She had a little girl’s voice, slightly chirping and ether-light, and the widest eyes when talked that punctuated her heart-shaped face. But listening to her songs, she wrote with an underlying wisdom and sense of detail about small things that made her more kin to Eudora Welty, Willa Cather or even Carson McCullers, all of whom she adored.
Nanci Griffith was the ultimate contradiction: “aw shucks” presence with a gumption that took listeners by surprise. And the Austin, Texas songwriter traveled around the world many times as a songstress, an activist and a beacon of what so many women who wanted to carve out a life in letters without losing the guilelessness of innocence abroad.
It’s hard now to explain the shock of seeing the slight, sweet-voiced kindergarten teacher in the yellow dress covered in cabbage roses on “Austin City Limits,” unfurling delightful miniatures of life, of romantic disappoint, of young girl best friends killing the lights in town with pop bottle caps. In those days of “Miami Vice,” electric-neon “I Want My MTV” new wave and post-“Urban Cowboy” country, the folkie with a band that included legendary musicians Roy Huskey Jr., Mark O’Connor and licorice-thin background vocalist Lyle Lovett delighted with the songs, the stories and the applause of a hometown audience.
I raced to the local Miami branch of Spec’s, that long-gone record store chain. One of the clerks had had “ACL” on, saw the same thing I did, and walked me back to the folk section. “Once In A Very Blue Moon,” on the tiny Philo label, was soon mine. Raving like a crazy person who’d been set on fire by this young woman, who was so much the girl I wanted to be — erudite, funky bohemian in her dust bowl dresses, straight hair tumbling down, and anklet socks the anti-thesis of sex-on-display aesthetic I saw in the city around me — I tumbled head-first into the short stories and “Last Picture Show” imagery that anchored the whimsy and the heartbreak.
The “Last of the True Believers” album made good on the contradictions: velvety and whisper-soft and guttural and salty. “Love at the Five & Dime,” tracing the romantic life of a Woolworth counter girl named Rita and a bar musician named Eddie who found each other and fell into a life, offered the fence posts of how love binds us together in the small but very real dramas that threaten the fairy tale ending. “Looking for the Time (Workin’ Girl)” was a clear-eyed take on a street whore’s life that was neither judgmental nor romanticizing; with that churlish thrust over a rushing sweep, she apprised, “This sidewalk ice is cold as steel, and I ain’t Dorothy, I can’t click my heels… You asked me if I got the time, well you just wasted mine/ if you ain’t got money, I ain’t got the time…”
The names on the stapled-together credit sheets (the Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa; Jim Rooney, whose name I knew from his production of John Prine’s “Aimless Love”) filled my imagination as much as the music. It was folk on steroids, braided with fiddles, steel guitars and dobro prominently placed in the mix. It wasn’t country, nor was it singer/songwriter. Singular, it came to be known as “folkabilly,” but really it was the only complement for this glowing, muscular woman’s voice that seemed to flutter in one place, then ball into a fist in others.
Tower Records’ Pulse magazine, whose motto was “We Listen To A Lot of Records, We Write About The Ones We Like,” offered an assignment. Shaking, I answered the phone when she called and heard that tiny squeak that belied the power of Griffith’s full-rut vocals. She was thoughtful about the questions, lacing answers with literary references, turning the questions back to me – and laughing about how good the Texas music scene was, how Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Eric Taylor and so many more really seeded the coming generations. She talked of people I would know, showing the earliest signs of championing people like Lyle Lovett who would go on to become her peers.
Not long after that call, MCA’s brand new A&R man, Tony Brown, blew into South Florida to do pre-production on Steve Wariner’s first album for the label. Brown, a former keyboardist for Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, hadn’t yet ascended to his status as “the King of Nashville,” later afforded him by the L.A. Times. He was then merely a label guy hungry for the smart music, having signed and co-produced a brazen blue collar champion named Steve Earle, who leaned more to Bruce Springsteen than Ronnie Milsap.
Mustering up my courage, I delivered a monologue about why she wasn’t maybe for country radio, but Nanci Griffith was important. She seemed like someone he should know, should sign. “Can I keep it?” he asked, laughing. He took the advance cassette from my hand, said, “Well, all right, then” in his North Carolina twang and rolled out of my Nissan Pulsar well past closing time.
Next day, he was hyper-energized when he bounced out of the crummy Howard Johnson’s motel next to the turnpike exit west of town. “Man, she’s reeeeeeal good,” he raved. “Real, real good. I don’t know, but I know I’d love to figure it out…”
Figure it out he did. Just as others were trying to figure things out for Kathy Mattea, a future CMA Female Vocalist of the Year who was then still trying to find traction. After Mattea’s first demi-hit, “Soft Place To Fall,” wasn’t landing a follow-up, a brusque music man named Steve Popovich, who’d single-handedly turned Meat Loaf into a supernova and by then was the head of Polygram’s Nashville operation, heard Griffith singing “Love at the Five & Dime” – and he told Mattea it was her next single.
