Music Remembrance: Singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith (1953-2021)

Ora Sawyers

By Daniel Gewert

There had been no performers who possessed far more talent than singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith in the 1980s and early ’90s, when she was at her remarkable most effective.

Nanci Griffith undertaking at the Cambridge Competition in 2007. Photograph: Wiki Popular.

Nanci Griffith, the Texan “folkabilly” singer-songwriter, died in August at the age of 68, following fighting two distinct cancers for 25 decades. In my many years of writing about contemporary people songs, I’d venture to say there were no performers who possessed additional talent than Griffith in the 1980s and early ’90s, when she was at her outstanding very best. Her solitary Grammy acquire was in the Modern Folk category, for Other Voices, Other Rooms, a guest-star-laden 1993 task of people gems written by many others. That she never ever received a Grammy for any of her possess compositions is an injustice. She was equally a amazing songwriter and a savvy track-finder. And as a singer, she gave “precious” a excellent name.

Boston took to Griffith earlier and much better than any American town outdoors her native Texas. I acquired to interview her for the Boston Herald numerous situations, setting up correct right before she signed with the locally dependent Philo/Rounder Data in 1984 I felt I realized Griffith as nicely as a Northern journalist could. She was a tightly wound tumble of conflicting instincts: both forthright and private, both steely and prickly, happy of her achievements and brazenly hurt that she was not far more broadly rewarded for them. I noticed a great deal of gigs, quite a few of them solo. But there was a one exhibit in the mid-’80s that finest shown Griffith’s indomitable toughness. It was at the Harvard Square basement place then named Passim Coffeehouse.

Let me established the scene. The late Bob Donlin was introducing her from the very small Passim phase in his regular charming still wood way. Nanci was standing however in the back again of the tightly packed minimal club, conscious that most eyes had been currently upon her. At the utterance of her title, she stepped forward with resolute energy. But she experienced neglected there were two brick steps at the edge of the seating location. She pitched violently forward, landing on fingers and knees, almost vulnerable. The crowd emitted a collective gasp. But Nanci jumped up and darted purposefully to the phase. She laughed, mentioned a thing self-deprecating about her innate awkwardness, and then launched into one of her beloved upbeat songs whole pressure, her energy properly concentrated. There were no even more remarks in the hour-long set about the mishap. It was a fantastic show. Only days later on did we listen to that Griffith experienced experienced bruises to both skin and bone, and was noticed at a regional healthcare facility.

That was Nanci Griffith: additional or less equivalent pieces gumption and vulnerability a drive of character and a delicate, nervous soul. She was a waiflike Texas sweetheart at very first glance, but even though the uncomplicated phrase “heart” was a person of her favorites as a writer, Griffith’s very own heart was, in interviews, frequently hidden. She was nearly as most likely to complain about slights as show contentment. But one particular thing you could usually anticipate: fierce passion for her gifted musical friends and band-associates.

Nanci Caroline Griffith was born on July 6, 1953, in Seguin, TX the loved ones moved to Austin shortly afterward. She started singing at Austin open-mic evenings at age 12, brought to the bars by her father. For a small spell in her early 20s she was a schoolteacher, but new music referred to as her. By 24 she experienced recorded her 1st LP for a small label, Featherbed. There was an early relationship and divorce, to a fellow Texan singer-songwriter, Eric Taylor, a Vietnam veteran and heroin addict. They later on grew to become good friends.

I am not by itself in imagining that Griffith’s most effective LPs were the two she did on the Philo/Rounder label in the mid-’80s, As soon as in a Really Blue Moon (1984) and Past of the Correct Believers (1986), both of those made by folks-legend Jim Rooney. The musicians were mostly minor recognized at the time. Now is a different story. Among the players and singers: Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Lyle Lovett, Roy Husky Jr., Lloyd Eco-friendly, Pat Alger, Robert Earl Keen, Tom Russell and Maura O’Connell.

https://www.youtube.com/look at?v=Ei0uTiuEaro

A group image in the CD booklet of Really Blue Moon reveals Rooney and all the musicians and engineers at Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa. Taken beside a swimming pool, the photograph is captioned “The Once in a Pretty Blue Moon Sink or Swim Team,” and the baker’s dozen of men and gals assembled in shorts, denims, and swim-trunks have been of course a free, delighted bunch. From that issue on, Griffith named every band she fronted, major or little, The Blue Moon Orchestra. The clear motivation, I believe, was to honor and recall that album’s familial spirit. The core of the band stayed with her for the extended haul.

Effectively that identical team made Past of the Genuine Believers, in 1986, a further swish merging of folks and nation, revved up by bluegrass quickly-picking wizardry. That album copped a Grammy nomination, and “won” Nanci Griffith a contract at MCA Data, a large label in Nashville. It is no incident I place the word won in estimates, for the shift to MCA, in my belief, finally diminished Griffith’s profession. MCA was signing a great deal of new talent willy-nilly back again in the late ’80s. (The Nashville industry joke at the time was that MCA stood for “More Crummy Artists.”) Griffith advised me, and other people, that the label did not know what to do with her. Still her very first two albums didn’t muck up the primary Griffith audio. It was Nanci herself who coined the phrase folkabilly, the merging of people and rockabilly. It is a pretty honest phrase. Griffith usually had two distinctive voices, her exceedingly superior, delicate ballad voice, and the gutsy, mid-selection crowing that she unleashed for life-affirming uptempo figures. They appeared to almost come from two various men and women, people two voices, and it is not shocking that her region radio audience did not cotton to them.

“The radio human being at MCA Nashville informed me that I would never ever be on radio since my voice hurt people’s ears,” Griffith instructed me as soon as, and she instructed it to a ton of journalists. She was hurt.

