Songs Remembrance: Singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith (1953-2021)

By Daniel Gewert There had been no performers who possessed additional expertise than singer-songwriter Nanci…

By Daniel Gewert

There had been no performers who possessed additional expertise than singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith in the 1980s and early ’90s, when she was at her impressive best.

Nanci Griffith executing at the Cambridge Pageant in 2007. Photo: Wiki Popular.

Nanci Griffith, the Texan “folkabilly” singer-songwriter, died in August at the age of 68, right after combating two different cancers for 25 several years. In my decades of composing about contemporary folk audio, I’d enterprise to say there were being no performers who possessed extra expertise than Griffith in the 1980s and early ’90s, when she was at her remarkable very best. Her single Grammy acquire was in the Contemporary Folk group, for Other Voices, Other Rooms, a guest-star-laden 1993 challenge of folks gems prepared by others. That she never won a Grammy for any of her personal compositions is an injustice. She was both of those a gorgeous songwriter and a savvy track-finder. And as a singer, she gave “precious” a excellent identify.

Boston took to Griffith earlier and more powerful than any American metropolis outside her native Texas. I bought to interview her for the Boston Herald lots of periods, beginning ideal just before she signed with the domestically primarily based Philo/Rounder Data in 1984 I felt I understood Griffith as properly as a Northern journalist could. She was a tightly wound tumble of conflicting instincts: the two forthright and private, equally steely and prickly, proud of her achievements and openly hurt that she was not a lot more extensively rewarded for them. I saw a large amount of gigs, numerous of them solo. But there was a one demonstrate in the mid-’80s that greatest displayed Griffith’s indomitable energy. It was at the Harvard Sq. basement place then termed Passim Coffeehouse.

Let me established the scene. The late Bob Donlin was introducing her from the tiny Passim stage in his typical charming however picket way. Nanci was standing nevertheless in the back again of the tightly packed minimal club, informed that most eyes ended up currently upon her. At the utterance of her name, she stepped forward with resolute power. But she experienced overlooked there were being two brick ways at the edge of the seating spot. She pitched violently ahead, landing on palms and knees, just about prone. The group emitted a collective gasp. But Nanci jumped up and darted purposefully to the phase. She laughed, claimed a little something self-deprecating about her innate awkwardness, and then released into a single of her favourite upbeat music full pressure, her strength perfectly focused. There have been no further more opinions in the hour-long set about the mishap. It was a terrific exhibit. Only days later did we listen to that Griffith had experienced bruises to both of those skin and bone, and was found at a area clinic.

That was Nanci Griffith: a lot more or a lot less equivalent elements gumption and vulnerability a force of mother nature and a sensitive, concerned soul. She was a waiflike Texas sweetheart at to start with glance, but though the basic word “heart” was one particular of her favorites as a writer, Griffith’s personal heart was, in interviews, frequently concealed. She was almost as probably to complain about slights as show contentment. But just one thing you could usually expect: fierce affection for her talented musical friends and band-users.

Nanci Caroline Griffith was born on July 6, 1953, in Seguin, TX the family moved to Austin before long afterward. She commenced singing at Austin open up-mic nights at age 12, brought to the bars by her father. For a small spell in her early 20s she was a schoolteacher, but tunes known as her. By 24 she had recorded her very first LP for a very small label, Featherbed. There was an early relationship and divorce, to a fellow Texan singer-songwriter, Eric Taylor, a Vietnam veteran and heroin addict. They afterwards grew to become good friends.

I am not alone in imagining that Griffith’s greatest LPs have been the two she did on the Philo/Rounder label in the mid-’80s, After in a Really Blue Moon (1984) and Very last of the Genuine Believers (1986), both developed by folks-legend Jim Rooney. The musicians had been typically minor recognised at the time. Now is a various tale. Among the the gamers and singers: Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Lyle Lovett, Roy Husky Jr., Lloyd Eco-friendly, Pat Alger, Robert Earl Keen, Tom Russell and Maura O’Connell.

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A group photo in the CD booklet of Very Blue Moon displays Rooney and all the musicians and engineers at Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Lodge & Recording Spa. Taken beside a swimming pool, the photo is captioned “The When in a Quite Blue Moon Sink or Swim Crew,” and the baker’s dozen of guys and gals assembled in shorts, jeans, and swim-trunks ended up of course a free, happy bunch. From that position on, Griffith named every single band she fronted, significant or smaller, The Blue Moon Orchestra. The obvious drive, I suppose, was to honor and recall that album’s familial spirit. The main of the band stayed with her for the very long haul.

Essentially that exact same team developed Last of the Genuine Believers, in 1986, another sleek merging of folk and region, revved up by bluegrass rapidly-picking wizardry. That album copped a Grammy nomination, and “won” Nanci Griffith a agreement at MCA Records, a huge label in Nashville. It is no incident I place the phrase received in prices, for the go to MCA, in my belief, ultimately diminished Griffith’s career. MCA was signing a great deal of new talent willy-nilly back in the late ’80s. (The Nashville market joke at the time was that MCA stood for “More Crummy Artists.”) Griffith informed me, and other individuals, that the label didn’t know what to do with her. But her 1st two albums did not muck up the fundamental Griffith audio. It was Nanci herself who coined the term folkabilly, the merging of folk and rockabilly. It’s a very reasonable time period. Griffith generally had two distinct voices, her exceedingly higher, delicate ballad voice, and the gutsy, mid-array crowing that she unleashed for lifestyle-affirming uptempo quantities. They appeared to just about arrive from two distinct people today, those two voices, and it is not stunning that her state radio viewers did not cotton to them.

