become tied to the "Occupy" movement. Every time we play the song live, people are up on their feet, pumping their fists, clapping and celebrating. Most of the time, they're doing this never having heard the song before either. It's great, I really love it.

MR: Do you believe that we're moving into an age where people are beginning to stand up in protest again?

NG: I sure hope so. In my opinion, seeing our republican nominees for the Presidency should be getting everyone fired up. For instance, I didn't even know why Newt Gingrich was in the running. I honestly thought that he didn't have a prayer, but I've been proven wrong. It's scary. We've talked so much about getting the money out of politics in Washington, D.C, and Newt Gingrich is one of the Washington insiders that we are trying to get rid of. He's one of the people spending millions of dollars while attacking the others that are doing the same thing. They seem to care more about money than they do about anything else.

MR: Right on. Let's talk about another of your strong message songs, "Bethlehem Steel."

NG: We were playing at The Bethlehem Arts Center, which was built directly in front of the abandoned steel mill. They've used the Steel Mill as the backdrop of that's massive. The Mill also has a stained glass window that is lit up during shows. It's almost like there's a movie going on behind you, or something. The movie Deer Hunter is what came to mind when I wrote that. Just a side note to all the ladies...Robert De Niro runs naked through the streets of Bethlehem exactly 47 minutes into the film. (laughs) Performing there was one of the few times that I was on stage that I was tempted to break the connection and the eye contact with the audience so that I could turn around and look at the Steel Mill behind me.

MR: Beautiful. And you also have an ode to 9/11 on this album.

NG: Yes, I do. The song is called, "Davey's Last Picture" and it's a true story written by my assistant Robbin Bach. She was actually in New York with her son, Beau, tooling around the village when they came across this group of firemen washing off their truck. Beau wanted to stop and meet the fireman, so they did and they were very sweet to him. He got his picture taken with a few of them, including a man named Davey. Then, Davey passed on 9/11.

MR: That's very powerful. Another of your songs is "Just Another Morning
Here," one you recorded a while back.

NG: Yes, and we kind of laugh about it, only because it took Peter Cooper and Eric Brace to fill Phil Everly's shoes on the recording. (laughs) I make fun of them for that.

MR: Nanci, I've noticed that you create from a very deep place. What is your creative process? How do you go about writing?

NG: Well, it's very spontaneous for me these days. I'm not disciplined as I used to be about it. In fact there's a song on the record called, "Stranded On The High Ground," that I wrote while a group of workers were working on the stairs in my home. I went to take a nap, and had a dream that I was in the middle of a field with Dobie Gray and we were singing that song and doing the Ricki Lake dance. He should get ghostwriter privileges on that song because it was written a couple of months before he passed away. I knew he'd been ill, and he was on my mind, that's probably why I dreamed of him.

MR: Wow. Now that's an intersection with us--Dobie Gray. We were friends, and I did a duet with him in 2008 called "Home" about bringing the troops home and fixing New Orleans. He was awesome and a bit of an activist, something most people don't know about him. By the way, one of my favorite lines in "Stranded..." is, "If you're standing on the high ground, there's no where to go but down."

NG: Well, it's very true. That's why you have to hold your ground!

MR: You also did a Loretta Lynn song on Intersection called, "High On A Mountaintop."

NG: I have always been a very big fan of Loretta's, but never recorded anything by her because I was too intimidated. I thought it was time on this album - especially since I know Loretta and I've even written about her. She's very aware of that. She's also always been very kind and giving to me, so I knew that I really wanted to do something of hers on this album. Of course, I probably picked the most complicated song she ever wrote in her life. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) But, of course, you handled it with grace.

NG: Well, thank you. She can fit more words into one line than anyone else, ever. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) Now, one of my favorite songs from your catalog is "Trouble In The Fields." It's such a heartbreaker.

