By Roger Deitz I From the May/June 1995 issue of Acoustic Guitar
Nanci Griffith, the folk/country singer-songwriter who died on August 13, 2021, at the age of 68, was celebrated for her soaring vocals and fine acoustic guitar work in songs often chronicling small-town life. Republished here is an in-depth profile on Griffith and her music, which originally ran as cover story for Acoustic Guitar’s May/June 1995 issue. —Ed.
Like the characters in novels penned by the writers she champions—Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote—singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith hears a different drummer and marches to that cadence, and the rest of the world can either join the parade or sit on the curb and watch it pass. For more than two decades, her career path has led her from raucous, hole-in-the-wall Texas honky-tonks, around the folk club and festival circuit, into glittery Nashville, across the sea to Europe, then on to Carnegie Hall and even Broadway. Not bad for a wispy little West Texas girl who once gazed longingly at the bright lights of New York City.
The images of that dreamy-eyed little girl’s West Texas childhood—riding her bicycle to the crest of Mount Bonell with her friend and confidant Mary Margaret, flipping bottle caps at the streetlights of Austin, supposing that the lights of New York City must shine brighter than those at home—appear in Griffith’s song “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods” from her 1978 debut album of the same name. And they turn up again, more recently, in “Goodnight to a Mother’s Dream” on Griffith’s 1994 release, Flyer. During the span of years between those songs, the dream became tarnished with reality, touched with melancholy; the earlier song is hopeful, the later bittersweet and world-weary.
I recently spoke to Griffith after she completed a four-night stand at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway. She had just a little time in Nashville before heading on to San Francisco. I asked her what the best and worst parts of being on the road are. She sighed and said, “Every part of being on the road is bad. The best part is that two-and-a-half hours on stage.” She means it. Griffith has an intense drive to create and convey, almost at the expense of all else. On stage she delivers intimacy and perfection, a theater in which music and lyrics are vital, where charm and grace, a wink and a Texas twang are tools of the trade, where songwriting is honed to an art, and where presentation, singing, guitar technique, staging, and arrangement must be equally on the mark. But between shows, far from the eyes and ears of the audience, Griffith seems chronically exhausted from the rigors of touring, a victim of her own success.
Griffith wears her heart on her sleeve with Flyer, her most personal album to date. It is a poignant autobiography that offers insight into the private world of an artist who got much of what she dreamed of and strove for. “For the first time, I wrote an entire group of songs that are not fiction,’ she says, “songs that are Nanci Griffith, up close and personal. I’ve always remained very much at a distance from the characters in my music, so this is a very different album. It also sounds different,” she adds. “The vocals are live, there are no session players on it, no overdubs, just friends and colleagues gathered together making music.”
The list of Griffith’s friends who helped out on Flyer testifies to her eclectic nature. It begins with Sonny Curtis of Buddy Holly and the Crickets fame. “He’s one of my childhood idols, one of the first people to pick up a Stratocaster in 1955 and beat the dickens out of it,” Griffith says, laughing. Then the list turns to the contemporary, with Peter Buck of R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows, U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton, and Mark Knopfler. Griffith’s longtime fans will appreciate contributions from past collaborators, Emmylou Harris and the Chieftains. And that’s only an abbreviated list.
“l won’t be making another album for another couple of years,” Griffith says. “I’m going to take a break, get away from the touring. So, this is the kind of album I’ve always wanted to make.” Knowing Griffith, I have to believe each of her albums is exactly the kind she wanted to make. She is a self-determined artist who has accomplished a great deal with steadfast perseverance.
Griffith, who divides her downtime these days between a century-old farmhouse outside of Nashville, Tennessee, and a loft in Dublin, Ireland, is originally from Austin, Texas. She says Austin was a “brilliant community” in which to grow up. “It was so eclectic. My parents were beatniks. They were very good friends with a family by the last name of Potter. The kids from that family were taught music. Jerry Potter had a band called Bubble Puppy that was extremely popular. My parents were also good friends with Evelyn Erickson, mother of Roky Erickson, who founded the band Thirteenth Floor Elevators. I went to high school with Eric Johnson.
“I always wanted to be a songwriter,” Griffith remembers. “That was my initial plan in life. I never really thought of myself as too much of a singer, but l have always thought of myself as a good guitar player. My main goal in life was to grow up and be like Harlan Howard.” Howard, who penned Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” as well as numerous other country classics, has become a friend of Griffith’s, and they cowrote “Say It Isn’t So” for Flyer.
