Artist Spotlight: If you haven’t heard Nanci Griffith yet what are you waiting for?
It was a late Summer August, and I started reading news reports of a female country singer that had just passed away. I didn’t think anything of it. The name did not look familiar to me. A few days later up on the Don Giller YouTube channel, I noticed a commemorative collection of Nanci Griffith Letterman episodes. It turned out that David Letterman was a huge fan of this musician, and invited her back on his show more than most any other singer/songwriter. He had a knack for discovering real talent, and I thought I would click on it to watch for a few minutes. Her first performance on the show was a rendition of “From a Distance” August 30, 1988. I ended up staying for the entire two hours staring at the computer screen. In actuality, I stood in disbelief not knowing how I could have gone my entire life not knowing who this lady was. Since that time I have spoken to many whom had the same experience. As someone who loves to write about art and culture and history, I just had to tell a story about my new favorite folk musician.
There are some artists that take awhile to understand. Music doesn’t always connect with the soul instantaneously. Sometimes it takes a few months or even an entire year to really become a fan of a particular artist. With Nanci, the connection happened within the first three seconds. I can only place on my ten fingers the amount of musicians which have done that for me. The Beatles, John Denver, Creedence, and Karen Carpenter are on that list. I quickly realized what a gift Nanci had as not only as musician, but as an orator of storytelling and sharing a large part of her own self. Exposing who she was to her audience and the audience would feed it back. I was just watching over a small iMac monitor and I embarrassingly felt goosebumps, and her performance on stage was completely hypnotizing. Some artists just have that effect on you and the people around them. They have an aura about them. I think those words could be used to describe Nanci. After only listening for one day, it was as if I had known her for my entire life. I could now no longer imagine or even remember a world without Nanci’s music in my life.
Born and raised right outside of Austin Texas to a musical family, her lyrics evoke stories and folklore of her life growing up in mid century Lone Star culture. Scenes of drive in movies and dashboard lights, tales of the dust bowl, train whistles traveling through the hillside, and dancing in the moonlight. Her album covers usually showcased her favorite books, her grandmother being a library owner and Nanci becoming a fiction writer herself. Her unique and uncanny ability as a songwriter was her push to fabric a story into her music. In 1985, David Fagan in St. Mary’s New Foundland had just come home after a day’s work, showered, made dinner, and turned on the TV in his living room that just happened to be tuned to his PBS station. A young lady whom he had never heard of was singing and at first “she was pretty good. As the show went on, she did a song called Love At The Five and Dime, and he was entranced by the “innocence” of the song. David describes, “I never spoke during the remainder of the show-hypnotized by her phrasing and quality of her voice. Dave’s description like many was the day she was invited to perform in front of an international audience for the first time at the Austin City Limits. It was broadcast over public television a year later, and North American internationally from coast to coast were able to witness the natural born talent for the first time during the show’s 10th anniversary season. Griffith paired with Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers, and Lyle Lovett made his first ACL appearance as Griffith’s backup singer, who later made his solo debut in Season 12. To the nation’s eyes she was a new artist, but little did they know she was stepping onto the stage with already 15 years of experience behind her belt, playing her first gig as young as 14 years old at the Red Lion, a downtown beat coffeehouse. The connections and friends she made would later become apart of her act, a jaunting team of stellar musicians that gave her music a signature sound that no one could replicate. As a former kindergarten teacher, she was set out to mark her own territory.
In art it is the sadness and pain that often inspires someone to pick up a guitar or write their own music, and Nanci’s life story was not for the faint of heart. Growing up to watch her parents fight through a bitter divorce in 1960, and the relationships and friends she lost along the way. We all have childhood friends from first teeth to second teeth, and Nanci’s was John. As the story goes under the full moon night of their high school prom he was lost in a motorcycle accident, which inspired her to start taking her music career more seriously. It was through loss and grieving which came inspiration to write her first major song, There’s A Light Beyond These Woods, which would go on to become the name of her first debut album on then new and upcoming Austin indie record label B.F. Deal Records, where she wrote most of the songs you can hear on the record. Today finding a first press copy is extremely hard to find and very pricey. The entire recording was made possible through the use of local Austin session musicians, recorded live with no overdubs in four dates at Odyssey Studios. Nanci disproved all her doubters who might have questioned the ability of a low-budget- record company to put out a well engineered product that could stand next to any 24-track, mixed-down Nashville job. With connections such as Eric Taylor, banjo player Tom Pittman, Stephen Doster on the backing acoustic, and Paul Kelly’s bass notes. Almost all of these names were not well known and the entire session was a low budget project. It still managed to captivate the hearts of new fans.