“The radio person at MCA Nashville explained to me that I would never ever be on radio simply because my voice hurt people’s ears,” Griffith explained to me once, and she explained to it to a large amount of journalists. She was hurt.

She really didn’t do badly for MCA. She experienced a couple of singles in the state Leading 40, and her first two albums designed it earlier mentioned the #30 mark. That wasn’t excellent enough for the label, while: they needed a complete-cease radio star. I really do not believe that her failure to realize adulation from the place new music audience was about Griffith’s quite substantial voice: it was about her lack of classic sexiness, or even regular “womanliness.” Nanci might’ve been the darling of the blue point out folk circuit, but on place radio she was a unfortunate-voiced skinny girl without having a whit of intercourse enchantment. And she was no good ol’ female, both.

There was a transient time period in the late ’80s when the Nashville-centered state songs marketplace flirted with a broader inventive palette. Steve Earle known as it, with biting wit, “country music’s wonderful reliability scare.” By 1990 it was almost about, and MCA farmed Griffith out to their pop division. That meant MOR, Center of the Street. She was abruptly a rootsy poet wandering between the synthesizers. Ghost is a most loved term in Griffith’s lyrics, but it was her afterwards several years at MCA that actually could possibly have spooked her. On a number of later on albums she vacillated concerning her natural balladic voice and an oddly pretentious vocal strategy that sounded like a cloying very little lady.

Her subsequent label, Elektra, brought about two triumphs: her Grammy-successful Other Voices, Other Rooms (named immediately after the Truman Capote novel) and The Dust Bowl Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra. But eventually, her good victories in lifetime weren’t about awards, label discounts, or Top 40s. It is about the dozens of good songs — many of them very little short tales in concise music-variety. A handful of have been hits for other singers, this sort of as “Love at the Five & Dime” and “Listen to the Radio” (Kathy Mattea) and “Outbound Plane” (Suzy Boggus). “Gulf Coastline Highway,” “I Would like It Would Rain” and the chic Dust Bowl ballad “Trouble in the Fields” were being sung by quite a few, which include Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. And then there is the remarkable “It’s a Hard Daily life Where ever You Go,” which bounds concerning Dublin and Chicago, the existing and the past, to show that “If we poison our young children with hatred / Then the difficult daily life is all that they’ll know.” That one particular was even accomplished by Cher.

Her adore music typically struck an straightforward nevertheless wistful tone, at occasions unconventional in phrasing and the pattern of ideas. But it was her story-tunes — influenced by such favored Southern writers as Capote, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams — that used placing narrative options. None were bolder than “Mary & Omie,” a music she selected to sing in the first particular person as a middle-aged Black girl whose loving spouse moved the family north and fought for a center-course existence “because Omie would not settle for less.”

Contemplating her fight with two cancers, her lack of latest albums, and her bitterness in excess of her pursuit of mainstream good results, it is probable to paint a melancholy particular image of Griffith in her afterwards decades. Even though her tale-tunes about other individuals remained hopeful, her personalized music of loneliness and transient really like affairs grew to become a lot less poignant and enchanting as the a long time progressed. In the previous times, her music could crack your coronary heart and mend it once more. Some later ones merely emitted annoyed unhappiness. But there is grace to be observed even in those weaker functions. After all, the braveness to sing about the neurotic inner thoughts of the heart is unheard of. She remaining a large system of noteworthy get the job done. There is no better testament to her expertise than the 84-moment live performance film Wintertime Marquee, recorded in Knoxville in 2002 (obtainable on YouTube).

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It shows Griffith not only in primary type, at 49, but also fronting a phenomenally gifted edition of her extended-long lasting Blue Moon Orchestra. The communal sensation of her early albums is apparent. The stay CD edition of the live performance also finds Griffith back on her outdated label, Rounder.

I was delighted she chose to revive 1 of my preferred songs from her 1984 Blue Moon album, “I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels.” For starters, it normally takes put in Massachusetts, on a bus ride Nanci took from Boston to Marshfield to be interviewed by Dick Pleasants on WATD. As in many of her tracks, the lyrics have odd tiny jumps in logic and narrative that drive the listener to fill in the blanks. So when the refrain goes “Bring the prose to the wheel / I’m not driving these wheels,” she is singing of the wheels of literary inspiration as effectively as the wheels of the bus she rides, and the phrase prose refers to the guide in her lap as effectively as the tune lyrics she is commencing to desire up. She seems positively exultant that the imaginative forces appear from outdoors herself.

So many of her compositions reveal her have everyday living, lived on your own. On the good track “Daddy Said,” the titular character advises, “You’ll never ever find out to fish on a borrowed line / you’ll by no means find out to generate if you are walkin’ round cryin’ / And it is a pity your lover died younger / but you will under no circumstances get weary of residing on your own.”

That may well have verified legitimate of Griffith’s strike-and-overlook intimate everyday living. But her true enjoy lifestyle was with her musicians and mates, and that lifestyle lasted. The Winter Marquee present feels like something extra than a exceptional live performance: it is a profession benediction. In close proximity to its stop, Griffith delivers out a shock guest — Emmylou Harris, a excellent close friend. Harris walks up to the mic with a grin as large as it is authentic. “I just have just one factor to say,” she announces, seeking at her close friend. “Isn’t she charming?”

She was.

The expertise at Club Passim’s Nanci Griffith night time represented at minimum two generations: it was a nice, reduced-critical salute to the singer/songwriter, who performed the location frequently in the mid-’80s. Arts Fuse evaluation


For 30 many years, Daniel Gewertz wrote about music, theater and videos for the Boston Herald, among the other periodicals. A lot more not too long ago, he’s printed private essays, taught memoir composing, and participated in the nearby storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was very best recognized for his Elvis Presley imitation.