A Lone Star State of Mind: Remembering Nanci Griffith

nanci griffith remembered

By Mark Deming

Aug. 16, 2021

It's said that Texans love to tell tall tales, and that may well be why the Lone Star State has such a strong tradition in songwriting. Texas music is a phrase that means a lot of things to different people -- it can suggest anything from Bob Wills to ZZ Top to Buddy Holly to George Strait to Roky Erickson -- but among fans of contemporary folk and Americana, Texas has earned a reputation as home to a singular breed of singer-songwriters, tunesmiths who fused literacy with emotional honesty and a gift for capturing the nuances of ordinary lives. Figures like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Willis Alan Ramsey, and Billy Joe Shaver had a great respect for country music, but they didn't fit the mold in Nashville, and made their native Texas a home where they found an audience that appreciated how they could tell a story and set it to music. In most cases, they enjoyed their greatest success with other folks covering their songs (such as Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard scoring a hit with Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty" -- more than fitting, as Nelson was a Texas songwriter himself -- and country supergroup the Highwaymen topping the C&W charts with Clark's "Desperados Waiting for a Train"), but the sort of folks who in the '70s and '80s bought more albums than singles and made a point of reading the liner notes knew their names and made them cult heroes who enjoyed a modest stardom, even if their names weren't always known by mainstream country fans. (In the truest sense, the rise of artists like Van Zandt and Clark could be seen as the first glimmerings of what became the Alt-Country scene, creating music that was rooted in country tradition but aiming for something more natural and less polished than what crossover-friendly Nashville would deliver.)

The Texas singer-songwriter community lost one of their finest on Friday, August 13 with the death of Nanci Griffith, a remarkably gifted lyricist who could put words together as artfully as a good short story writer -- it's no coincidence she named one of her best albums after Truman Capote's celebrated anthology Other Voices, Other Rooms. However, Griffith did so with a gentle emotional warmth and a superb eye for the peaks and valleys of human lives. Griffith wasn't one of the founding members of the Texas songwriting scene, but she never failed to cite Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark as among of her greatest inspirations, along with Loretta Lynn, a woman who played guitar and wrote her own material, then a rarity in country music. And though her work had a sound and feel all her own, the desire to follow her own path and her belief that you didn't have to dumb down your work for the sake of the audience was a creed she shared with Van Zandt, Clark, and their colleagues. And unlike some of her peers, she was arguably just as talented a performer as she was a composer, making albums that found the sweet spot in a voice that was pretty while sounding as real as the person ringing up your groceries, and she was willing to take chances with her choice of material and approaches to production that brought a welcome diversity to her recorded catalog. Griffith could sing something as sweetly personal as "Love at the Five and Dime" or "Drive-In Movies and Dashboard Lights," cover Tom Waits or Bob Dylan, and duet with Adam Duritz and Darius Rucker while maintaining her own indelible creative identity.

Griffith was a proud daughter of Texas, and championed many of her fellow Texan artists, but she also had a complicated relationship with her home state. While she first found an audience in Texas, she first became a star in Ireland, after her recording of Julie Gold's song "From a Distance" became a hit single there. Even though she wore a Lyndon B. Johnson campaign button her her guitar strap through most of her career (a shout-out to the shrewd, only-so-polished Texan who made it to the White House), she often felt that she wasn't always given her due back home, and in 1998 she wrote a scathing letter to several Texas publications who she felt were not supportive of her work, which made for uneasy relationships with some of her former colleagues. (Significantly, in a 1999 Texas Monthly piece on the controversy over her letter, she mentioned that she had long suffered with depression, and that severe depression was often a side effect of the thyroid dysfunction she lived with.) By the time she had released her final studio album, she had left Texas for Nashville and insisted she was never going back, and her leftist politics led some longtime fans to say good riddance. However, she never stopped sounding or writing like a Texan, and in a very true sense her proud, defiant streak was as much of a symbol of her heritage as anything else about her. Sometimes you have to truly love something to fully put it down.

Nanci Griffith was born in 1953 in Seguin, Texas, a town with the distinction of being the county seat of Guadalupe County. Her parents both had a creative streak -- Dad was an artist who sang in his spare time, Mom was a real estate salesperson who dabbled in acting -- and not long after Nanci was born, the family moved to Austin, long the epicenter of Texas's artistic and countercultural communities. Her father introduced her to Carolyn Hester, a noted folk singer who mentored young Nanci, encouraging her to express herself through songwriting. By the time she was twelve, Griffith was not only writing tunes, she had played her first gig at an Austin coffeehouse, the Red Lion. A couple years later, her father took her to see Townes Van Zandt perform, and she was mesmerized by his performance, especially his song "Tecumseh Valley," which concerned a troubled young woman named Caroline -- which happened to be Nanci's middle name, making the song seem all the more intimate to her. Griffith kept writing and dug deep into the history of American folk music as well as a few favored country acts. She studied education at the University of Texas in Austin, and after landing a job teaching Kindergarten, she looked after her students by day and played local clubs at night, sharing stages with many other aspiring singer-songwriters, including Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams. In 1978, Griffith entered the New Folk Competition, a contest held at the prestigious Kerrville Folk Festival that presented an award to a promising singer and songwriter. Griffith won that year, and the victory generated enough buzz that she quit teaching, formed a band, and made music her career.

