One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Nanci Griffith, passed away in August at the much-too-early age of 68. This first Saturday Soundtrack after a summer hiatus is my recognition of this singular talent with the simple yet memorable writing and singing voice.
Griffith began her career in the late 1970s and gained prominence after a move to Nashville in the mid-1980s. At a time of electronic dance music, new wave, and grunge rock, she made it cool to like folk music again. Born near San Antonio and raised in Austin, Griffith’s Texas twang was authentic…and an acquired taste. Her mother was a real estate agent and her father was a bookseller and a fan of folk music. With his encouragement she listened to and was influenced from an early age by Odetta, Woody Guthrie, and singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, a fellow Texan. She once described her work — which she called folkabilly — 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.”
An exceptional songwriter, Griffith spun narratives about small-town life and love as well as her social and political concerns. She is best known for her Love at the Five and Dime — a big hit for Kathy Mattea — with my favorite version being from Griffith’s 1988 live offering One Fair Summer Evening. The introduction alone is worth the price of the album.
It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go is an excellent example of Nanci’s more social songs, weaving three small vignettes into a powerful statement. And Lookin’ for the Time (Working Girl) is her take on an often hidden and forgotten part of the human experience.
Besides Mattea, other artists also had successful covers of Griffith’s songs. Her Outbound Plane, from the Little Love Affairs album, was a big hit for Suzy Bogguss. The Irish song interpreter Maura O’Connell sang a memorable version of Trouble in the Fields (heard here with Griffith singing harmony).
Griffith was known as a talented interpreter of others’ songs, such as with her beautiful take on the Tom Waits tune about recognizing what we have, while we still have it — San Diego Serenade — from the Late Night Grande Hotel album. Those sentiments seem so appropriate today.
“I never saw the east coast until I moved to the west
I never saw the moonlight until it shone off of your breast
I never saw your heart until someone tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face“
Her Other Voices, Other Rooms album — the Grammy-winning 1993 compilation of songs by her folk mentors and heroes — showed off those interpretive sensibilities to great effect. On this album alone she pulls off Woody Guthrie’s Do-Ri-Me — with an assist from Guy Clark on vocals and the New Grass Revival’s Pat Flynn on lead flatpicked guitar — with a flair that is pure Griffith. I always felt that her interpretation of John Prine’s aching Speed of the Sound of Loneliness was the definitive one for this classic. She performs a heartfelt version of Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather, and provides a very personal touch to Townes Van Zandt’s Tecumseh Valley. And her simple version of the Carter Family’s Are You Tired of Me, My Darling? — with Iris Dement and Emmylou Harris on the harmony vocals — has always been my preferred interpretation of this very sad tune. The haunting line that ends each chorus reaches into the self-doubt that we all feel in one way or the other:
“Tell me, would you live life over, could you make another wife?
Are you tired of me, my darling? Answer only with your eyes.”
Nanci didn’t always sing from the folkie songbook. Give a listen to her cover of the Rolling Stones’ No Expectations from a 1991 Austin City Limits show with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Julie Gold, and the Indigo Girls.
Griffith suffered from two bouts with cancer and other health issues in later years. As she performed fewer dates, many younger music fans would only know her music through covers by other artists. Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson had a hit with the lovely country duet Gulf Coast Highway, co-written by Griffith and bandmate James Hooker, who sang the duet on the original. It has the line that seems so appropriate today:
“And when she dies, she says she’ll catch some blackbird’s wing,
and she will fly away to heaven, come some sweet Blue Bonnet spring.”
R.I.P. Nanci Griffith. You left us much too soon.
More to come…
Image: Cover of Nanci Griffith’s 1987 album Lone Star State of Mind