Nanci in essence brought herself and her grieving to her fanbase and to the stage and became a warrior of the great comeback story. She opened herself up emotionally for the entire world to see, and began to grow a small following in the college towns. She took her music from campus to campus traveling in her Ford Econoline to any college radio station that would play it. She was a large pioneer of the FM underground folk and bluegrass genres. It all started when record producer Lyle Lovett stopped by a College Station, Texas, radio station in the fall of 1978, interviewing her for Texas A&M’s daily student newspaper The Battalion. It was there where he snapped this photo through the glass at the very beginning of her career. They would go onto to form a lifelong musical partnership for their own careers. The Daily Advertiser a local Lafayette Louisiana newspaper, wrote that USL coffee-house spotlights create dancing pink and green images on the curtains hanging on the walls. She stands bluejeaned and barefoot, playing her guitar gently as if she respects it. A bandana is draped across one microphone and a cup of Shiner Bock beer, balanced on a chair. It was Wednesday night and she traveled alone with her guitar from Houston to play for Lafayette. Tall and thin, her face is young and almost waif like. When she opens her mouth to sing, her voice is strong when it had to be, soft when it should be.
“I guess I’d call it a rough start. I couldn’t get a record deal. I drove myself around small town America for years. I learned a lot. It was good for me.” — Nanci Griffith (1996 interview)
“Nanci was gracious. I always valued her help and encouragement. She was a champion of just-starting-out singer-songwriters and musicians. My career and life wouldn’t be the same without her.” — Lyle Lovett
In the early years she developed a unique style of playin guitar. As humble as Nanci was, she insisted she was “only a strummer”. Guy Clark made her first picks until she started making them herself, back in the days before Guitar Centers were popping up around every corner. She didn’t like strumming with a thumb pick but needed it for finger style all her own. She founded a friendship to acoustic player Pat Alger who developed her distinct sound on her later albums, and taught her finger picking style.
Her career was just starting to blossom by her second release Poet In My Window, when she started attracting the attention of Nashville. They urged Nanci to relocate out of Austin and build a new recording studio in the heart of Tennessee, where she would have access to premier session artists that really began to shape her sound. The core of the original touring “Blue Moon Orchestra” band that lasted between 1984 and 1989 consisted of among the best session musicians of all time, with names such as Ireland’s own Philip Donnelly’s slide guitar, Pat Alger’s smooth back acoustic and cowriting skills, Nashville drummer Kenny Malone, Lloyd Green’s haunting touch of the pedal steel that could sound like lonely cries in the night, and Mark O’Connor’s signature fiddle giving the entire ambiance an Irish folk touch. In the studio we were gifted with three albums to feature this collective. The very first attempt at capturing this magic in a bottle was the ambitious Once In A Very Blue Moon. The album cover speaks for itself and draws you in because you want to find out more. Many regard it as Nanci’s best album but that is a hard debate. If anything, this showed that Nanci also had a harder edge to her music and she could rock. Songs on the release cover themes of racism, poverty, and romance. The opening Ghost In The Music can send shivers down your spine. The haunting harmonica is real pretty, along with the flutes mimicking train whistles. The lyrics are very mature for early in her career. Once In A Very Blue Moon is the ultimate breakup story. The tune Marie & Omie turned Darius Rucker into a lifelong fan. Unbeknownst to many it was an experiment that almost didn’t happen.
In the year of 1984 still no major label would sign them. They considered her too out of the mainstream to be called country. She sort of a fit into a weird time period where she had missed the folk revival that propelled Dylan and Joni Mitchell into stardom. The Grammys and pop charts had just decided to remove the western (bluegrass) from Country & Western. She was just coming to her own around the time when New Wave and hair bands were taking over MTV nation, and singer/songwriters like John Denver and James Taylor were the new face of lame. In that regard she was one of the few acts that were keeping folk music alive and relevant into the 1980s decade. Her fanbase I come to find consisted in large part of more matured beatniks of the 60s and retired hippies that were humbled to hear their art still relevant in any form. Surprisingly not a lot of the younger generations know of her (not even my parents who are in their 50s). She toed the line between modern and traditional. The question often asked was she folk, country, or both? Nanci herself said that she always dreaded the classification of folk music, explaining that her music was definitely “not hard core country either” which became one of the reason she moved out of Austin and onto better things. Nanci referred to her own sound as “folkabilly”, what happens when you cross Woody Guthrie with Buddy Holly. Other influences included Carolyn Hester, Loretta Lyn, and Lynn Anderson. It was hard to put her into a category and hard to describe her, and the best artists usually are. When that happens though, they are usually shoved under the carpet and deemed non commercially viable by radio stations. It had seemed Nanci did not care about mainstream success or her angry critics, so much as she could tell her story for her dedicated fans and express herself on stage. In that sense she was a true performer’s performer staying true to the folk genre.