Griffith’s music started with a gift of a guitar. “The first guitar I owned was a Yamaha [FG-]110,” she recalls. “I got that guitar when I was about nine. I learned how to play by watching [Laura Weber on] PBS. There was some kind of guitar class that came on Saturday morning. I also tried to play piano, but I’ve never been very good at it.”
Griffith began her performing career at the age of 14, with her parents chaperoning her around the Austin club circuit. “I was really awful, and l knew it,” she says with a wry smile, “but I also had the opportunity to be exposed to some very left-of-center music I wouldn’t have otherwise heard.” Soon the Yamaha was replaced by a Martin D-28 that became a longtime companion.
A few years later, at the University of Texas, Griffith worked a lot of odd jobs to get by. She played her D-28 at places like the Hole in the Wall, an aptly named beer joint. There she survived five years of singing through smoke and performing for heavy drinkers and through nonstop barroom brawls, raising her voice to be audible above the din of rowdy conversations and the clang of the pinball machine. “One night Big Boy Medlin smashed some guy’s head against the cigarette machine in the middle of my set,” Griffith remembers. “That’s the only time I ever stopped playing, the only time in my career. Every night in that bar was tough. I played from nine at night until two in the morning.” And talk about nerve, young Griffith handled the crowd by relying on her own material, not by becoming a human jukebox chockfull of familiar country covers . “Occasionally I would learn a cover song,” she says, “but not very often. I’ve always pretty much written my own.”
When Griffith finally escaped to listening rooms like Anderson Fair in Houston, the first venue she played where people came to hear music rather than drink at the bar and talk, she had earned her chops through trial by fire. She could command the attention of a crowd even in the toughest of circumstances. Performer Christine Lavin recalls the first time she heard Griffith play, later in Griffith’s career. “I was struck by how perfect everything was about her singing, her playing, her talking. I realized from the get-go that this was someone who was a complete professional. Obviously she had worked for a very long time to get to be that good.”
Griffith also learned from those whose work she admired. She idolized fellow Texan Carolyn Hester, and she loved Odetta, Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, and Buddy Holly. “The music I liked had rhythm,” she explains. “It had a heart to it, a uniqueness. When you heard these people, you knew exactly who it was.” The same could be said about Griffith’s songs: they couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
By the time Griffith was playing campfires at the Kerrville Folk Festival, people were beginning to take notice of the slight young woman with the ponytail peeking out from behind her big Martin dreadnought. “The Kerrville Folk Festival is a gathering of artists of a similar nature, people who wouldn’t fit in any other place,” says Griffith. “You almost can’t even call it a folk festival because of the different kinds of artists there. It was a once-a-year reaffirmation of what you were doing as an artist.”
I asked Griffith about her songwriting. “It all comes at once,” she says. Everything happens at the same time, even if I’m 200 miles from the guitar. The melody and the idea—it’s almost as if they’re floating in the air. I stay open enough that I’m able to reach out and grab them as they go by.”
Griffith says she needs to hear other people do her songs. “That’s why I write. I think no one likes the sound of their own voice. Hearing another voice sing my songs—that’s the stamp of approval. I actually set out to have that happen.” Griffith’s songs have been covered by other artists with great results. Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris did “Gulf Coast Highway,” Kathy Mattea had a hit with “Love at the Five and Dime,” and Suzy Bogguss met with success with “Outbound Plane.” Griffith’s cover version of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” was what Bette Midler listened to before going into the studio to take her turn. Midler got the airplay and credit for the hit by substituting schmaltz for heart. That’s showbiz.
Like her songs, Griffith’s playing and vocal styles are singular and recognizable. Her Taylor grand concert suits her unique right-hand technique. “I know it’s very much a style of my own that I developed because I never had any formal training,” she admits. “I do play in open G a lot [D G D G B D]. I pick in both directions with my fingerpicks and thumbpick, which is one reason I started making my own thumbpicks—so I can pick back up. I’ve been playing the same way forever. I think it kind of goes along with my voice.”
Griffith’s playing style once got her into trouble. “I never had a problem with the way I played. I never lost a fingerpick in all my career until the first Austin City Limits show that I did. Before the taping, Mark O’Connor commented to me that he had never seen anybody play both up and down with fingerpicks the way I do, using them as a cross between flat picks and fingernails. He wondered how I kept them from catching on the strings. Well, up until that time, l hadn’t thought about it. Sure enough, during the taping I caught a pick on the E string halfway through a song, and the pick rode up and down the fretboard throughout the entire rest of the song. I blamed Mark; if he hadn’t said anything, it never would have happened.”
