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Monday, February 28, 2011

Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival: In-the-Round with Nanci Griffith

(Photography by Ariel Bodey)

Allison Krauss and Robert Plant made the Grammy-winning Raising Sand album. Hazelnut and chocolate combined forces to make the unimaginably delicious Nutella Spread. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes made the criminally adorable Suri.

Unlikely pairings often produce superb results – the most recent evidence being the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, the yearly culture swap between the two Sister Cities.

In the second night of the 7th annual festival, one of America’s most prolific songwriters,Nanci Griffith, shares the stage with local artists Wes Grierson and Janet Holmes.

Inside the jam-packed Empire Music Hall, tonight’s “in-the-round” performance (where each artist takes turns playing) is instantly recognizable as a Music City tradition. Belfast local Grierson showcases a soulful warble that belies his young age, as well as a knack for percussive guitar playing and blues-soaked harmonica rips. Fellow local artist Holmes praises Grierson’s harp chops by remarking, “I was gonna bring a harmonica . . . I’m glad I changed my mind.”

A “folkabilly” artist who has worked with the likes of
John Prine, Willie Nelson, and Jimmy Buffett, Nanci Griffith boasts around twenty albums, a Grammy, and an award from the American Civil Liberties Union. In spite of Griffith’s impossibly petite frame, she is one of country music’s undisputed heavyweights.Griffith’s first song of the evening is “Listen to the Radio,” a tribute to Loretta Lynn, who Griffith says “showed me it was okay to play guitar and write my own songs.” She is backed on vocals by The Kennedys songstress Maura Kennedy, and a guitar-saddled gentleman who looks much like the Fu Manchu’ed cowboy from The Big Lebowski. The setlist also includes “The Loving Kind,” which narrates the watershed trial of a biracial Virginian couple. At the end of the night, Griffith introduces her final song by saying, “This is a song that every generation wants to claim for themselves,” before launching into a spirited rendition of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer.”

With an eruption of applause, the evening draws to a close, it is clear that the seemingly improbable Belfast-Nashville pairing is a uniquely entertaining match. There is, however, some room for improvement:
ya’ll bring some cheese grits next year.