1978 also saw Griffith land a contract with the Rounder-distributed Philo label, and that year she brought out her first album, There's a Light Beyond These Woods. That LP and the follow-up, 1982's Poet In My Window, both showed promise, but it was 1984's Once in a Very Blue Moon where she truly hit her stride, both as a writer and as a vocalist, capturing a sound that was natural but powerfully effective. The album won rave reviews and far outsold her previous work, and 1986's The Last of the True Believers was even better received, and included the song "Love at the Five and Dime." The song was soon covered by Kathy Mattea, who had a major hit with it. (Once asked by a journalist about how she felt about Mattea's version becoming far more popular than her own, Griffith quipped, "It feels great that Kathy has to sing that for the rest of her life and I don’t.") The album's success led to Griffith signing a new record deal with MCA and heading to Nashville.

Given that country stars like Mattea were covering her songs, MCA figured their best bet was to market Griffith as a country artist, and 1987's Lone Star State of Mind added some Music City polish to her music in an effort to make her suitable for country radio. Griffith landed a minor hit American (and far bigger Irish hit) with her version of Julie Gold's "From a Distance," later a pop smash for Bette Midler, and the title cut made the Country Top 40, but that album and 1988's Little Love Affairs didn't become the breakthrough hits MCA hoped for (though the latter did spawn another Country Top 40 hit, "I Knew Love"). Since Griffith's folk/country/pop hybrid wasn't selling in the country market, they decided to try something different, and hired producer Glyn Johns -- who had worked with the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris, and dozens more -- to oversee her next project. 1989's Storms was Griffith's most adventurous effort to date, and while sales weren't much improved in the United States, the album was another hit in Ireland, and she soon had a considerable following in the United Kingdom, enough so that she maintained an apartment in Dublin for several years along with her home in Austin. 1991's Late Night Grande Hotel pushed her music even further into a pop direction, but when she jumped from MCA to Elektra Records, she also took herself back to her roots in folk music and the singer/songwriter community. 1993's Other Voices, Other Rooms offered her interpretations of 17 songs that had made a difference for her, with a stellar cast of accompanists and vocalists, including Bob Dylan, John Prine, Alison Krauss, and Emmylou Harris. The album was a hit with critics and earned Griffith her first gold record in the United States; it also won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Other Voices, Other Rooms raised Griffith's profile in the United States, and she returned in 1994 with an album dominated by original material, Flyer. The album included plenty of high profile guest stars, including Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2, Peter Buck of R.E.M., Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, and Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. It also gave her the highest chart placement of any of her albums, peaking at Number 48. Griffith played a concert with the Boston Pops Orchestra, a longtime ambition of hers, and on 1997's Blue Roses From the Moon, she not only got to record with Buddy Holly's Crickets as her backing band, she was able to take them on the road for her next round of touring. However, this also coincided with a difficult period in her life -- in 1996, Griffith was diagnosed with breast cancer, and while she responded well to treatment, in 1998 she developed cancer in her thyroid. As she struggled with the disease, she released a follow-up to Other Voices, titled Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), which was not as well-received as the original, leading to her war of words with the Texas music press and some genuine concern among her fans about her health.

This period marked a turning point for Griffith; from this point on, she seemed especially determined to explore different directions in her music and follow her muse rather than live up to expectations. Her next album, 1999's The Dust Bowl Symphony, featured her re-recording old songs with new symphonic arrangements, and 2001's Clock Without Hands found her adding more contemporary production touches to her music, without making them fit especially well. It was her last album for Elektra, and 2004's Hearts in Mind, initially released only in the United Kingdom, was a strongly political set informed by the American invasion of Iraq, and the parallels she saw to the failed conflict in Vietnam. 2006's Ruby's Torch was a set of torch songs, a project she called "a dream come true," which was dominated by material from other writers. 2009's The Loving Kind was another LP dominated by political and social commentary, one which followed a period of publicly-confessed writer's block for Griffith. And for 2012's Intersection, Pete and Maura Kennedy of the folk group the Kennedys, who had been playing in Griffith's backing band, dismantled their home studio, moved it into Nanci's house in Nashville, and recorded its twelve songs there. The album was cut while Griffith was dealing with more health problems -- she developed Dupuytren’s contracture, a hereditary condition that causes the skin of the palm of the hand to thicken, making it very difficult to strum her guitar.

Griffith was never comfortable sharing her personal life with the public, and after touring in support of Intersection, she gradually retreated from the public eye, leading to speculation among some fans that her health had once again taken a bad turn. How true that may have been is still not known; when her management company released the information about her passing on August 13, 2021, they added, "It was Nanci’s wish that no further formal statement or press release happen for a week following her passing." In her last years, Nanci Griffith was seemingly content to let her body of work speak for itself, and the 18 studio albums she left behind say as much about her heart and soul as anyone could hope to know. She was a singular vocalist and songwriter, and remained one to the very end.