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Griffith has seen the music industry from outside and inside the major labels. Her list of record producers includes Tony Brown, who did her recordings for MCA; Rod Argent; Glyn Johns, who worked with the Rolling Stones and the Who; and Peter Collins, who produced the Indigo Girls and most of Griffith’s Flyer. (A couple of tracks were produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.) All of their work is first-class, but producer Jim Rooney is best able to coax the sound from Griffith that suits her as aptly as her Texas drawl and trademark red shoes. Rooney worked with Griffith on a number of recording projects, including the Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms, on which Griffith covered classic tunes by some of her favorite singer-songwriters.
“My basic philosophy as a producer is to listen to the artists and make the surroundings congenial to their work,” says Rooney. “Nanci really works best with a semi-acoustic setting. There are electric instruments on all of the albums we’ve made, but the overall impression is fairly acoustic. I’m not a big fan of the layered, synthesizer sound for Nanci. I don’t think the acoustic guitar is helped by all that. I feel that really good acoustic instruments—a real piano and real strings, all that stuff—work with her. “I’ve always felt that her guitar playing was a very important part of Nanci’s recording,” Rooney continues. “I don’t know anybody else who plays the way she does. There is a sound to her records that comes right from her guitar. Her playing is very specific and well thought out. She does different things to suit each song; it’s not just one size fits all. Her playing gives her songs a lot of atmosphere. I think the grand concert guitar really suits her. The voice of that guitar is airy; it comes through with just the right voice. You definitely want her guitar work in the mix—everything else keys off of it.”
There has been a great deal of discussion as to where Griffith does and does not belong in the music industry—usually comments by moguls and insiders who consider themselves keepers of the artistic flame. Griffith’s comments on the subject are partly in the form of advice. “I’ve never worried much about the business things,” she says. “If I’ve done anything right, I’ve kept my initial perspective: who I was as a person and what I wanted to achieve. The only time the business end of things conflicts is if it comes between myself and my audience, or myself and my artistic intentions. Then it gets frustrating.
“Sometimes I meet young artists who have put so much faith in barraging the industry side of music, as opposed to following the road of their passion, their art,” Griffith continues. “In other words, they’re so much more in tune with wanting to be a star than they are with wanting to be an artist whose work has longevity. You have to be careful what you ask for and never lose the passion of what you initially set out to do artistically, if you don’t want to turn around and have something you never really wanted.”
As for industry validation, Griffith says, “The Grammy that I won with the Chieftains [An Irish Evening: Live at the Belfast Opera House], the Grammy award for Other Voices, Other Rooms, and the Grammy nomination for Last of the True Believers were very gratifying. It’s been very important to me, because that’s where I come from, that’s where my roots are—in the early rock ’n’ roll of West Texas and Buddy Holly, and the folk music of Woody Guthrie. The industry has treated those things very shabbily for the last 20 years, so when something like Other Voices, Other Rooms wins a Grammy and sells as well as it did, that is important to me.”
I ask Griffith if she considers herself a grassroots success, and she contemplates the notion. “Grassroots? I don’t really know. I guess you would call it grassroots because it came from the college scene, word of mouth, however the word gets around. There was never any radio available to me, although that’s changed now. It’s similar to the way rap music caught on when the genre had no radio airplay. The kids all knew what the latest record was, but how did they know? Anyway, I was always out there promoting my albums physically, or someone else was having a hit with one of my songs. I had no other avenue to get my music heard. Now that we have triple-A [adult alternative albums] radio format, all of a sudden I’m having hits for the first time. At the same time, I couldn’t call myself a cult artist, because cult artists don’t sell 500,000 units in the U.S., and they don’t sell 12,000 seats in Boston. I don’t really have a category.”
“Out of the 12 albums I made,” Griffith says, “no two are alike or take the same direction. That’s one of the great things I’ve been blessed with in my career: having been allowed to run amok and do exactly what I wanted to do with each record. I hope that I’m still growing as an artist all the time, but basically I’ve been doing the same thing since the day I started writing music, and I think I’ll be doing that till the day I die—and most of the members of my family live to be in their 90s.”