RIP Nanci Griffith (1953-2021)

17th August 2021 · 2020s, 2021, Country, Music

Nanci Griffith (6 July 1953-13 August 2021)

About 15 years ago I was in Nashville and visited Burt Stein, a music manager with an office on Music Row. He kindly allowed me in to see the building’s famous guitar-shaped swimming pool once used by Elvis Presley.

While I was there a pick-up truck drew up with a bumper sticker reading “Blue Girl In A Red State.” At the wheel was a friendly woman in a western shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots.

She stopped to chat to her friend Richard Wootton, who I was with, so he introduced me to her. A fleeting encounter but she left an impression because I have enjoyed her music since I first heard From A Distance in 1987. 

Now she’s gone.
RIP Nanci Griffith.

Here is Richard’s own reminiscence and tribute:

“Heart-breaking news overnight that the great Texan singer-songwriter Nanci Giffith passed away yesterday aged 68. She was one of the first artists I worked with, on record from 1985, in person from 1987 and then continuously for over 25 years, with many fine CDs and UK tours until 2012, after which she retired from music and public view.

Nanci Caroline Griffith was born in 1953 and raised in Texas where she started singing at The Hole In The Wall in Austin in her teens, recorded for indie labels and then moved to Nashville when artists like Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss started having hits with her songs. But she was never really a country singer, although briefly signed to MCA Nashville before switching to their pop division.

She called her style “folkabilly” – folk with hillbilly influences – and was unique in several ways. UK writers on both the trendy music papers and quality dailies found her rather innocent, wholesome image a refreshing change from the rock artists they were obliged to write about. And they loved her writing.

Stuart Bailie from the NME wrote, “When you call Nanci Griffith a songwriter, you’re not really giving her the credit she deserves – it’s like saying Michelangelo used to be handy with a paint brush. If you want to be more accurate you could add that Nanci is a brilliant observer and storyteller who writes like a novelist.”

Radio support came from Andy Kershaw at Radio 1 and lots of people at Radio 2, notably Bob Harris. Her popular albums included Lone Star State Of Mind which had her best known song, Julie Gold’s “From A Distance,” The Flyer, her most mainstream record, and Other Voices, Other Rooms which won a Contemporary Folk Grammy and was her most successful UK release until a Very Best Of sold over 100,000 copies.

There was also The Dust Bowl Symphony recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road studios in 1999. Nanci made her London debut at the Mean Fiddler Acoustic Room in the summer of 1987, an unforgettable and very hot night when three people fainted and the early fans included Princess Margaret’s daughter, Sarah Armstrong Jones.

Her last UK appearance was at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2012 when her friend John Prine was also on the bill. In concert, Nanci had a clever technique of telling stories about her life while she was also turning her guitar.

Eric Taylor, a Vietnam veteran to whom she was married from 1976 to 1982 (he died last year) was often mentioned. During a concert with Steve Earle he told her she’d had a better divorce than any of his many marriages!

She told great stories, most famously on Danny Baker’s BBC TV show about the ghost in Room 333 at London’s Langham Hotel who had thrown her heated rollers around.

She was a very kind and generous person, although only now am I discovering how many musicians she helped and encouraged. Mary Gauthier’s story on Facebook today about Nanci giving her a guitar is a must read.

In later years she had serious health issues, was a survivor of breast cancer, then thyroid cancer, but had continued to make new music, though her pace slowed in the 2000’s after having hand surgery and could no longer play her guitar. I’ll never forget her. Lone Star State Of Mind.”

And here is Mary Gauthier’s tribute: 

“Nanci Griffith was a teacher to me, she showed me folk music, she educated me on what came before. She spoke my language, sang her way into my being. I loved her music and saw her perform many, many times.
I got to work with her a bit when I was getting started, and I got to know her some after I came to Nashville. She was always kind to me, generous. A profound influence on me, her spirit will always remain alive inside her music.
The first year I lived in Nashville, I was invited to a party at music photographer Jim McGuire’s house that became a song circle with Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, Joe Ely, Steve Earle and Nanci Griffith. It was a wonderful night, and I was on the edge of my seat, desperately wanting to go from being in the audience to swapping songs with that group of legends. I knew I was in deep waters, the new kid in town, but oh how I longed to sit in that circle. I’d deeply admired everyone in it for years.
As the music was winding down, Nanci looked over and asked, “Mary, would you play us a song?” I knew her because I’d opened a string of shows for her a month prior.
I was absolutely thrilled when she invited me to play. I sat in the chair she offered, took her guitar into my hands, and played “Our Lady of the Shooting Stars.” The other songwriters closed their eyes and nodded as I played, some smiled. No wild applause, no pyrotechnics when the song ended. But the smiles and nods made me feel like I belonged.
I still had a long way to go, but joining that circle was validation that moving to Nashville had been a good decision. Holding my own in that circle of songwriters whose records I owned and whose careers I followed gave me confidence. Being around songwriters I deeply admired humanized them and made the star I was reaching for feel less distant.
When I was done, I handed Nanci her guitar back. She shook her head and said, “Keep it.” I froze, holding her engraved, signature sunburst Taylor 612 cutaway guitar in mid-air,question marks in both of my eyes. “It’s yours,” she said. “When I moved to Nashville, Harlan Howard gave me his guitar. I’m giving you mine.” I was speechless but somehow found the courage to say,“Will you sign it?”
She signed, “For Mary, because YOU WILL sing.”
I found out later it’s an old Nashville tradition to pass on a guitar. It’s an attempt to stay on the good side of the muse and the mystery. Some songwriters believe it is one way to keep songs flowing. Harlan gave Nanci one of his guitars because he felt there were no more songs left in it for him but there might be some in there for her. Nanci had done the same for me. Welcome to Nashville, kid. Remember to stay on the good side of mystery and paradox; they’re your wheelhouse, now.
RIP Nanci, and thank you. Your guitar is in my hands right now, I play it, remember your kindness, your music, and the influence you had in my life, and I cry.