As it happens she turned to an unlikely small record label out of New England that took a chance on keeping her career rolling, and formed a large personal connection with the Bay State, where she would go on to bump heads with local Northeast folk cult duo the Kennedys. At this time Rounder Records was still a very small label that was known for signing weird and obscure acts that were rejected by the mainstream. Marian Leighton, owner and founder of Rounder Records said that “Nanci seemed to have more in common with the best of the new regional fiction writers than with traditional folk singers”. For most of Rounder’s history they were based and located out of Cambridge and Burlington, Massachusetts. From their headquarters they produced from afar, directed, and distributed arguably Nanci’s core run of her best albums from the original band. In an unfortunate circumstance because of legalities and licensing after the sale of Rounder to Concord Music Group, Nanci’s first three albums have never been rereleased in the 21st century which includes the critically acclaimed Once In A Very Blue Moon. They cannot be found on iTunes, Spotify, or Amazon on streaming services. Used prices on these CDs and vinyl can sometimes reach as high as hundreds of dollars. I contacted Rounder to ask them if they had any future plans of rereleases and got no response. I would suggest you stay patient and find a better deal. You can take it as a fine wine or delicate desert. The harder you have to work for it the better it becomes.
The followup to Once In A Very Blue Moon was what many of her fans describe as the “perfect album”, Last Of The True Believers. For many this was Nanci’s peak of the original band. It continues with the same lineup of session musicians, with nine new self penned tunes. It’s picked apart by its infamous album cover taken in front of a Woolworths in Austin. It was recorded in the homey Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa (say that three times fast), a pitstop for fly-by-night (see what I did there?) Nashville artists which still operates today. It produced Nanci’s first top 10 hits Love at the Five and Dime and Goin Gone popularized by country singer Kathy Mattea. It’s the release that got her noticed by MCA and finally some deserved recognition when she started moving closer to country in sound. The album is best enjoyed in a quiet place in solitude away from your family and friends. It spurs emotions of reflection, adventure, love, and loss. An absolute highlight for me is Banks Of The Ponchartrain. You wouldn’t think of it as a “train” song, but it actually is. And a finely crafted one at that. I kept asking myself this isn’t a Gordon Lightfoot cover? It’s that good. My favorite poetic line from the song goes “Where the voices ring like bells in French-Canadian”. Nanci’s own father Marlin Griffith, a former barbershop quartet tenor makes a guest apperance providing harmony vocals on St. Olav’s Gate, and you cannot ignore the melodramatic More Than A Whisper with “those smokey bars at night”. This is a common theme of her music with the use of descriptive language and poetry that really sinks images deep into the listeners mind.
“Oh, I’ve grown pale beneath the streets of Montreal
Where the voices ring like bells in French-Canadian
And the rivers stand imprisoned till the thaws
I am alone at night and dream of my own Pontchartrain.”
Tad Marks wrote… She would write these great gems dealing with so many varied issues. she championed the things that she liked in life and made people aware of the injustices that she saw and she sure did travel and get around. She rallied like-minded troubadours as many of the other songwriters who she admired. Several times she would take a great song and put her own spin to it and make it her own. Somehow the way she sang would cut deeper to the heart than many of the other performers I have heard. The songs became classics inner weaved with others in the soundtrack of our lives. One such example was on her 2001 album On Clock Without Hands. “Shaking Out the Snow”. Montana resident Kerry Carlson talked of his memories of his close family friendship with Nanci as a mixture of her travels, poetic license, and observations. “Once when she was there for visit, she saw me shaking the snow off my trees after I told her I had to keep them from breaking. That eventually made it into the song”. It is often said that the best songwriters are flies on the walls. Always stepping back and standing on the outside of life as an outsider to the world around them. Nanci was a writer of stories and legends. She once said that her goal as a songwriter was to be a journalist. She stated “I don’t express my opinion in the songs, necessarily. But it’s important to me that my audience hear these stories that would not be told otherwise.”
