I almost met Grace Griffith in the spring of 1991. A dinner had been arranged in Washington, DC with Mary Black (the Irish singer who was on the burst in America) and WETA public radio personality Mary Cliff. Grace Griffith had been invited to come along and decided at the last minute not to distract from Mary’s party.
Four years later a package arrived from well known photographer Irene Young (more than 600 album covers). It contained Grace’s first solo CD, Every Hue and Shade, and an eloquent letter extolling Grace’s considerable accomplishments. Released in late 1993, Every Hue and Shade had been awarded the WAMMIE for “Best Overall Album” by WAMA (Washington Area Music Association). One listen to her album and I was a Grace Griffith fan forever. I was particularly taken by the healing quality in Grace’s voice…her sense of inner peace was transporting above and beyond the stress of the everyday world.
It is fitting that Grace is both a natural and trained professional healer. With a degree in Physical Therapy from the University of Maryland, Grace healed through her hands, but her healing voice reached far beyond her fingertips. Grace’s story is shared by her many friends in and around the D.C. Celtic/Folk scene. A solo artist who shone brightest when performing a cappella, Grace found her way into various musical groups: The Hags, a DC based Irish music group that toured the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic college circuit (Grace followed Debi Smith and preceded Mary Chapin-Carpenter as their lead vocalist during the early 1980’s); Hazlewood, with Susan Graham White (late 1980’s), which released three albums (Wheel Of Hope, Legacy and Journeys); and Connemara, with fiddler, Cathy Palmer and harper, Tracie Brown on the first album (Beyond The Horizon, 1993) and with Cathy Palmer and multi-instrumentalist Zan McLeod on the second album (SirenSong, 1995). It was SirenSong that first achieved notice from across musical genres: “Despite being the hard rock/metal dude I am, SirenSong is right up there in the best of ’95 for me…Grace Griffith’s phenomenal voice is maybe my favorite currently, in ANY style of music.”—Ray Dorsey, CHAOS Newsletter, Nov. 1995
My partner (Lois Gerard) and I finally met Grace in August of 1995 at a meeting arranged by photographer Irene Young. Grace performed at the Hear Music store in Berkeley. We then adjourned to Carmel to celebrate our new musical alliance, where Irene took photos for what became the Grace album. The next day we learned that, while we were overlooking the Carmel Highlands’ coast from the Pacific’s Edge restaurant, President Clinton was dining in the next room. We considered it a good omen, but would have preferred an actual “Bill sighting.” After working with Grace and producer Marcy Marxer, the Grace album was released in the summer of 1996. Beginning with “Water, Fire and Smoke,” Grace contained seven other tracks from Every Hue and Shade, a new recording of Dougie MacLean’s “Turning Away” and the “Sailing/Ships Are Sailing” medley from SirenSong. The Grace album introduced Grace Griffith to a national audience, and was rated as one of 1996’s best albums by Spectator Magazine (Raleigh, NC) and The Midnight Special (WFMI, Chicago. Minstrel Song (2000) brought notice from the UK. “It is Griffith’s clear, soaring voice that dominates everything, somewhat reminiscent of Sandy Denny, but unmistakably individual. Make no mistake, this is a beautiful album, and recommended not only to Celtic fans but to all who appreciate fine music.” — Jeremy Isaacs, Maverick, June 2003.
Sands of Time (2003) won the 2003 WAMMIE for Best Traditional Folk Vocalist, and resulted in Grace being named WAMA’s 2003 “Artist of the Year.”
My Life (2006) was WAMA’s 2006 “Album of the Year” in addition to “Best Contemporary Folk Album,” and Grace was named “Co-Artist of the Year.”
In addition to her immaculate own body of work, Grace played a critical role in the posthumous musical success of Eva Cassidy. Grace first met Eva after Eva started turning up at her shows in the mid-1990’s. Grace had received WAMMIES for Best Female Vocalist five years running in both the Celtic and traditional folk categories, and Eva was one of Grace’s biggest fans. They became friends shortly before Eva was diagnosed with melanoma. Shortly after Blix’s release of her Grace album, Grace introduced us to Eva’s music and, after Eva’s passing, introduced us to Eva’s parents. I doubt if any other singer would have played “the best singer [she} ever heard” for their brand new record company.