NG: That song meant so much to me then. Maura O'Connell was the first one to cover that song, and she had a hit with it in Ireland. That kind of paved the way for me. I still think that she did the best job with that song of anyone, including me, so much so that my great uncle, who was 92 at the time, had her version of "Trouble In The Fields" on his answering machine if he was out in the field and couldn't answer the phone, not mine. I thought it was really sweet. It wasn't cool, but it was sweet. (laughs)

MR: And speaking of Ireland, "It's A Hard Life Wherever You Go" is another of your great anthems. I especially love the line, "If we poison our children with hatred, then a hard life is all that they'll know."

NG: And I believe that's true. I don't think we're socializing our children properly. School used to be as much about education as it was about socializing. There are so many school districts now that no longer have a physical education program so that these kids can get their aggression out on a basketball or play some kickball. They need time to throw things at each other. (laughs) It used to happen a lot more, and that just doesn't exist anymore.

MR: Do you feel like there's an answer to that problem?

NG: Well, the answer has always become that we can't afford it. We don't even have the arts in schools anymore. I think every child has a creative notion in them. But at the same time, having been a schoolteacher, I believe that if a child has a knack for the arts, they'll find it. Any arts class was always a breath of fresh air to the children that had a passion for it.

MR: So true. Getting back to Intersection, I wanted to talk with you about the song, "Never Going Back." Never?

NG: Well, I don't intend to go back. (laughs) I love that song. To me, it means that I've done this, I know this, I've walked away from this, and I don't want to do it.

MR: Nanci, having the wealth of experience that you do, do you have any advice that you'd like to give to new artists?

NG: know? I mean, I respect people who are able to work well on their computers and such, but don't rely only on that thing. Work. Get out your real instrument with strings or keys and play music. Sometimes, I feel like we're heading in the wrong direction in that regard because I believe that being completely electronically based can stifle the creativity. You're not creating a sound, it's already created for you.

MR: I often worry about that myself, since technology has made it so easy to slack off. So, what does the immediate future hold for you?

NG: Well, I am going to be touring all over Europe. We're in Europe for a little over a month.

MR: Wonderful. Any chance you'd like to make a quick prediction on the upcoming Presidential election?

NG: Oh, gosh. I don't know. I mean, I have a bumper sticker on my truck that says "Blue Girl in a Red State." I have no predictions. It's been so odd lately that anything can happen.

MR: (laughs) I agree. Nanci, this has been such a huge pleasure for me. Thank you for coming to spend time with us.

NG: Thank you so much for having me, Mike.

1. Bethlehem Steel
2. Never Going Back
3. Intersection
4. Waiting on a Dark Eyed Gal
5. Hell No (I'm Not Alright)
6. Stranded in the High Ground
7. If I Could Only Fly
8. Just Another Morning Here
9. Bad Seed
10. Davey's Last Picture
11. Come On Up Mississippi
12. High On A Mountain Top

Transcribed by Evan Martin


A Conversation With Adam Cohen

Mike Ragogna: Adam, it seems like you're swinging for the fences with your new album, Like a Man.

Adam Cohen: I wouldn't describe it that way. I actually feel like it's the other way around. I think that what characterized my career up till now was swinging for the fences, and that I had high ambitions. I wanted sex drugs and rock 'n' roll and I wanted to participate in the mess. I wanted chart positions and radio, and essentially, you know, that's what characterized the first part of my career. Now I just want to be good, and I've made a record that reflects that. I don't think it has any commercial ambition and the song pays tribute and homage to the tradition that I come from, which notably is my father's. And so, I think the other way around. I'm swinging to home base.

MR: (laughs) What I meant was as far as the level of the creativity and integrity, that it felt quite artistic. I should have said it that way.

AC: Oh, well I hate to have wasted your time correcting you then because in that case we're in complete synch.

MR: (laughs) No problem, I'm glad we are because I love this record and let's get into a couple of the topics. But before I start asking you questions about individual songs, what was the creative process for this batch?

AC: The songs on this record were one by one, written over a large span of time. And I basically abandoned all the songs.

MR: You abandoned all of the songs?