Her 1987 debut Lone Star State of Mind on MCA was an attempt to keep that same magic in the bottle, when they brought along all of the boys for the last time, and produced arguably one of her most popular hits From A Distance. It gave her the first Grammy nominee, with newspaper headlines reading “Griffith finally finds mainstream”. Perhaps most importantly it established her lifelong relationship with the people of Ireland, what became a theme song for peace and truce during the IRA Northern Ireland conflicts, popularized by Dublin Disc Jokeys Deirdre O’Donoghue and Gay Byrne. Ironically her music which failed to top the charts in the United States, managed to increasingly top the charts in cities like Dublin. The joke was pointed out on May 10th, 1991, when Late Night talk show host David Letterman asked her why she lived in Ireland for most of the year. “They are my biggest market. I have more fans in Ireland than in any other place in the world. America doesn’t like me.” This is not surprising after all. Ireland has a deep rooted love and respect for traditional folk art and dance. Folk music and bluegrass genres came out of Western Europe and arrived on the shores of America when Irish Catholic “famine” immigrants migrated to rural areas of the Midwest and South during and in the wake of the Great Hunger, and turned to song to pass down stories and folklore during hard times. They distinctly developed what was known as the “bluegrass accent” that reaches out from Missouri, the Ozarks, into parts of Texas and Arkansas that is less prevalent today. That distinctive Texan draw is what gave Nanci her unique character and charisma. It’s called colloquial, a technique in singing that is very hard to master.
A 15-year-old Brian Cormack Carr, in Carnoustie, Scotland — about 90 miles north-east of Glasgow, and on the road to Aberdeen — would have been listening to his cassette of Little Love Affairs, and beginning to understand just what priceless treasure he had found. Gregory Klein described on a tour stop in 1988 there was Trouble In Our Fields, the old Waterloo Record store…Nanci’s uncle was there, Uncle Tootie. He had him sign her album. Her concert in Glasgow that night was awesome in his words. Mark Grissom noted that he saw her at the all-Irish music Fleadh Festival at Finsbury Park in London in 1991, and called it an unforgettable day. Others labeled her the “Celtic cowgirl”. Nanci herself was a little taken about by how passionate and beloved her fanbase was in that region of the world. It was an extremely humbling experience for her, so much so that she became dual citizenship and lived over there with her family for entire parts of the year. People began to realize that Ireland is a land of artists and music that has appreciation for songwriters, and became a shelter from the storm to an ever changing music industry that disregarded acts like Nanci Griffith and Lesley Duncan.
I saw her at the all-Irish-music Fleadh Festival at Finsbury Park in London in 1991 because, as has been mentioned, she was popular in Ireland, having a residence there and one in Nashville at the time. It was an unforgettable day. — Mark Grissom (New Orleans, LA)
In the late 80s and early 90s we saw her collaboration with Phil Everly on two occasions, with her albums Storms and Late Night Grande Hotel, that produced her brief hit on American radio. Those are fan favorites among enthusiast for her unique choice of 80s synthesizers produced by Glyn Johns, and one of her largest hits again in Ireland It’s A Hard Life Wherever You Go. The song Drive In Movies And Dashboard Lights is about her life experience growing up in mid century Texas to a dysfunctional family while coping with divorce. You Gave This Love A Teardrop has Phil Everly and Nanci passionately singing of heartbreak and loss. One thing you can say about Nanci who probably earned it more than anyone is that she was a Grammy award winning artist, because in 1993 she produced a monumental project with a tremendous list of prominent recording artists.
As good a songwriter Nanci was, she set aside her talent to pay respects to the songwriter which directly inspired her career as an interpreter. What many die hard enthusiasts also call her best album, was a name taken from Truman Capote. Other Voices, Other Rooms took the music industry by surprise. If anything it showed how much other musicians respected the talent she had. On this release she sings songs by her major influences John Prine, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot , and Townes Van Zandt… only this time she was joined by the actual artists. Phillip Donnelly make a triumphant return, along with an impressive rap sheet of Dylan on the harmonica during the recording of Boots of Spanish Leather, Chet Atkins, Guy Clark John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, and Indigo Girls on backing vocals and guitar throughout, along with the iconic John Hartford on the banjo. Not to mention other infamous guitar pickers and violin players such as Leo Kottke and Alison Krauss (hello!). Nanci also asked civil rights activist Odetta to make an apperance on the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight. It was truly one of the greatest collaborations of the 1990s, and it got recognized enough to receive a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Even though it can be said that this was her best selling album she would ever go onto make certified Gold by RIAA, it too failed to chart in the TOP 40. It was after this era of her career that she was struck with a tragic diagnosis.
In the Summer heat of 1996 and 1998, Nanci got a call back from her cancer doctors. It couldn’t be. It had been confirmed that she had two forms of breast and later thyroid cancer. Both her grandmothers died in the same year, and her mother became terminally ill. This was all before Nanci reached the age of 45. The only words she wanted to use to describe the ordeal… “It was … horrific,” She had contemplated retiring early but pushed herself to keep performing and writing. She spoke in a 2010 interview to CNN in an article titled Nanci Griffith finds her voice again, “It was nice to focus on things outside of my body. Music has always done that for me.”