Driving on I-95 not long after the Brown encounter, I heard the soft shuffle pour from WIRK into the car and “Rita was 16 years, hazel eyes and chestnut hair/ She made the Woolworth counter shine…” in Mattea’s dusky, old flannel alto. My foot slammed the gas down hard. It sounded like a hit! It was on the radio! Nanci Griffith, who loved Loretta Lynn so much, could write hit country songs!
Her presence in Nashville was almost angel-at-the-top-of-the-tree perfect. She became big friends with Harlan Howard of “I Fall To Pieces” fame and could be seen hanging with Prine, Emmylou, Guy Clark and Pat Algier. Cigarette in hand, smile on her lips, she savored every last drop, song and story. Waist deep in the moments and the conversation, she was a peer to the very best.
By the time she and Brown finished making “Lone Star State of Mind,” the first of her four MCA Nashville albums, Nanci Griffith had a national buzz. If she’d seemed an artist perfect for afternoon teas and book clubs, she elevated quickly to late-night talk shows, where with her thick drawl and Garrison Keillor tiny-town tales, she quickly became a favorite chat partner of David Letterman and Johnny Carson.
The sounds were more polished, her singing more assured. Beyond reprising her best friend homage “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret),” she paid homage to folk pioneers Rosalie Sorrels and Carolyn Hester with the chugging “Ford Econoline” and the more familial “Sing One for Sister.” Suddenly, the young lady who seemed the perfect prairie home companion was coming on like a Mack Truck with its brake lines cut.
Recording Julie Gold’s “From a Distance,” as universal and reckoning our humanity a ballad as ever written, her young child’s voice added an element of hope to the drop of bleach in greasy-water truth. Not quite a kumbaya moment, the plea of coming together turned Griffith into a superstar in Ireland and across Europe. So pure and true was Griffith’s version that it led Bette Midler to later record what would become a ubiquitous rendition, winning Gold a Grammy for Song of the Year.
Looking forward, lifting up, never forgetting where she came from. She had had her friend Lyle Lovett grace the album cover of “Last of the True Believers”, he, too, ended up signed to MCA via a deal with Curb Nashville. Having met Griffith as a journalism student at Texas A&M who’d come to interview her then-husband Eric Taylor, Lovett struck up a friendship with her that would ground MCA’s cornerstone in the late ‘80s credibility scare, a movement that included Brown signing holler-country traditionalist Patty Loveless.
“Little Love Affairs,” her second MCA album, drew a stunning five stars from Rolling Stone. Tony Brown remembered, “It turned the town inside out! I mean, when getting in Rolling Stone was a BIG deal… Here was Nanci with five stars!” Her cocktail was so singular, it was hard to place her; but with Earle, Lovett and Loveless, it felt like each of their strains of progressive country would yield a new sub-strain of the genre.
It was a moment, but didn’t gestate a new Outlaw Movement. But it gave rise to NPR stalwarts who remain in the public eye. For Griffith, whose folk and songwriter bona fides qualified her for a more Triple A place, she transferred to MCA’s pop division. If country wouldn’t play her, she set her eyes on broader horizons.
People clamored to her crisp writing, her voice still maintaining innocence in the knowing. Her influence on Darius Rucker, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Tanita Tikaram speak to the vastness. Even R.E.M.’s Peter Buck co-produced an album —as did people like Glyn Johns, Don Gehman and Rod Argent — Jo as Griffith continued putting out short stories that maintained their rural, dusty dot-in-the-map roots. She also turned her gaze into the tangles and jagged rocks of love turned cold, loneliness, and the undesired outcomes of growing up and ending up alone, a fate that befell many of the women who loved her.
It was never with a trembling lip, but always a clear-eyed reality, that she wrote of love failed and lovers who betrayed. She was always strong in the loss, even if slightly bruised or hollowed out. For post-modern feminists who yearned for a paramour or family, she created a space to mourn what was without regretting was gained.
An undeniable presence in her adopted city of Nashville, you’d hear her voice in Brown’s Diner or Sportsman’s Grill, see her tuning up at a Harlan Howard Birthday Bash, and you’d know… she was there. She faced a health crisis that took her off the market for a while, but she visited Vietnam to work on landmine, healthcare and infrastructure issues, and she toured as part of all-star Campaign for a Landmine Free World alongside Earle, Harris and Prine.