Helping her friends is simply the kind of person Grace Griffith is. In these “You don’t ask you don’t get” times, Grace never thinks of herself first. A lifetime of seeds of kindness have grown into a garden of friends and fans. Many, first moved by the beauty of her music, have lived to experience the truth of her life. In 1998 Grace’s life became more complicated after the on-set of Parkinson’s Disease. She began appearing at Parkinson’s events when she was able, and in many ways it became the most significant time of her life. Extraordinarily, Grace came to view her affliction as an opportunity to comfort those who shared the same burden.
In 2010 Blix released Sailing to coincide with Grace’s appearance at the World Parkinson’s Congress in Glasgow, Scotland. Sailing is a retrospective album that features an array of tracks from different sources and periods that illustrate what her friends and fans in the DC area, her record label, a growing number of fans around the world and yes, Eva Cassidy, already knew – namely, that Grace Griffith is one of the world’s great unsung singers. In the words of Chris Biondo (Eva’s, and now Grace’s, producer), “There is no one I know of on the planet who sings with the emotional credibility that Grace conveys.”
The goal with Sailing was to create a “Super Album” that, much like Eva Cassidy’s Songbird album, would elevate a relatively unknown artist to her rightful place among her peers. But, alas, it was not to be, in the short term. Although Sailing deservedly received favorable reviews and garnered many new fans, we have “graduated” to times that value sound bites over sound.
But hope springs eternal… inspired by her then newly recorded a cappella version of “The Last Leviathan” for Sailing, Grace expressed the desire to return to her a cappella roots. After battling Parkinson’s for more than 15 years, Grace was determined to record one more album.
It was then that her friends stepped forward to help in any way they could. During the last two years, Chris Biondo has spent countless hours in his Kensington, Maryland studio whenever Grace could find the energy to lay down a track. Grace’s husband (Patrick) longtime producer Marcy Marxer and others drove Grace to and from Chris’s studio (2 hours one way) to take advantage of the closing window of opportunity. Musicians who offered their services for the new recordings include: Lenny Williams (piano), Al Petteway (guitar), Sue Richards (Celtic Harp), Biondo (bass/percussion), Marxer (guitar, flute, percussion), Larry Melton (upright bass) with background vocals by Cary Creed, Lynn Hollyfield and Jody Marshall on “The Woodthrush’s Song.” Jody Marshall spent many hours in the studio with Chris Biondo, helping to maximize the potential of the new recordings. Susan Graham White, who lives on her horse farm in southern Maryland, took time out from her second career (as an international judge and competitor in the equestrian sports of Evening and Dressage) to add her voice and instrumental ideas to Grace’s new recording of Susan’s Brigid’s Shield. For one more song, Hazlewood rides again! The cover photograph was taken by Patrick during a trip West in the Spring of 2103. Irene Young pitched in on the album package, while mastering engineer Billy Wolf volunteered his services to “master” the album. The generally sparse instruments added to Grace’s a cappella performances underscore rather than distract from Grace’s amazing voice. “Nature Boy” includes only the guitar accompaniment of Richard Miller, while Grace’s a cappella recording of “The Leaves Of Autumn” remains unadorned.
Along the way it was decided that “Cup Of Kindness,” “The Way Of the World” and “Deep In the Darkest Night,” three previously recorded tracks that did not quite fit on their intended albums, had at long last found a proper home. Finally, we added bonus track “Water, Fire and Smoke” to close the album. This lead track from the Grace album was always a favorite, which we regretted not being able to fit on the Sailing retrospective album. Here, it serves as the perfect reprise of what Grace and our label have shared during the past nineteen years.
Although Grace Griffith’s transporting voice remains one of the world’s best-kept secrets, it is only a matter of time. The world miraculously discovered Eva Cassidy’s music five years after her untimely passing, while Grace Griffith soldiered on. Grace remains among her peers as one of the brightest beacons from the golden age of analog.
No one knows what the future holds, but, for those who know her, Grace Griffith completes the John Keats Ode To A Grecian Urn equation…to paraphrase: the truth in the beauty of her healing voice is only equaled by the beauty in the truth of her life.
—Bill Straw, Pres., Blix Street Records