Returning to Nanci Griffith's first album, cut in 1978-1979, provides an interesting backdrop to view her work in the latter part of the '90s. Clearly, the singer/songwriter fans love hasn't arrived yet, but one catches glimpses of future greatness on songs like "I Remember Joe" and "Song for Remembered Heroes." Call Griffith a songwriter-in-training on There's a Light Beyond These Woods, learning how to shape a melody, pitch her voice, and surround herself with the right musicians. Even on weaker pieces, like the title cut and "Michael's Song," Griffith attempts to write a strong melody, giving each piece a distinctive flavor. She doesn't take a lot of chances vocally though, and many of the songs could've used a more robust approach. Still, her voice is already singular, and she delivers lots of emotion on pieces like "John Philip Griffith." Most of the accompaniment is simple, as in the guitar and cello that underline her voice in "West Texas Sun." Lyrically, songs like "Montana Backroads" rely on uncomplicated imagery -- pickup trucks, feed stores, and bars -- to paint a lonely portrait of a washed-up rodeo rider. This integrated, low-key approach contrasts sharply with Griffith's later albums, like 2001's Clock Without Hands. While she exudes much more confidence on the latter effort, she forgets many of the basics of songcraft, overreaching lyrically and adding an overly bright production. In retrospect, There's a Light Beyond These Woods sounds better because it sticks closer its folk roots. Fans only familiar with Griffith's later work will enjoy watching a young poet find her muse. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.