Nanci Griffith Was More Loved Than She Knew – Texas Monthly

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Nanci Griffith didn’t feel sufficiently loved at times. But when news of the Texas singer-songwriter’s death at the age of 68 began to spread on Friday, love was all there was. The universal, international scope of the adulation that appeared on social media made it feel like we lost both a legend like Elvis (“We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis,” rock critic Lester Bangs wrote upon the King’s death) and an influential cult figure like Guy Clark. On Nanci and what she meant, there was much agreement indeed.

Best known for such Texas folk-country classics as “Last of the True Believers,” “Love at the Five and Dime,” and “Lone Star State of Mind,” as well as her near-definitive versions of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley,” and John Prine’s “Speed the Sound of Loneliness” (in a duet with Prine himself), Griffith’s music transcended genre, generations, and her home state. Seguin-born and Austin-raised, she may have had even more fans outside of Texas, whether in Nashville, Ireland, New York, or Australia … and she introduced those fans to other Texas artists.

Griffith brought in people from all corners, and they all came out to pay respects. Many of her fans were from Texas, of course, including lots of other writers and musicians (Austin’s Kelly Willis credited Griffith with helping her get signed to MCA). But there also were people from my current home of Portland, Oregon—a deejay I know from indie-rock shows who grew up listening to Griffith with her parents in Maine, an LGBTQ country musician who once toured with her. Fans on Facebook pages devoted to other groups like Wilco and Prefab Sprout turned out also to be Griffith fans, as did several people whom I know only from talking about baseball.

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I should not have been surprised because if I’m a fan of Griffith’s, anybody can be. As a teenager in Philadelphia and a college student in Chicago in the eighties, I did not yet know from Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, or the Flatlanders (except for Joe Ely’s connection to the Clash). I had no idea what Houston’s Anderson Fair was, nor that I’d eventually be spending hundreds of nights of my life at a place called Hole in the Wall in Austin—venues where Griffith played. But long before the terms “alt-country” or “Americana” came along, eighties artists like Griffith, Lyle Lovett, and Steve Earle (as well non-Texans Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang, and Rosanne Cash) weren’t that far from the post-punk I was listening to on college radio, starting with R.E.M. The same record store clerks who sold me jangly pop-inflected albums by Robyn Hitchcock, the Windbreakers, and Austin’s Zeitgeist (later the Reivers), also put a copy of Griffith’s 1987 MCA debut, Lone Star State of Mind, into my hands.

And that’s exactly what it put me in. Great art takes you to places you haven’t been and introduces you to people you didn’t know. The farming hardship saga “Trouble in the Fields” did in three minutes what Hollywood attempted in three different movies, and when I listen today to “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret),” it’s like catching up with two old friends.

I liked the next record, Little Love Affairs—a romantic song-cycle on the same emotional turf as Joni Michell’s Blue or Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, but with Grand Ole Opry exuberance—even more. I also worked backward to her Philo albums, including Love at the Five and Dime, its title track a small-town tale of Austin’s Woolworth’s when Austin was still small-town, and Last of the True Believers, with its photo of Griffith with a hardcover of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove in her lap. Like McMurtry, she was a nostalgist but also a realist, with a keen eye for both detail and emotion; unlike McMurtry, she could do it in just a few lines. 

Of course, I also discovered that Lovett himself was on the cover of Love at the Five and Dime, while one song on Lone Star State of Mind, “Sing One for Sister,” was by the same guy who cowrote Lovett’s “Front Porch Song”—Robert Earl Keen Jr. Lovett remembered his friend over the weekend, while someone else uncovered some extremely early video of the two songwriters.

Calling attention to other songwriters eventually became a near full-time pursuit for Griffith. Her 1993 all-covers album Other Voices, Other Rooms won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, and also spawned a sequel, 1998’s Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), with a list of songwriters and collaborators that included Van Zandt, Walker, Lovett, Prine, Clark, Richard Thompson, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Odetta, and many others. In between, 1994’s Flyer featured guest appearances from members of R.E.M., U2, and Counting Crows, while on 1997’s Blues Roses on the Moon she recut her song “Gulf Coast Highway” with Hootie and the Blowfish’s Darius Rucker, who was then still years away from his own solo country music career. Griffith’s own songs were also hits for Kathy Mattea (“Love at the Five and Dime”) and Suzy Bogguss (“Outbound Plane,” written with Tom Russell). She appeared on David Letterman’s two shows (Late Night and The Late Show) so many times she could have joined the band (or Will Lee and Paul Shaffer could have joined hers). 

And yet, Griffith was not as revered as she might have been. Part of that was probably her refusal to stick to one genre, or the fact that she was more folk than country in the first place. She also became more explicitly political, in the Woody Guthrie tradition, and generally preferred storytelling to confessionals—even if some of the heartbreak, both romantic and otherwise, had to come from her own life. Her high voice—pretty, and also sometimes all the more lethal for it—could be an acquired taste. And unlike most of the Texas singer-songwriter Mount Rushmore, she wasn’t overtly self-destructive, an outlaw, or a dude.

Griffith hadn’t made a record since 2012, and reportedly suffered from writer’s block for several years before that. But when she died, I had a sense of Twitter déjà vu, the sense that she had already been in the ether. Pandemic time being especially hard to measure, it seemed like just yesterday—it actually was September of 2020—that New Yorker writer Rachel Syme was tweeting about Griffith’s 1988 live record One Fair Summer Evening.

A few months before that, Austin writer Summer Anne Burton, who first saw Griffith as a child at the Kerrville Folk Festival, had done her own extensive Nanci tweet thread, complete with a forty-song Spotify playlist.

“I wonder about how we genre-fy things, and why Nanci isn’t seen as the direct ancestor to indie singer-songwriters like Angel Olsen,” Burton wrote, while also suggesting that one of Griffith’s songs would be a perfect Phoebe Bridgers cover.

Griffith’s uncategorizable artistry is reflected in the weekend’s remembrances. The San Francisco rocker Chuck Prophet remembered how he and the other members of his eighties band Green on Red used to listen to Nanci on cassette in the van while out on tour. Bobby Sutliff, of the power pop group Windbreakers, posted that he once had a Nashville audition to play guitar for Nanci on the road, only to see it fall through at the last minute. And Emma Swift—a younger Australian singer-songwriter who released an album of Bob Dylan covers last year and plays with Robyn Hitchcock—made the case for Griffith’s timelessness and import. “It’s infuriating the way certain artists become celebrated, while others become sidelined,” Swift wrote on her Facebook page. “Nanci was as good, if not better, than any singers of her generation.” Hear, hear. And we don’t have to stand on anyone’s coffee table in our cowboy boots—to borrow Steve Earle’s famous formulation about Townes Van Zandt and Dylan—to say it. Who would disagree?

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