Editor’s Note: Texas singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith (born July 6, 1953 in Seguin and raised in Austin, where she began her widely renowned folk and country music career in the ’70s) died on Aug. 13, 2021 in Nashville. She was 68. Writer Holly Gleason (a longtime contributor to Lone Star Music Magazine in addition to many, many more publications) first posted this moving tribute to Griffith on her own website, www.hollygleason.com, but with her blessing we are sharing it here, too. Gleason’s remembrance of Griffith and the impact that the “folkabilly” songbird would have on her life is unabashedly personal, and therein lies its beauty. It’s the same approach featured throughout Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives (University of Texas Press), the book Gleason edited collecting essays by herself and a host of other women writers celebrating the music of Dolly Parton, Carlene Carter, Tanya Tucker, Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, and many more. First published in 2017, Women Walk the Line is due out on paperback this October.
By Holly Gleason
A yellow dress covered in pink and red cabbage roses, mint and emerald green leaves seemingly holding them to the fabric. She had mousy brown hair, bangs that descended like staggered drapes around her elongated heart-shaped valentine of a face with eyes so sparkling and alive they glittered into the cameras.
Her speaking voice sounded like a small child’s, matching her diction. Her words bathed with wonder at it all — street light halos, Woolworth stores, trinkets and hope, she lit up as she shared what she knew or saw or felt.
Under the covers in a too-cold house my much older fiancée didn’t own in Coral Gables, he’d left to go do errands. I could draw close to the oversized television on the table at the end of the bed, sheets pulled up around me as I stared at this anti-Barbie singing smart such smart songs. Miami’s PBS station ran Austin City Limits at an early hour, and in the black-out-curtained window, it felt like a Girl Scout meeting gone a little long.
Austin City Limits was once truly a Texas texture, as Guy Clark would sing in “Rita Ballou.” Every now and then, they’d pick a few local writer/artists or bands, given them a show. Nanci Griffith, whose name I didn’t know, had just released Once in a Very Blue Moon on small indie Philo Records — and this was a showcase for those brilliantly turned sketches, almost scrimshaw miniatures of small town life.
Her voice, when she sang, was deeper, throaty, had that Stevie Nicks’ vibrato — or a pure, soaring crystalline quality. It melted over the kind of acoustic music that exists in the fertile delta between country and folk, where the violin is more fluid, the steel guitar more diamonds sprinkled across still water. It didn’t straddle the genres, as much as float back and forth like sheets on a breeze when they’re hung outside to dry in the sun.
She was obviously older than me, but was so young seeming, she was the grown-up answer to my far-older than my own 12-year-old appearance while slinging bylines for The Miami Herald, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Tower Pulse and Southern Magazine. There was a place for us kid-looking people with hearts older and more erudite than our looks suggested. And, her melodies were sweet but salty; the loves and adventures were pure and sized for an actual life someone could inhabit.
By the time Jason returned, I was out of mind about this woman I’d seen in the yellow dress like Helen, my extra grandma by choice instead of blood, wore while playing a guitar almost as big as she herself was. She had an upright bass and a cellist and a licorice whip thin guy who sang, so minimal chic but with this hair, and and and…
Full grown, ex-fiancee #2 glazed over. But he knew when I got on a tear, it didn’t stop. We got in the car, drove down to Spec’s, the South Florida record chain, and walked in. Me blabbering, him trying to figure out how to decode this problem. Turns out one of the clerks had had ACL on, saw the same thing I did — and walked us back to the folk section.
Once in a Very Blue Moon was in a bin for the taking. We did.
Walking out pleased with the purchase, I excused myself from any further conjugal duties and went back to my dorm room. I sliced into the shrink wrap, drew out the disc and put on side one. “Ghosts in the Music,” indeed.
It all poured out, puddled on the cold linoleum tiled floor of a room mostly packed up towards semester’s end. Endearing, charming, unselfconscious, it was small stories, big truths, moments you might not notice — but that might just define you.
It had been recorded at something called the Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa with the same producer of John Prine’s Aimless Love. I couldn’t know so many of the players — Roy Huskey, Jr on upright bass, Mark O’Connor on fiddle, Phillip Donnelly on guitar — would become figures in my own story, nor that the background singer, Lyle Lovett, would be one of the singular voices of Nashville’s progressive traditionalist moment.