AC: Yeah. One by one, if they resembled my father's work too much, I hid them away. The songs on this record were written over the course of twenty years. I actually didn't really write for this record. This record is just a collection of songs that are united because A) I thought of them as my best and B) they were all songs that were rescued from a kind of oblivion.

MR: Yet you were very connected with them still?

AC: Yeah, they're my best songs I think. They're the best songs I've written over the last twenty years.

MR: On the title track--and correct me if I'm wrong--it feels to me like you're reviewing aspects of being a man. In some respects, they're sort of like apologies, but in other respects, they're simply what you get because that's what a man is.

AC: You know, really the last thing I want to seem is uncooperative. But I cannot get myself to talk about these songs themselves. I can talk about the process or I can talk about my gigs, but to go into the meaning of the song or what was intended--these are things that I'm going to sound like I'm phoning it in. And my job is to be really sincere and real. All I can tell you with that song is that the theme of becoming a man and assuming responsibility is important to me.

MR: That's cool. Adam, you had producer Patrick Leonard with you on this project.

AC: Patrick Leonard--the great Patrick Leonard--is the person who is most responsible for this record coming alive. You know, he financed this record. He convinced me, he snake charmed me into having the courage that was so glaringly missing in making this record.

MR: What was the recording process like?

AC: He had really strict rules for how we were going to make the record. The conditions were that I had to sing and play guitar on one mic played at the same time in a room by musicians, and if we didn't get the song in three takes, we had to move on. We'd be limited to one or two overdubs per song and most of which we used for strings and a brilliant harmony singer by the name of Jennifer Warnes. She's well-known and rather beloved in some circles, and we were lucky to have her. And you know, the goal was to really capture something instead of create something.

MR: Right, and of course, Jennifer's Famous Blue Raincoat was the album on which she covered many of your dad's classic songs.

AC: Yeah, she's great.

MR: Personally I feel like she's one of the most underrated singers and artists. She always knows what material is perfect for her to cover.

AC: Yeah, she really understands her voice, what it does, what it evokes. She's a pro.

MR: Let's talk about the arrangements. You had a quartet.

AC: Yeah, the Sonus Quartet. The arrangements were written by Patrick Leonard and Sonus Quartet, which are three exquisite young ladies and a sweet and fine gentleman. They came in and got the papers, the arrangements from Patrick Leonard, executed it and overdubbed themselves once or twice. They're glorious, really sensitive sort of avant-garde, sweet little arrangements.

MR: The pre-release buzz on this album is really good. I went to South by Southwest and I saw posters of you, so somebody's doing their job.

AC: God I hope so, because it's been a really, really rough trajectory up 'til now, and I didn't think I'd even make it this far. So to be standing this close to the entrance of the bakery while having waited on the proverbial bread line this long, I hope I get in!

MR: (laughs) Do you have any kind of feel for how your dad feels about your records or your writing or this album?

AC: Yeah, he loves it. He loves them. He's incredibly supportive.

MR: Nice. A proud papa.

AC: I think he recognizes that I'm doing my finest work and that I've experienced a kind of reinvention, a resurgence, rebirth, or regeneration.

MR: To me, even though electronic pop was popular, at the Grammys, Adele's soulfulness and simplicity were also rewarded. Do you feel that there's now a desire to get back to a "real" or "warm" approach to music?

AC: Um, I feel like Adele is a sensational artist, and I'm so glad that she across the board is recognized for being great. I don't know that if the appreciation that people have for her is symptomatic or emblematic of the times that we're in. But does that address your question at all?

MR: Yeah, it does. So, in other words, you think it's just people appreciating it, it's not so much a new trend that's going to be happening.

