Nanci Griffith: The Last of the True Believers has passed away
Prolific Texas-born singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith, one of the true legends of what has become known as Americana, has died. Her mixture of folk and country and the personal nature of her songs attracted a committed cult following, in spite of the fact that she never achieved mainstream stardom. Raised in Austin, she was a part of the burgeoning Texas songwriting scene along with her friends Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Lyle Lovett, who first became known as a backup singer in her band.
She released a total of 18 albums on several different labels. She was well known regionally, but made the jump to major-label status with help from another songwriter. While playing in clubs in New York she made the acquaintance of Julie Gold, a local singer/songwriter, and was struck by one of her songs, “From a Distance”, which she recorded in 1987 as part of her Lone Star State of Mind album. The song’s message of global unity began to get her widespread success, but it was covered shortly after by Bette Midler, who had a major hit with the song. Her band, named the Blue Moon Orchestra, included some of the finest players of the day: the legendary Bela Fleck, the also legendary steel player Lloyd Green, the great songwriter Pat Alger , producer and musical legend Jim Rooney, Denice Franke and Lyle Lovett on vocals, and the late Roy Huskey Jr., among others.
Her eight appearances on Austin City Limits and on the Nashville Network introduced many to her music. In 1993 she moved to Elektra Records and began work on Other Voices, Other Rooms, a tribute to songwriters that had impacted her career. She was good friends with John Prine, who recorded his song “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” with her on the album, while Bob Dylan played harmonica on her version of “Boots of Spanish Leather.” The album also included vocals by Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Guy Clark, Iris DeMent, Odetta, the Indigo Girls and John Gorka. In spite of never having any charting singles, it won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in in 1994, while producer Jim Rooney also took home a Grammy.
While she never had massive success in the US, she was a major star in Ireland and did many tours there, including playing with the Chieftains on many occasions. Her song “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” conflated poverty and racism in Belfast and in Chicago.
“…and if we poison our children with hatred, a hard life is all that they’ll know.”
Her great strength was always her songs. While she did record songs by others, her most personal songs were the ones that resonated with her fans. She could emotionally reflect on teenage dreams in the title song of her first album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, or describe a bittersweet long-term love story in “Love at the Five and Dime” from her Last of the True Believers album. In “Gulf Coast Highway” she described the lives of a blue-collar Texas couple over many years. She painted pictures of hope, heartbreak, love and loneliness that earned her a place in the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame, alongside many of her heroes.
She had many health issues and two bouts with cancer that kept her from performing in recent years. Her last album was Intersection, recorded in a home studio with her former band members Pete and Maura Kennedy. She led an enigmatic life the last few years of her life, avoiding all public appearances and statements.
Many of her close friends expressed dismay on hearing of her death. Darius Rucker, who recorded with her, called her one of his idols. Suzy Bogguss, who had a hit with “Outbound Plane”, a song from Griffith’s album Little Love Affairs, said “My heart is aching. A beautiful soul that I love has left this earth”. Nanci Griffith was 68 years old.