It was just magical, and perfect. Like a Truman Capote or Willa Cather novel, moments seemed pressed between pages and saved for the ages.
The obsession was such that I called Rounder, raved about this woman from Texas I’d never heard of — writing for The Herald enough I knew lots of record company people in those days before MTV, let alone internets and instant gratification — and asked them to please keep me posted. That I didn’t know what story or who for, but I wanted to write about her, absolutely.
My ex-fiancee thought I’d fallen into toxic shock from my obsession with Southern and Dust Bowl fiction. He just couldn’t … so we started taking separate cars as the candy-coated voice unfurled these sweet stories. Pulling up, banging what Griffith came to call “folkabilly,” on the cheap aftermarket cassette player attenuating the cassette I’d bought, her voice sounded a bit like a muppet gone tipsy.
Rounder didn’t forget my lunatic raving. They sent me an advance cassette of Last of the True Believers, an even more accomplished and confident album that still did the Currier & Ives meets Norman Rockwell vistas. Her sound had solidified; Rooney’s always tasteful production was at its greatest elevation. Each instrument was its own sparkling diamond around Griffith’s at times guttural, at others shimmering or tender velvet vocals.
Tower Records’ Pulse bit. My first conversation with Griffith via phone was a delight; her Texas twang rolled down the line with girlish giggles for punctuation. She conjured an instant friend intimacy that suggested the same kind of friendship that made the innocence of “There’s a Light Beyond these Woods, Mary Margaret” such a covetous thing for a young woman starting to make her way in the real world.
We talked Larry McMurtry, O. Henry, steel guitar as a mood-setter, John Prine, dime store treasures, the journey. She’d had two albums I’d never heard of (again, it was a world before the internet made everything instantly accessible), with dreams of having music take her around the world.
She was exotic as peacocks on the front lawn, as familiar as homemade bread or a well-washed linen shirt with a slightly frayed collar. Twee as some found it, she could bite into the world, too. Whether the reeling fiddle of “More than a Whisper” was a grown-up love’s complicated nature and need for true manifestation, or the rushed and rushing bawdy declaration of life from a whore waiting on a trick “Lookin’ for the Time (Workin’ Girl)” with its profession, “This sidewalk ice is cold as steel/ and I ain’t Dorothy, I can’t click my heels…” and the utterly business forward “If you ain’t got money, I ain’t got the time for you.”
Authoritative. Straight to the heart, the gut, the throat. It was a money shot, and she — the little folkabilly goddess in the white anklets and Hooverette house dress — didn’t flinch or waver. To say I loved it would be like saying Chanel is expensive.
Around that time, Tony Brown rolled into Florida to meet up with Steve Wariner, an artist he’d produced at RCA Records and had just signed to MCA Nashville. The Chet Atkins protégé was that same kind of wide-eyed kid as Griffith’s persona suggested. Driving Brown back to the Howard Johnson’s by the turnpike after a night of hanging out and closing down a Palm Beach restaurant/boite, I pulled out my advance of the album and threw it in my cassette player.
I’d made a speech about how I didn’t know whether it could work at country radio, if it made sense for a major Nashville record company, but this was special. He needed to listen. That voice poured out of the speakers of the little tin mosquito Nissan Pulsar I was driving, bounced around the car and lit the piano-playing A&R man up like a pinball machine.
“Can I keep it?” he asked. I let him have it, let him bounce out of my car into the mildew-scented hotel in the grove of sagging palm trees. The next day, his head most likely throbbing, he got in my car, so I could take him to where Wariner was sound-checking. He went on and on about how much he liked it, the writing, the voice, the person singing it.
Said in some ways, she reminded him of Wariner, who he was doing pre-production with. Someone who didn’t want to be more than they were; they each sang about a life that was the right perspective for the room. Wariner — beyond the crushing guitar skills and sweet voice — truly was a small-town Indiana kid; Griffith, though a product of the local Texas songwriter rooms, dreamed of larger worlds and other places.
The legend is Lyle Lovett turned Tony Brown onto Nanci Griffith. But that day in the sun-parched parking lot outside a strip mall honky-tonk, the Elvis and Hot Band veteran witnessed like a new convert. We were two people talking over each other about how incredible this artist was; me saying I was so glad I hadn’t overstepped my bounds, Brown saying he needed to figure it out, but was going to …
At the same time, Steve Popovich, a rock ’n’ roll student of all music and the head of Polygram’s Nashville operation, heard “Love at the Five & Dime” — and told Kathy Mattea it was her next single. The West Virginia songstress with the dusky eiderdown voice that curried the folk out of mainstream country product smiled. She’d not followed up “Soft Place To Fall” with a hit, and she needed to breakthrough before it all fell apart.