AC: No, I don't think that she is an emblem of this sort of dire times that we're in, that people are affixing their interests or love to her because of how impoverished or artificial the times are. I think she's great for all the right reasons. She just is great. She has one of those voices that's hardwired to the heart and she makes you believe. Those voices don't come around that often, and when they do, people tend to clamor around it. I mean, the last one that came around like her was someone who's no longer with us, and that's the girl in Britain who passed away. Mark Ronson made her record. Amy Winehouse had this incredible and remarkable voice, and I don't think it's the style of what accompanied her and how that style was playing to or against the sort of current trends; it was her voice. And Adele has that. She's just magnificent. And the fact that she's not some pinup model, that's even better for the story, because it's like we have to like her for who she truly is, not what she looks like, not what she genre she belongs to. And, I think we're also seeing a backlash against shoe gazers and the tragically hipster bands that end up on Saturday Night Live or Letterman and suck.

MR: That's a very good point.

AC: We want context, not style.

MR: Well, this is an interesting point. Now that we're at this moment where we've been talking about artists like this, and you might have just covered it, what advice do you have for new artists?

AC: Advice I wish had been given to me is what I'd give, which is to say there is no consensus about what is great today. The only consensus there seems to be is that there was an era in which stuff was truly great, and that ranges from the '60s and mid-'70s. And those people, we all agree, were great, and belong to some sort of golden era of recording, and represent a kind of truth and social consciousness and vulnerability. What those records have in common is that they were not made for format. They were not made to get onto specific radio stations. They were made by artists who were encouraged by institutions. They were made by artists who didn't expect overnight success, but were career artists who didn't go onto some television show hoping to be recognized overnight and sensationalized. They worked at their craft. But more importantly than anything, they were not scared to be truly themselves, and that sounds like one of those clichés that goes in one ear and out the other because it's so overused, it's like we squeezed the meaning out of the sentence.

But if someone had just told me, "Hey man, be yourself--don't try to make an impressive record, don't try to make a record where you're going to be seductive, just really be yourself," but who was I? I was the son of my father. I was a young man. I was, in many ways, given the opportunity to have a coming out party that I squandered by wanting to sound slick or sound big or sound this or sound that, whereas the kind of vulnerability and the denuded approach of any artists, you know the problems with their voice, the problems with pitch or the problems with their time are the true revelation of some kind of situation that they found themselves in. Those are the things that we really, really resonate with.

MR: Nice, beautifully said. That's one of the best answers to that question I think I've ever heard.

AC: Wow.

MR: (laughs) What is the immediate future for Mr. Cohen?

AC: I'm going to continue trying to peddle my little project with as much dignity as I can. And, you know, it's hard. It's so seductive, this lifestyle and this gig--having people call you and being on stage, seeing your posters on streets and in stores. You can easily be seduced that you actually mean something, but you don't mean anything until you mean something. How you become to mean something is a matter of a kind of devotion, and I'm trying to be devoted. I'm trying to be faithful to my record. I'm trying to continue learning, I'm trying to continue to be humble, I'm trying to be sober, and I'm actually really enjoying the ride. To answer your question more specifically, I hope to continue along the path that I've found, which is brand new to me.

MR: Beautiful. If there's one description or way that you feel when you listen to Like A Man--and this may even be partly when you listen to it back, perhaps with a glass of wine or whatever, sitting in front of a beautiful stereo system--well, what is your take on it as a whole?

AC: I love it! I'm just so surprised that it was even made at all. I was so disillusioned with my career, so lacking in the confidence that I would ever record something that was meaningful or that would show how good I think of myself as because I had failed so many times before. The fact that this record exists and that my son can consult it the same way I consulted my father's work and know that daddy doesn't suck--in fact, daddy's pretty good--it's just a tremendous, tremendous feeling.

MR: Well you know, with that I'm wishing you all the best with your new album. Personally, there are so many songs on this project I can relate to.

AR: Awesome. I really appreciated the endorsement, and you know, I am fully aware of the fact that I can't do the job I'm doing without your interest and time and questions, so I appreciate it.

MR: Adam, thank you so much for talking with us.

AC: My pleasure.

1. Out Of Bed
2. Matchbox
3. Like A Man
4. Sweet Dominique
5. What Other Guy
6. Girls These Days
7. Lie Alone
8. Overrated
9. Beautiful
10. Stranger

Transcribed by Kyle Pognan