As fait would have it she became a role model for cancer survivors and not admitting defeat, and that worked into her songwriting. (go on about songs written during this era). By the end of the 90s decade the troubadour from Austin was a more mature woman. Her voice had grown a rasp and her hair began turning a weathered gray, but she was still the same old Nanci everyone had grown to love. Fans continued showing up to her concerts to show support. While getting treatments for cancer and successfully fighting off two forms, she continued performing at shows around the globe. David Griffith tells the story of how he saw her performance at the Paramount in Austin back in 1993 for the filming of her Other Voices, Other Rooms concert video. “I got tickets for both nights. On the second night, I had seats in the front row — right behind one of the cameras that was being used to film the show! To make up for my obstructed view, her team gave me and those seated around me free passes to see her the following night at La Zona Rosa, where she and her band would be hosting an end-of-the-tour concert.” That ended up being the best show of hers he’d ever seen; each of her band members and guests got to perform some of their own songs, with Nanci performing as well. It was very relaxed, informal, and great fun he explained.
It was not long after the horror of 9/11, when she appeared on Letterman, giving a most poignant rendition of Goodnight New York. It was if a dear friend was reaching out and saying, it will be all right now, healing will begin. Local musician Jeffrey Burks has sung her version of Across the Great Divide in so many places for so many years, it’s almost as if it’s become a signature song of his. He explained “I remember seeing Julie Gold in concert, and she told us how Nanci uplifted her from a being a struggling and daunted songwriter to traveling a path to success, when Nanci covered From A Distance.” James Green from Houston, TX wrote into say “The only time I attended a show with my father, we actually met Nanci’s dad. He was wearing a denim jacket with The Full Moon Orchestra logo stitched across the back and we asked where we could buy one. He grinned and told us he didn’t think we could and that he only had one because he was her father. I’ll never forget how nice he was and how proud he was of Nanci. This was at the University Of Texas.” Sheldon Bilsker who attended the Vancouver Folk Festival in 1985 looks back and says “I never heard her before and just followed her incredible voice from 100 yards away. I saw her backstage and said that I really liked her performance and she said that her CD’s were for sale at the desk. It wasn’t much of a conversation but I am thrilled that I got to talk to her.”
It seems to be a common occurrence among friends and family who had been in her presence. They seemed to be completely memorized and captivated by her aura. She had an unbelievable talent to draw people in and reassure them that everything was going to be okay, at least for a little while. That is what her music represents in the grand scheme of things. Intelligent music that makes you smile and reflect. The one thing I find so incredible about Nanci’s career, is if you look at her consistency and quality of work and the talent she had as a performer and songwriter, you would think she was a platinum selling recording artist that would be grouped alongside acts like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Her niche never really reached the mainstream and she sort of fell underneath the radar. There are some artists who are not well understood during their time, but we come to appreciate them as time passes. I feel Nanci is one of those hidden gems. Like all things in life that we tend not to appreciate until they are gone, perhaps Nanci’s music will be discovered by new generations of fans discovering a sunken and forgotten treasure. On January 29th of this year, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival through a virtual concert presented a “Michigan Tribute To Nanci Griffith”, full of new and upcoming indie recording acts like the Accidentals, Jen Sygit, London Beck, May Erlewine, and Nadim Azzam just to name a few. Recently I have made attempts at introducing Nanci to as many as I can who will listen, often bringing her up in conversations and gifting albums to friends. Coming up close to Valentine’s Day February 13th and 14th, Austin City Limits is rebroadcasting her original performance for the first time, remastered from the original reference tapes in glorious high defintion. It is sure to spark new interest among fans that never got to see it live as it happened.
Nanci officially retired from touring and making music back in 2012 to focus on her health, after what is called dupuytren’s contracture caused her to lose flexibility in her fingers. No one can say she was never a fighter. Even though she failed to chart she left no small impact. Darius Rucker wrote on his Twitter account “Today I am just sad man. I lost one of my idols. One of the reasons I am in Nashville. She blew my mind the first time I heard Marie and Omie. And singing with her was my favorite things to do.” There are some artists where you go, “There will never be another one” because they are truly one of a kind. No wonder so many of us feel so bereaved at this loss. She was a lovely presence, with a heart touching voice, and she performed only the best songs one could find, whether they were her own songs or those of friends. It feels like every song she found was a treasure, that she was happy to share with us all. And, seemingly without ego, she gave her audience her all whether performing alone or with her friends. Personalities like Nanci only come around once in a very blue moon.