When the Maryland singer was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease in 1998, it cut short a career that, as well as working as a physical therapist, had seen her front two Celtic folk outfits, Connemara and the all-female Hag, partner Susan Graham White in Hazlewood, win numerous Washington Area Music Association Best Female Vocalist awards and sign a deal with Blix Records (the label she urged to sign her friend Eva Cassidy, just prior to her death in 1996), who reissued an expanded version of her self-released 1993 solo debut, Every Hue and Shade, as Grace.
While battling with the incurable illness, which causes, among other things, tremors, slowness of movement, and rigidity in the limbs, Griffith still managed to record and release a further three albums, the last, My Life, in 2006. Today, Griffith lives in Assisted Living accommodation in Washington, has problems walking, can no longer play guitar and has difficulty with her vocal control. However, she was determined to release one final album. So, in 2012, she began work on Passing Through, a collection of folk and Celtic songs, sometimes recording a complete number, sometimes just a word or sentence, with the support of long time producers Chris Biondo and Lenny Williams.
Although initially planned as an a capella project, once the vocals were complete, an array of musicians contributed to bring instrumentation to the sparse and subtle arrangements, among them Celtic harpist Sue Richards (to be heard on a lovely reading of Yeats’ ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’ and Anne Lister’s ‘May Morning’), frequent multi-instrumentalist collaborator Marcy Marxer on, among other things, flute, mandolin, guitar and bouzouki, and, effecting a Hazelwood reunion, Susan Graham White, who adds vocals to the piano accompanied ‘Brigid’s Shield’, a self-penned Celtic ballad from her own Sounding Land album.
Given the crystal purity and rich warmth of Griffith’s soprano (a quick reference would be a cross between Cassidy and Judy Collins), you’d never guess the effort that must have gone into the singing, certainly not on the album’s two unaccompanied tracks, the traditional folk-styled ‘The Wood Thrush’s Song’, on which Cary Creed, Lynn Hollyfield and Jody Marshall provide background harmonies, and the solo vocal of ‘The Leaves of Autumn’, a reflective meditation on the changing seasons written specifically for the album by Jennifer Cutting.
Elsewhere, while hewing to the folk genre, the material ranges from the traditional to the relatively contemporary, the obscure to the very familiar, embracing ‘Bridget O’Malley’, a violin and cello accompanied Scottish ballad popularised in the 60s by Andy Stewart, Sydney Carter’s pealing ‘Loud Are The Bells of Norwich’ and a smoky, jazz-guitar backed reading of Nat King Cole evergreen ‘Nature Boy’.
As well as the tracks recorded for the project, there’s also four previously unreleased numbers that never found their way on to the previous albums, the gently jaunty, upright bass tumble of ‘Way Of The World ‘featuring Griffith harmonising with herself, the traditional ‘I Wish My Love Was A Red Red Rose’, a lovely, tender version of Rick Kemp’s pledge of friendship, ‘Deep In The Darkest Night’, originally recorded in 1983 by Maddy Prior, coloured by piano and whistle (though the sleeve notes say accordion) and, arguably the highlight among several standouts, a keening roots-country cover of Emmylou Harris’ ‘Cup Of Kindness’. The album closes with a a previously released bonus cut, the piano and cello accompanied version of Betsy Rose’s ‘Water, Fire and Smoke’ from her 1993 debut, and I defy you to hear any loss in the quality of her voice and delivery between then and now.
Putting the average X-Factor sob story into stark relief, that she has delivered an album of such beauty and, yes, grace, in such debilitating circumstances is astonishing and inspirational, but it’s her singing not her illness that should be the prime focus, and that is a thing of wonder that needs no qualifications.
Artist’s website: http://gracegriffith.com/