She in fact didn’t do terribly for MCA. She experienced a couple of singles in the nation Prime 40, and her initial two albums manufactured it higher than the #30 mark. That was not superior adequate for the label, nevertheless: they needed a complete-halt radio star. I really don’t imagine that her failure to attain adulation from the region music audience was about Griffith’s pretty large voice: it was about her absence of traditional sexiness, or even standard “womanliness.” Nanci might’ve been the darling of the blue point out folk circuit, but on place radio she was a unfortunate-voiced skinny girl without having a whit of sexual intercourse charm. And she was no excellent ol’ lady, possibly.

There was a short period in the late ’80s when the Nashville-centered region audio sector flirted with a wider creative palette. Steve Earle known as it, with biting wit, “country music’s terrific reliability scare.” By 1990 it was virtually more than, and MCA farmed Griffith out to their pop division. That meant MOR, Middle of the Street. She was suddenly a rootsy poet wandering amid the synthesizers. Ghost is a favorite word in Griffith’s lyrics, but it was her later on decades at MCA that really may have spooked her. On a couple of afterwards albums she vacillated between her pure balladic voice and an oddly pretentious vocal solution that sounded like a cloying tiny woman.

Her next label, Elektra, brought about two triumphs: her Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms (named after the Truman Capote novel) and The Dust Bowl Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra. But finally, her fantastic victories in life weren’t about awards, label specials, or Prime 40s. It is about the dozens of fantastic songs — many of them minor limited tales in concise track-type. A few had been hits for other singers, such as “Love at the Five & Dime” and “Listen to the Radio” (Kathy Mattea) and “Outbound Plane” (Suzy Boggus). “Gulf Coastline Highway,” “I Want It Would Rain” and the sublime Dust Bowl ballad “Trouble in the Fields” have been sung by many, including Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. And then there is the amazing “It’s a Really hard Life Where ever You Go,” which bounds between Dublin and Chicago, the present and the past, to show that “If we poison our kids with hatred / Then the really hard daily life is all that they’ll know.” That 1 was even performed by Cher.

Her love tracks usually struck an honest nevertheless wistful tone, at periods unconventional in phrasing and the pattern of views. But it was her tale-songs — influenced by these types of most loved Southern writers as Capote, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams — that utilized hanging narrative possibilities. None had been bolder than “Mary & Omie,” a music she chose to sing in the 1st individual as a center-aged Black female whose loving partner moved the relatives north and fought for a center-course existence “because Omie would not settle for considerably less.”

Looking at her struggle with two cancers, her absence of modern albums, and her bitterness around her pursuit of mainstream accomplishment, it is attainable to paint a melancholy own photo of Griffith in her afterwards decades. While her story-songs about other people today remained hopeful, her individual songs of loneliness and quick like affairs became considerably less poignant and enchanting as the many years progressed. In the aged times, her songs could crack your coronary heart and mend it yet again. Some afterwards types merely emitted disappointed disappointment. But there is grace to be located even in people weaker operates. After all, the bravery to sing about the neurotic feelings of the coronary heart is uncommon. She remaining a substantial system of noteworthy work. There is no much better testomony to her talent than the 84-minute concert film Winter season Marquee, recorded in Knoxville in 2002 (offered on YouTube).

https://www.youtube.com/enjoy?v=BNW6y8CxYAg

It demonstrates Griffith not only in primary kind, at 49, but also fronting a phenomenally proficient version of her lengthy-long lasting Blue Moon Orchestra. The communal experience of her early albums is apparent. The are living CD edition of the concert also finds Griffith back again on her outdated label, Rounder.

I was delighted she chose to revive 1 of my favored tracks from her 1984 Blue Moon album, “I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels.” For starters, it takes put in Massachusetts, on a bus journey Nanci took from Boston to Marshfield to be interviewed by Dick Pleasants on WATD. As in many of her music, the lyrics have odd small jumps in logic and narrative that power the listener to fill in the blanks. So when the refrain goes “Bring the prose to the wheel / I’m not driving these wheels,” she is singing of the wheels of literary inspiration as perfectly as the wheels of the bus she rides, and the phrase prose refers to the e-book in her lap as well as the track lyrics she is beginning to dream up. She seems positively exultant that the artistic forces occur from outside herself.

So several of her compositions reveal her have life, lived alone. On the great music “Daddy Said,” the titular character advises, “You’ll hardly ever understand to fish on a borrowed line / you’ll by no means understand to write if you are walkin’ spherical cryin’ / And it’s a pity your lover died younger / but you are going to by no means get weary of living by yourself.”

That might have tested real of Griffith’s strike-and-skip passionate daily life. But her authentic really like everyday living was with her musicians and mates, and that daily life lasted. The Winter season Marquee exhibit feels like a little something a lot more than a excellent live performance: it is a occupation benediction. Near its close, Griffith brings out a surprise guest — Emmylou Harris, a very good friend. Harris walks up to the mic with a grin as extensive as it is authentic. “I just have 1 matter to say,” she announces, hunting at her pal. “Isn’t she pretty?”

She was.

The expertise at Club Passim’s Nanci Griffith night represented at the very least two generations: it was a nice, low-essential salute to the singer/songwriter, who played the location typically in the mid-’80s. Arts Fuse critique


For 30 yrs, Daniel Gewertz wrote about tunes, theater and motion pictures for the Boston Herald, among the other periodicals. Extra a short while ago, he’s revealed personalized essays, taught memoir creating, and participated in the local storytelling scene. In the 1970s, at Boston University, he was ideal known for his Elvis Presley imitation.

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