Driving north on I-95 a few weeks later, “Love at the Five & Dime” came pouring out of the speakers — and it wasn’t Griffith’s version. It felt like a hit, slightly folkie, very homespun and charming in the way it told the story of Eddie and Rita, waltzing the aisles of a Woolworth store. Suddenly, Mattea’s sweet spot was colonized — and Nanci Griffith was a hit songwriter.
Momentum and dominos both move fast. Suddenly, Griffith’s record deal came through at MCA Nashville. She was touring Europe, becoming the queen of Ireland, a nascent then full-on friendship with dean of Nashville songwriters Harlan Howard. Letterman and The Tonight Show, Rolling Stone — back when it was every two weeks and excruciatingly hard to get into. Was it Liz Thiels, the publicist? David Wild, the reviews editor, who adored roots music? Was it just how intriguing her special mix of elements was?
Did it matter? Even if country radio found her voice too bracing, Mattea had another No. 1 with “Going, Gone,” while the touring life saw Griffith become a full-on headliner around the world — and a theater-sized draw in the States, where she also headlined folk festivals.
Free to explore the lives of characters who intrigued her, able to make a good living making music she believed in, it was fluid. She moved to MCA Pop, then Elektras Records, worked with producers Glyn Johns, Pete Buck, Rod Argent, Don Gehman, Peter Collins, and Ray Kennedym and served as a comrade and peer to Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Tom Russell, and Townes Van Zandt.
Championing Julie Gold, Griffith’s “From A Distance” so transfixed anyone who heard it, it wasn’t long until Bette Midler recorded it. Midler’s version defined ubiquity for many years, reminding people we are all small and equal, that “God is watching us” not as an enjoinder, but a comfort in our hard times.
Like a good folkie, she lifted people up in song. A later album, The Loving Kind, boasted a title track inspired by the obituary of Mildred Loving, whose Supreme Court case overturned laws banning interracial marriage, and the capital punishment indicting “Not Innocent Enough.” Earlier, Storms’ “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” considered kids without chances in Northern Ireland, impaled racists in Chicago and measured the hope of America’s ‘60s idealism with a chorus that implores, “It’s a hard life, a hard life, a very hard life / and if we poison our children with hatred, then a hard life is all that they’ll know / and there ain’t no place in this world for these kids to go …”
“Trouble in the Fields” from Lone Star State of Mind lamented the plight of family farmer, while the dobro-drenched, accordion-basted “Love Wore A Halo (Back Before the War)” from Little Love Affairs measured the outlaw lives of number runners, a Jersey hotel, and perhaps some comfort paid for by the hour. Unlikely people, missed or stumbled over, they rose up under Griffith’s sense of detail and zeal.
She would do a pair of covers projects, this woman who’d generously covered everyone from Tom Russell to Robert Earl Keen to ex-husband Eric Taylor, that celebrated her influences. Other Voices, Other Rooms gathered up 17 songs from Bob Dylan, Kate Wolf, Gordon Lightfoot, Jerry Jeff Walker, Woody Guthrie, Janis Ian, Buddy Mondlock, and Harry Belafonte with Carolyn Hester, Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement, Arlo Guthrie, longtime collaborator James Hooker and Linda Solomon’s “Wimoweh” boasting Odetta, the Indigo Girls, Kennedy Rose, Holly & Barry Tashian, John Gorka, David Mallett, her father, and Jim Rooney.
A supple versatility, a fluid sense of folk made the project seamless — and earned her her first Grammy Award. Best Contemporary Folk Album, an honor that matched the present to the past and the future. Other Voices measured how much veneration she brought to the art of songwriting, the ones who came before. Raising a light for the generations to come, she shone on — and fans flocked to the light.
But it was Voices’ Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”-evoking video for “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” a duet featuring the song’s writer John Prine, that nailed the way reverence, searching, kindness, and the echo of emptiness converge. Black and white, grainy, urban, Griffith in white and Prine in black, they are angels living in our world as supernatural forces and mortal beings. Beyond the whimsy, there was a sense of truth matching the reality of being a star in the musical sense.
