Griffith, Nanci (1954—)
Griffith, Nanci (1954—)
Almost alone among commercially successful singer-songwriters within folk and country music, Nanci Griffith represents a refreshing contrast to the bland offerings of the music industry's hit-making machinery. Defying easy categorization into the standard pigeonholes, Griffith once described her own style of music as "folkabilly." After 15 albums Nanci Griffith still seems to be steaming ahead at full throttle. No longer scaling the heights but rather traversing the summit ridge of her creative powers, several of her most recent releases have been met with widespread critical acclaim. She has also captivated a legion of loyal fans.
Nanci Caroline Griffith was born July 6, 1953 near Austin, Texas—a town full of good music, where she penetrated the competitive ranks of a near legendary songwriting tradition. She has portrayed her parents as "beatniks" who enthusiastically supported her attempts to become a folksinger. Nanci's first paid gig was at the age of 14, when she played at the local Red Lion and made $11. She graduated from Austin's Holy Cross High School, where she strummed guitar for folk mass, then stayed in the neighborhood by enrolling at the University of Texas. Nanci began playing every Sunday night—and would continue to play for five years—at the Hole in the Wall, a dingy little bar across the street from campus. The bar became her proving ground, for—as she once described it—if you can get loud beer-drinkers to hush up a moment and listen to your songs then you must be doing something right. She tried teaching kindergarten for a while, but by this time her heart was firmly attached to her true calling.
Nanci writes and plays folk music. Not one to shy away from this particular "f-word," she capitalizes the term because the people are important to her and so is the music. Invoking the muses of this particular genre has turned into a one-woman crusade to resurrect what's good and true among the earthier forms of the American song canon. In 1994 Griffith won a Grammy Award for her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, which paid tribute to songwriters she has come to admire. Her 1998 release, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), serves as a continuation of this project. She cites Carolyn Hester as an influential figure in her early career, but also draws motivation from the Carter Family, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. By all accounts, Nanci is even more popular in the British Isles than in the United States. Perhaps this stems from her own Anglo ancestry, or perhaps because British sensibilities allow for greater sophistication in popular music. It may also reflect her residential choices: she has maintained a loft in Dublin for more than a decade, and now divides her time between Ireland and a small farm south of Nashville.
Nanci's first album was recorded in 1978 and subsequently reissued by folk-oriented Philo/Rounder Records (as were her next three). A good representation from this initial foray into record making would be the 1984 title, Once In a Very Blue Moon. In 1987 she switched to the predominantly country label MCA, and over the next five years released a series of rich offerings with more production input than the spare earlier records. It was also during this time period that Griffith assembled a first-rate touring band—the Blue Moon Orchestra—that has stayed together and backed her efforts for over a decade. Since 1992 Nanci has recorded on the Elektra label, which has given her wide latitude to experiment with new ambitions and soundscapes. Unanimously well received by critics was a 1994 album, the very personal and heartfelt Flyer. She has also recorded with artists as diverse as Bruce Cockburn, John Gorka, The Chieftains, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Her songs have been covered—often as hit records—by many other performers, including Willie Nelson, Suzy Boguss, and Kathy Mattea.
Stylistically, Griffith is capable of assuming many postures. Her voice, at once so full and supple, can be delicate and hesitant one moment, and growling with anger or unassailable determination the next. That soft Texas twang is never too far away. A true storyteller, she likes to experiment with dialect and playful pronunciation. She has great range of expression, and uses her vocal chords like a richly textured instrument. Whether accompanied only by acoustic guitar or backed with a full string orchestra, it makes no difference; Nanci Griffith is able to reach out and tell us about ourselves through song. Thematically, Griffith takes on the broad sweep of land and life, especially trials of the common person trying to negotiate the lonely distances of modern times. There are accounts of working in orchards and on street corners, of dusty towns, drive-in movies and dashboard lights. She writes of rivers and lakes and fields of bluebonnets, geographical metaphors for sensing our place; there are also railroads and highways, and always the alternative of moving on. She accusingly points to racism, violence, and the inexcusable folly of warfare as pernicious tragedies we can ill afford. An avid reader, Nanci credits writers such as Larry McMurtry, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty as major inspirations. Her own stories put to song are situated squarely within the great literary tradition of the South, where the people, the lives they lead, and the land they live on are all worthy of notice. But there is something sad and melancholy about this artist's persona, reflecting bittersweet memories of lost loves and roads not taken. There have been some hard times, perhaps even a few regrets. In this, there is more than a hint of autobiography, thereby lending authenticity to its emotional impact. Her characters often live alone, their broken or half-baked dreams seeing them through one day at a time. Yet there is always hope, the yearning for fulfillment and intimacy never quite extinguished. Such an undeniably romantic vision is usually sustained at great cost. Deep down inside Nanci knows that love is a choice we make—though she can never bring herself to venture a decision.
Fortunately her fans do not face the same dilemma. In one of those paradoxes of popular culture, it seems the more things become homogenized and mass-produced, the more we yearn for interaction with a genuine and distinct expression of artistry. Well loved by a devoted group of admirers, Nanci Griffith has one of the more active news groups on the Internet. Members of "NanciNet" discuss everything from favorite albums and musical influences to the social and political commentary inherent in Griffith's songs. Numerous web pages exist that pay tribute to her artistic achievements. For this reclusive, self-avowed folk singer, such grass roots activism by the people must be gratifying indeed.
Griffith, Nanci, and Joe Jackson. Nanci Griffith's Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music. New York, Three Rivers Press, 1998.
Vaughan, Andrew. Who's Who in New Country Music, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.