Nanci Griffith’s Irish hit, cancer history and ‘really dysfunctional’ family

Teacher turned Grammy winner was shrewd song picker with substantial body of work

Nanci Griffith on stage in New York city in October 2004. Photograph: Matthew Peyton/Getty

Nanci Griffith on stage in New York city in October 2004. Photograph: Matthew Peyton/Getty

 

Nanci Caroline Griffith

Born: July 6th, 1953

Died: August 13th, 2021

Greatly admired by her fellow artists and a devoted army of fans, Nanci Griffith, who has died aged 68, exemplified a style of musical storytelling with a literary flavour, focusing on the small details of the lives of her characters. Songs such as Love at the Five and Dime and Gulf Coast Highway have become permanent fixtures in the folk-country canon (Griffith described her music as “folkabilly”), and the Grammy award she won for her album Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1994 seemed a long overdue reward for her carefully crafted body of work.

While that album comprised versions of other people’s songs, other artists appreciated the quality of her own material. Love at the Five and Dime, from Griffith’s album The Last of the True Believers (1986), was a Grammy-nominated country hit for Kathy Mattea, while Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson sang Gulf Coast Highway on Harris’s hit album Duets (1990). Suzy Bogguss had a country Top 10 hit with Griffith’s Outbound Plane.

A shrewd song picker, Griffith was the first artist to record Julie Gold’s From a Distance, and it gave her a Top 10 hit in Ireland, though it was Bette Midler who had a huge hit with it in 1990. A less successful covers album, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), released in 1998, was accompanied by a book, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices – A Personal History of Folk Music.

‘Dysfunctional’ family

The youngest of three children, Griffith was born in Seguin, Texas, a small town near San Antonio. Her father, Marlin, was a bookseller. He also sang in barbershop quartets and was a fan of traditional folk music who introduced Nanci to the music of the 1960s folk-revivalist Carolyn Hester. His wife, Ruelen (nee Strawser), worked as an estate agent. Her parents moved to Austin during her childhood before divorcing in 1960. Griffith described her family as “really dysfunctional”, and her song Bad Seed, from the album Intersection (2012), was addressed to her father, and included the lines “Bad seed, there’s a darkness I can’t hide – too much pain to keep inside.”

She learned to play the guitar by watching a PBS TV series hosted by Laura Weber and started to write her own songs. Her first performance was at the Red Lion club in Austin, when she was 12. She listed the songwriter Odetta as one of her key influences, and defined herself by saying: “You take a whole lot of Woody Guthrie and a whole lot of Loretta Lynn, swoosh it around and it comes out as Nanci Griffith.”

She recalled being strongly affected by seeing her fellow Texan Townes van Zandt perform, singling out his song Tecumseh Valley, the kind of finely drawn narrative that would become a trademark of her own work.

She played in clubs while finishing her academic qualifications and, armed with a degree in education from the University of Texas, she became a kindergarten teacher. In 1978 she released her debut album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, on the local Austin label BF Deal. The title song defined some of her essential qualities. It was a haunting and nostalgic saga of two childhood friends pursuing different paths through life, and included a reference to a boy called John, who had been her high school sweetheart but died in a motorcycle accident. Also in 1978 she won the New Folk competition at the Kerrville folk festival.

Nanci Griffith on stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London in 2012. Photograph: C Brandon/Redferns via Getty
Nanci Griffith on stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London in 2012. Photograph: C Brandon/Redferns via Getty

She made three more albums for the independent labels Featherbed and Philo, the last of them the Grammy-nominated The Last of the True Believers, before moving to Nashville in 1985. Her arrival there coincided with a boom in so-called ‘new country’ artists, including Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett, though she insisted that she did not belong to that category. She signed a deal with a major label, MCA, for whom she recorded a quartet of albums including Lone Star State of Mind (1987), which reached 23 on the US country chart and gave her a country Top 40 hit with the title track, and Little Love Affairs (1988), which went to 27 on the country chart.

Griffith put together her renowned Blue Moon Orchestra, which would accompany her for more than a decade. The albums Storms (1989) and Late Night Grande Hotel (1991), produced by the rock producer Glyn Johns and Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke respectively, provoked some criticism from purists for aiming for a more mainstream audience.

In 1993 she moved to the Elektra label where she would enjoy her highest profile successes. Other Voices, Other Rooms (1993) borrowed its title from Truman Capote’s first novel and was a collection of songs by writers who had inspired her, including Guthrie, Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Janis Ian and John Prine, and featured guest appearances by Dylan, Prine, Hester, Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent.

Further success followed with Flyer (1994), which cracked the Top 50 in the US and reached 20 in the UK, though subsequent releases saw her sales falling away.

Health problems

Griffith suffered health problems. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and thyroid cancer in 1998. A case of Dupuytren’s contracture caused her to lose flexibility in her fingers.

She was married to the Texan singer-songwriter Eric Taylor from 1976 until their divorce in 1982.

Taylor had served in Vietnam, and in 2000 Griffith visited Vietnam and Cambodia with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. Vietnam was the subject of several songs on her last Elektra album Clock Without Hands (2001), named after a novel by Carson McCullers.

She recorded four more albums, the last of them being Intersection, recorded at her Nashville home with Pete and Maura Kennedy and the percussionist Pat McInerney. Two of its songs, Come On Up Mississippi and Bethlehem Steel, reflected some of Griffith’s social and political concerns.

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