Just as important as her O. Henry character sketches and embrace of the postcards and Polaroids that make up a life, the woman with a mouth like a bow conjured a tenderness that permeated her songs. Love was sometimes perfect and attained; occasionally flawed and wild. But as often, it was failed and someone — usually the woman — was leaving, frustrated, sad, but never beaten by what had transpired.
As a music critic carving a path when there weren’t really women covering music, as a female working her way through six engagements and many suitors always trying to be reasonable as I left, as a girl raised on books and dreams and hopes and songs, Griffith seemed a chimera before me, radiant and resplendent as Our Lady of Bookworms or the Patron Saint of Coffeehouse Angels. Could she really be real?
Any single woman with a career or a drive to find their place in the world – in those days before Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Rickenbacker-downstroked suburban tales — found a richly-colored construction paper fortune-catcher every time Griffith released an album. Those stories of old couples we hoped we’d turn into like True Believer’s “One of These Days,” but also the unflinching, make-it-happen drive of “Ford Econoline” that allows for self-propulsion, for dreams that required some form of screw it.
There was the romance of it all. No matter which album you landed on, that romance of life, the sweet nectar of somebody’s smile or a flick of a wrist taking a cigarette to their lips, it was all spark and igniting properties. Wherever, however, drink it in, swallow it down — and let whatever it was rush to your head. Don’t lose your senses, but go ahead and enjoy every last tingle.
That was the thing about the bookish, kindergarten teacher-looking songwriter: she could smoke ’em if you had ‘em and drink ’em down with the best. She would show up half kewpie doll, half brainiac and leave the room in ashes, all hearts splayed. Who wouldn’t wanna do that?
Many, many years ago, dressed in a pink and white gingham dress with buttons down the front and pale pink Buster Brown shoes, I went to UCLA to see Nanci and Guy at some hushed concert hall. I made the decision to dress for her people out of respect, but also to honor the way she’d lit my way coming into my own as a writer.
After slipping backstage between their sets to say my hellos, I had to slink out halfway through Griffith’s performance, drive into West Hollywood and make my way to the Whiskey A-Go-Go, where I looked beamed in from another galaxy. Security guards a 100 yards from the door couldn’t believe someone looking like this could be on the guest list, nor could the guy at the will-call window where the show was about to go on. Of course, I didn’t care that at the height of spandex, slashed t-shirts and Aquanet, I was a giant neon goody two shoes. I was on the list, and they were ushering me in.
As the Nasty Habits took their positions in the world’s smallest nurse uniforms, I made my way through the snickering throng. Sam Kinison bounded onstage to introduce Mötley Crüe, who were kicking off their Girls! Girls! Girls! album en fuego. Riling the crowd up, the band came on like a jet engine hitting prime thrust, and the crowd reacted accordingly.
“What the hell do you have on?” asked my surly comic friend when he got back to us. “God, Holly…”
I explained where I’d been, what I’d seen, screaming over Nikki Sixx’s throb and Mick Mars’ squealing guitar. He took me in, started to laugh, shook his head. Dressed like a pirate, with a rag tied diagonally across his overprocessed hair, he pulled me close and hugged me, whispering, “Well, okay, respect.”
Respect. More than anything that’s what Nanci brought the world: respect. She smoked. She drank. She recorded other people’s songs to make sure people heard them, shared duets with everyone from the BoDeans to Mac MacAnally, Tanita Tikaram to Darius Rucker.
She loved Loretta Lynn, could talk about her for hours long before Jack White made her a hipster Madonna, and Carolyn Hester, a folk goddess almost nobody today remembers. She never played the ingenue, nor did she throw sex around like a hipcheck in ice hockey.
She may’ve veered towards country radio, or closer to adult alternative at times, but she was always utterly herself. She knew how to be true to her literary influences in her songwriting, yet never lose the thread of who she was most of all.
Now she isn’t. Slipped through a crack in time, just – POOF! – and … gone.
A couple years ago, her manager sent me to the house 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.
She treasured her memories, the people she’d met, all the twists along the way. Talking, she’d light up, clearly delighted by the memory. But somehow, she wasn’t ready to tack down her past. Yes, it had all happened. 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.
Not Nanci Griffith. She was one who held her own course, made her own journey. 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 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, “Gulf Coast 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 …”