Obituary: Nanci Griffith, Grammy Award-winning champion of American roots music
Texan folk musician Nanci Griffith was a swan-like presence on the global music stage, expressing herself elegantly and eloquently through a country catalogue of original and cover material which spoke to turbulent times just below the smooth surface.
Her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album and cemented her reputation as an interpreter and champion of the American roots songbook.
Her own songs have been covered by her peers Emmylou Harris, Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss. All were quick to pay tribute when her death, at the age of 68, was announced on Friday by her management and label. Kyle Young, the CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, hailed her as "a master songwriter who took every opportunity to champion kindred spirits".
Nanci Caroline Griffith was born, the youngest of three children, in the old Texan town of Seguin, close to San Antonio. Her bookseller father sang in barbershop quartets and her estate agent mother was an amateur actress. The couple moved their young family to the liberal metropolis of Austin, later self-styled as the Live Music Capital of the World, but divorced when Griffith was six. She looked back on her family as “basically really dysfunctional…when I fell I had no place to fall. There was no mommy or daddy to call.”
Music became a refuge. Influenced by Woody Guthrie, Loretta Lynn, Odetta and her fellow Texan Carolyn Hester, Griffith taught herself guitar, writing her first song aged 12 and making her live debut at a local coffeehouse.
Seeing cult songwriter Townes Van Zandt perform live was an epiphany moment. Griffith connected strongly to his song Tecumseh Valley because she shared a middle name with its protagonist Caroline. She would later cover the track on Other Voices, Other Rooms. Van Zandt described her version as “the best cover of any of my songs – ever”.
Her own songwriting also tended to small town storytelling, her thoughtful chronicles populated by lovelorn teens, travelling troubadours or lone rangers with a nous for survival. Her demure delivery of hardscrabble lives unfairly earned her a reputation as earnest and sentimental but there was autobiographical pain in her words. The title track of her debut album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, references John, her high school sweetheart who died in a motorcycle accident after taking her to the senior prom.
Griffith trained and worked as a nursery teacher while cultivating her performing career. She married singer/songwriter Eric Taylor in 1976 and devoted herself to music full time the following year.
Her marriage foundered but her career took off. Griffith gained wider recognition with her Grammy-nominated 1986 album, Last of the True Believers. Still widely considered to be the finest in her canon, it features her breakthrough ballad Love at the Five and Dime – also Grammy nominated as Best Country Song.
She cemented her budding reputation by relocating from one music city to another – ironically just as she recorded the first of many appearances on long running music TV show Austin City Limits (the Later with Jools Holland of America).
Ensconced in Nashville, the home of country music, she was heralded as one of a new breed of grassroots country artists, alongside the likes of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams. Griffith preferred to call her music “folkabilly” in acknowledgement of its bluegrass roots, though her burgeoning commercial success was down to the MOR accessibility of her sound.
Shortly after arriving in Nashville, Griffith formed her backing band the Blue Moon Orchestra, named for one of her early albums, Once in a Very Blue Moon, and an international touring charm offensive ensued. Her rendition of Julie Gold’s From a Distance topped the charts in Ireland a few years prior to Bette Midler’s global hit version. The love affair with Ireland was mutual – Griffith performed regularly with veteran folkies The Chieftains and kept a flat in Dublin for a number of years.
Over the course of her career, she collaborated with musicians from other traditions, including touring with Buddy Holly’s Crickets, and worked with rock producers including Glyn Johns, REM’s Peter Buck and Rod Argent of The Zombies.
It was Argent who sparked the idea of a covers album paying tribute to the music which had soundtracked her life. Other Voices, Other Rooms, released in 1993, was a hefty double helping of songs by Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, John Prine, Woody Guthrie, Ralph McTell and Harry Belafonte performed with guest contributions from Emmylou Harris, Odetta, Chet Atkins, Alison Krauss, Iris Dement and Arlo Guthrie. Dylan himself added harmonica to his own Boots of Spanish Leather and Griffith’s father Marlin was among the massed voices on Wimoweh.
A follow-up album, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), released five years later, was considered a slight return. By this point, Griffith had survived bouts of breast and thyroid cancer, but not unscathed – she told Texas Monthly, “I am a person who has suffered severe longtime depression. It’s probably more of a chemical thing than anything else.”
Griffith released her final album, Intersection, in 2012, effectively retiring from the music industry the following year – but not before one of the album’s tracks, Hell No (I’m Not Alright), had been adopted by the Occupy movement. “I was angry about something – apparently everybody else was angry about the same thing,” said this most understated of players. Years earlier, when asked how she would like to be remembered, she replied simply, “for my music”.
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