Her “Other Voices, Other Rooms” album — the first of six she did with Elektra, after MCA — reteamed her with Jim Rooney and celebrated her influences as she lovingly covered Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Janis Ian, Tom Paxton, Kate Wolf, Townes Van Zandt, Janis Ian and Buddy Mondlock. It would earn her first Grammy. The Wim Wenders-evoking “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” music video featured Griffith and Prine as “Wings of Desire” angels, singing the compassionate lullaby for the ways people numb heartache.
“Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back To Bountiful)” in the late ‘90s was another armful of those she loved. Leaner, it felt like she was stripping away the layers to offer the essence of folk, country and her own heart. If she’d gone to the well of Johnny Cash, Richard Thompson, Pete Seeger and Ian & Sylvia, she also embraced her friends Guy Clark, Tom Russell and Pat McLaughlin, and enlisted a who’s who of musical collaborators including Lovett, Harris, Rucker, Earle, Rodney Crowell, Lucinda Williams, Odetta, Tish Hinojosa, Gillian Welch, Peter Holsapple and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. She loved it all, and loved them young and old.
By the time she recorded 2012’s “Intersection,” her 20th and final album, she recognized the realities of a world that insisted on profit and the justification of what that took. If she still had that clarity, it was now tempered with an anger about the cruelties of life. She enlisted her road partners Pete and Maura Kennedy and Pat McInerny for the dozen songs that matched a few covers with pictures of now-faded places like “Bethlehem Steel” and a live recording that measured the raging state of the heart and the nation, “Hell No (I’m Not Alright).”
She retired from performing not long after. Trouble with her hands and the accumulation of years on the road wears people down and takes the thrill from your mouth and the desire from your soul. She didn’t make a big deal out of it; no goodbye tours or press releases. Just like a character from her songs, she quietly just stopped doing it.
A couple years ago, her manager sent me to her little brick house with the metal stake fence to do some interviews for a possible memoir. She was so happy to see me, remembered times I’d interviewed her, places I’d seen her play and so many friends we had in common. It was sweet and fun, like running into an old friend in an unlikely airport. I saw her as the same wisp of a girlish grown woman, with the so-big eyes and the jawline that made her face truly look like a heart. Smiling and looking embarrassed by the idea, she walked through moments of her life, people she’d known, and the connections between Lyle booking the coffee house and their both working with Tony Brown, all with a genuine delight.
But somehow the idea of gathering up her memories for some kind of book didn’t connect. It was ironic: the woman who loved books so much just couldn’t quite find her way to and through this. She was so forthcoming, yet sorting her past into themes and chapters didn’t seem to be something she was sure she wanted to do. Ever gracious, she’d drink tea as we talked, thank me for coming, and walk me to the door with a big smile. She’d had a miraculous life, done amazing things, seen the world many times over, shared stages with incredible musicians. But to talk about it, you could feel it weighing her down. If she was measuring her past this way, what else was left? She wasn’t sure, and she didn’t know. Not that we ever talked about that in those terms. Sometimes you just know people who look back too much run the risk of turning to salt and blowing away.
When the news started to spread like a red wine stain on a tablecloth, there was no denying she was gone. The phone calls and texts, Instagram tributes, emailed statements from places like the Country Music Hall of Fame tumbled and rippled across Friday afternoon in ever-widening circles.
It seemed, though, that that bookish woman who embodied what so many of us wanted to be figured out how to exit in a way that suited her perfectly. Just slipped away, into the stars, quietly; no one saw it coming, even though most of us felt like she’d been slowly fading away. Of course, she would quietly slip away while no one was looking, just like one of the girls in her songs. She knew where she was going — knew Guy and Townes and Prine and Rooney and Steve Popovich and Phillip Donnelly and so many more were waiting.
When you’re headed to that, why would you stay? Long ago, she wrote “Gulf Coast Highway” with two friends, a song about love and death and spring in Texas, parsing the way progress siphons off the delicious parts and places of life. The melody feels like steam rising from a blue line on an old map in that kind of swelter only Southern towns near water can muster, the chords moving slowly like a cloud of melancholy.
Yet “Gulfstream Highway” is a song of triumph and a letting go. When I heard the news, it was the third or fourth thing I played, because the joy in life’s fading is perhaps the thing — after all the cultural dissonance, all the lives lost — we need most.
As she sings towards the song’s end:
“Highway 90, the jobs are gone
We tend our garden, we set the sun
This is the only place on Earth blue bonnets grow
And once a year they come and go
At this old house here by the road
And when we die we say we’ll catch some blackbird’s wing
And we will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring…”
Holly Gleason is a Nashville-based music critic and editor of the award-winning “Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives” (out in paperback Oct. 10).
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