(Album artwork: Does it indeed affect our listening experience, and if so, how? Scratch the Surface takes a look at particularly interesting and/or exceptional cover art choices.)
I got into Nanci Griffith in high school, but I didn’t talk about it with anyone much. Loving Nanci was kind of like my love for all those sitcoms from the 50s and 60s that I watched reruns of while growing up – it just wasn’t that hip. Her music always seemed to emanate from some time-capsuled era where things were just a little bit simpler. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Griffith hailed from the Austin, TX music scene of the 1970s – a hotbed of the country revivalist movement and the eventual alt-country community. A lot of the music from Austin in that era was reaching back to an earlier version of country and folk. It just happened that Griffith’s music was on the sweeter, softer end of that spectrum.
Her fourth album, The Last of the True Believers, was released in 1986 and the album was her last for Philo/Rounder as it garnered enough critical and commercial support to get her a deal with MCA. It was also home to “Love at the Five and Dime” which would be taken to number three on the Billboard country charts that same year by Kathy Mattea and was also the foundation of the cover art of the album.
Woolworth’s is the central setting of “Love at the Five and Dime” and the cover photo of The Last of the True Believers is taken outside of a Woolworth’s store. The photo is set up like a triptych, with two couples on either side of Griffith in the center, and either side representing different eras outside of the same location. To the viewer’s left is a man (John T. Davis, then a current music writer for the Austin American-Statesman) dressed in certifiable 80s garb (sport coat, tie and shirt, jeans) talking with a woman in red, sparkly heels, white socks, fishnet stockings, a black skirt and an Austin Moose Lodge jacket. The man and woman are re-enacting the rough story of “Lookin’ for the Time (Workin’ Girl)” from the album, a song told from the vantage point of a prostitute trying to ditch a john who’s wasting her time while she’s working the corner. Behind them, the Woolworth’s store window displays its Christmas wares and the signage in window points to its 80s origins as well.
To the viewer’s right is a couple dancing in front of the store’s entryway, and it doesn’t take more than a second to recognize Lyle Lovett as the male half of the pair. (Lovett contributed harmony vocals on seven of the album’s eleven songs.) He and the woman are acting out the central pair of “Love at the Five and Dime” and the sign above the entryway (“Visit Woolworth’s Luncheonette”) evokes something much closer to the 50s/60s feel of the song’s story. While the woman’s clothes aren’t exactly of the era, Lovett’s suit (which, has anyone ever seen him without one?) certainly feels close to the time.
In the middle, straddling the two time periods, is Nanci Griffith. At the time of the album’s release, Griffith was in her early 30s but looks much younger and could easily pass for late teens or early 20s in the photo. And that seems to be Griffith’s central problem – feeling pulled between the past of her youth that her songs celebrate, criticize, pick apart and explore and the present in which her songwriting exists. She’s clutching a copy of Donald Spoto’s The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams at her side and looking for all the world like, yes, the last true believer in some idyllic sense of the past. To her right, the reality of the world, to her left, its romantic ideal. words/ j neas