Died: August 13, 2021.
NANCI Griffith, who has died aged 68, was one of the great voices and wordsmiths of the strong Texas tradition of literary songwriting. She was also an activist who used the platform she had gained for herself to speak out on behalf of others.
The gentle singing that won hearts the world over with her tender reading of Julie Gold’s From a Distance, later a hit for Bette Midler, had a forthright flipside that could generate Hell, No (I’m Not Alright), a protestors’ anthem during the Occupy Wall Street campaign in 2012.
She spoke out against the death penalty and damage to the environment, and sang in support of inter-racial and gay marriage.
In 1994 she and Jimmy Webb contributed If These Old Walls Could Speak to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country. And though she didn’t mention him by name in song, she had a particular antipathy towards George W Bush and took pleasure in being described as a “Bushwhacker.”
Nanci Caroline Griffith was born the youngest of three children in Seguin in Guadalupe County, Texas. Her father, Marlin, was a printer, publisher and graphic artist who sang in a barbershop quartet. Her mother, Ruelene, was a realtor and amateur actor.
Although they divorced when she was seven, both parents’ artistic inclinations fed into Nanci’s interests, but it was hearing the Greenwich Village folk icon Carolyn Hester, civil rights campaigner Odetta and country singer Loretta Lynn that really inspired her to sing and learn to play the guitar. Having taught herself guitar from a TV programme at the age of eight, Griffith started playing gigs in the bars of her adopted hometown, the Texan musical hot house, Austin, at 14.
An avid reader, she nursed thoughts of sharing her literary enthusiasms as a teacher. With a degree in education from the University of Texas in Austin, she taught primary school children briefly before the apprenticeship she had served on the city’s live music circuit earned her a recording contract in 1977.
She released her first album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, which also featured her then-husband, singer-songwriter-guitarist Eric Taylor, the following year.
By this time, she had already caught the attention of a leading Americana singer-songwriter Tom Russell, with whom she co-wrote Outbound Plane, a hit for country singer Suzy Bogguss.
But it wasn’t until her third album, Once in a Very Blue Moon, in 1984, that her winsome voice, songwriting realism and superb interpretative talents began to reach the national and international audiences they deserved.
The album gave Griffith the name for her band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, with whom she would tour in various formats and with different personnel for the rest of her career, including a spell when she invited the Crickets, the band of the late Buddy Holly (and fellow Texan), to join them.
She became a frequent visitor to Glasgow, playing in such venues as Govan Town Hall, the Pavilion, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, where she teamed up with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, and the Clyde Auditorium, where she staged a concert of her Grammy-winning album, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1994.
An acknowledgement of her roots in folksong, the album featured songs by Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Ralph McTell, among others. It also included duets with Emmylou Harris (on Kate Wolfe’s Across the Great Divide), with Griffith’s early inspiration Carolyn Hester, Iris DeMent and John Prine, whose The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness was a live favourite with Griffith’s audience.
The concert also reunited Griffith with Eric Taylor, whom she had divorced in 1982 but whom she still regarded as “the William Faulkner of songwriting.”
Griffith’s own songwriting created hits for other artists, including country singer Kathy Mattea, who took Love at the Five and Dime to number 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Chart, and earned her a Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association in 2008.
Her songs were an extension of her literary interests – she wrote long-form and short-form fiction that sometimes became songs, and vice versa – and when songs wouldn’t come (she suffered from songwriter’s block between 2004 and 2009), she would use prose to try and keep the words flowing.
Her voice ensured that she was never short of invitations to sing duets or to guest with other artists. Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffet and John Stewart were among her singing partners, and the Chieftains were one of a number of Irish acts – including Mary and Frances Black, Dolores Keane and Maura O’Connell – with whom she sang.
She also appeared on the popular TV series Transatlantic Sessions, singing Sandy Denny’s classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes, with Karen Matheson, O’Connell and James Grant, and her own a cappella The Road to Aberdeen, which celebrated her Scottish, Welsh and Dutch ancestry.
Ireland and Scotland were both close to her heart. ‘’Apart from their natural beauty, both countries have a long and proud tradition of ethnic folk music,’’ she once said. ‘’That’s something I can relate to strongly.’’
Music brought Nanci Griffith stardom but she never lost touch with her roots or forgot that that she wouldn’t have got where she was without the public buying her records and concert tickets.
When possible she would walk round the cities where she toured to get a feel for where the audience lived and worked. There’s a story about her, while on tour, taking the air in Houston, Texas, where she lived for a time, and remembering that her passport was due for renewal. So she slipped into the photo both in a local Woolworths and became possibly that branch’s most illustrious customer.
Among those paying tribute to Griffith upon news of her death was America’s longest-running music programme, Austin City Limits, which said: “She was a beautiful songwriter and a beacon in the Texas music scene for decades. She appeared on Austin City Limits a remarkable eight times”.
Musician Jason Isbell tweeted: “Nanci Griffith wrote such beautiful songs. I didn’t know her, but I believe it must be true that she had a big beautiful heart. You can hear it”, while Eleanor McAvoy described her as “an extraordinary singer writer & player”.
No cause of death had been announced at time of writing but although she had suffered health problems – she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and thyroid cancer in 1998 and lost flexibility in her fingers due to Dupuytren’s contracture – her passing still came as a shock to her wider fan-base.
This generous spirit will be missed by everyone who knew her and everyone who was touched by her music.