Literate songwriter, sublime singer and interpreter, role model and activist.
News of Nanci Griffith’s death on 13th August has caused a level of shock and sadness throughout the music community that truly reflects her standing as a major artist, who has influenced countless fellow musicians across multiple genres. When her management and record company announced her death, they did not give a cause, simply saying that Nanci Griffith, who had beaten cancer twice in the past, wanted this to be announced a week later, which is an example of how independent and focused she was as an artist.
Born in Seguin, Texas, on July 6th 1953 to a musical family Nanci Griffith was already playing the clubs of Austin by the time she was 14, something she continued to do when she became a student at The University of Texas. Maintaining her Texas connection, she married Texas-based singer-songwriter Eric Taylor in 1976, though they divorced in 1982, and won an award for her songwriting at the Kerrville Folk Festival which led to her recording her debut album in 1978. “Folkabilly” is a term Nanci Griffith herself coined to describe her own music, and her career was given a boost when she moved to Nashville in 1986 and her ‘Last Of The True Believers’ record was a critical success, and her songs were now covered by the likes of Kathy Mattea, who had a country hit with Griffith’s ‘Love At The Five And Dime’, Emmylou Harris and others. These covers were more popular than Nanci Griffith’s own versions, but she was reported to be more than happy with the situation as it meant she wasn’t trapped into singing certain songs for years, leaving her free to play what she wanted in her live performances.
Nanci Griffith continued releasing albums until her retirement in 2013, and while the albums were at times a commercial success, this was more due to the current day trends coinciding with Griffith’s artistic values, than any attempt by her to achieve commercial success for her own recordings. Not only was Griffith able to write very literate songs, she was a superb singer who championed fellow singer-songwriters whenever she could. She was instrumental in bringing the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker, among others, to a new generation of listeners in the ’80s and ’90s. Other artists queued up to appear on her records and the artists included Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, John Prine among others, and she was accompanied by some of the best instrumentalists of the time.
Every one of Nanci Griffith’s twenty albums has something of merit but a handful can be considered essential listening. As with any multi-faceted artist, it is difficult for any single record to give an end-to-end overview of an artist’s style, but 1988’s live album ‘One Fair Summer Evening’ provides a perfect summary and introduction to prime Nanci Griffith. 1993’s Contemporary Folk Grammy winner ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ was a covers record that proved what an excellent picker of songs and interpreter of other writers’ material Griffith really was. While not one of her greatest albums, 2012’s ‘Intersection’, as well as being her last album, is confirmation of her ability to mix folk, country and pop with her own more idiosyncratic colourings on a mix of her own and cover tunes. One other aspect of Nanci Griffith’s career was her ever willingness to support and help other artists. This was not restricted to new and emerging artists, but also include legendary artists such as Buddy Holly’s Crickets who she toured with, and used as her backing band on occasions. She also appeared on the group’s 1996 record ‘Too Much Monday Morning’ which was a high watermark in their post Buddy Holly career. She also recorded a version of Holly’s ‘That’s Alright’ for the tribute album ‘Not fade Away (Remembering Buddy Holly) ’ with The Crickets that got extensive airplay.
While it is right to celebrate Nanci Griffith’s artistic achievements, it shouldn’t be forgotten that when she started her career her chosen genres were dominated by male artists. Through her own example and her songs, she has helped female artists from the ‘80s onwards achieve their own artist dreams. As she got older, she also became more political and wasn’t afraid of using her artist credibility to support various causes. The mainstream and social media have been alive with celebrations of her life and achievements, and social media has given a clear insight into the affection and respect she is held, not just by her fans, but by other artists. Of all the social media comments, one that maybe sums her up the best, is by Chuck Prophet who, while respecting her privacy, never gave up hope she would return to music despite her retirement, tweeted, “For those of us who remember the 80s? Nanci Griffith was massive. Those early records were massive in the Green On Red van. Literate songwriting… It was her and John Prine… And not much else… rest in power Nanci”.