Nanci Griffith, Singer Who Blended Folk and Country, Dies at 68

Nanci Caroline Griffith was born on July 6, 1953, in Seguin, Texas, about 35 miles northeast of San Antonio, to Marlin Griffith, a book publisher and singer in barbershop quartets, and Ruelen Strawser, a real estate representative and amateur starlet. Prior to that, country music had not had a guitar-playing female who wrote her own songs. Griffith, a Grammy-winning vocalist and songwriter who kept one foot in folk and the other in country, was blessed with a skyrocketing voice equally in both genres, died on Friday.

Griffith was 68. Her death was announced by her management business, Gold Mountain Entertainment. Its statement did not state where she passed away or provide a cause of death. It was her wish that no more formal statement or press release take place for a week following her passing.

While Griffith often composed political and confessional material, her best-loved tunes were closely observed tales of small-town life, often with uncomfortable details in the lyrics, but normally sung with a misleading prettiness. Her song Love at the Five and Dime, for example, tracks a couple’s romance from its teenage origins when “Rita was 16 years/Hazel eyes and chestnut hair/She made the Woolworth counter shine” through aging, when “Eddie traveled with the barroom bands/till arthritis took his hands/Now he offers insurance on the side”. The song was a country hit in 1986 for Kathy Mattea, but not for her.

While Griffith was the first person to tape From a Distance, composed by Julie Gold, the song was later on a smash hit for Bette Midler.

Griffith kept playing through two bouts of cancer and an unpleasant case of Dupuytren’s contracture, an unusual thickening of the skin on the hand, which significantly restricted the movement of her fingers. In 2008, the Americana Music Association gave her a Lifetime American Trailblazer Award. In 2012, the year she released her 18th and last studio album, Intersection, she discussed her motivations.

Griffith was putting to music and words things that had actually outraged and harmed her. All of a sudden they were there and ready to come out. She was married to the Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor from 1976 to 1982.

In 1993, at age 39, when Griffith had not yet won a Grammy and her industrial prospects were uncertain, what encouraged Griffith was “longevity”, she still wanted to hear her music coming back to her when she is 65. She was a living link not simply to earlier songwriters, but likewise to the music of Ireland and Texas. In 1985, she moved to Nashville, where she was rewarded with a major-label agreement.

The New York Times in 1987 hailed Griffith as a positive harbinger for the country-music industry, calling her “amongst the most talented authors to carry forward a Southern country variant of the confessional singer-songwriter mode that dominated Los Angeles rock in the early and mid-1970s”.

Griffith put together a band which would stay together for over a year, and boosted her finely wrought tunes with country-pop muscle, a mix she called “folkabilly”. Her record label, however, was bewildered by her. After 2 albums targeted at the country market were satisfied by positive evaluations however middling sales, she made 2 albums that attempted to reach pop fans, an effort that was successful in Ireland however not in the United States.

Griffith’s advancement came when she moved labels, to Elektra, and returned to her folk roots. Her 1993 album, Other Voices, Other Rooms, comprised 17 versions of songs by her folk forefathers, consisting of Malvina Reynolds and Woody Guthrie. Hailed by critics, it won the 1994 Grammy Award for finest modern folk album and was licensed gold for sales of more than 500,000 copies.

Griffith followed it up in 1998 with the album Other Voices, Too, accompanied by a book, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music, however it was less effective. She often affected a folkie casualness toward mainstream success. She did not mind that Mattea had actually the hit variation of Love at the Five and Dime.

Griffith’s parents separated in 1960 when she was a kid.

By the time Griffith was 12, she was playing and composing tunes in Austin clubs. A formative experience came when, as a teen, she saw an efficiency by the melancholy Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt. She especially identified with his tune Tecumseh Valley, about a doomed young woman named Caroline, and it became a staple of her songbook.

When Griffith was young she listened to Odetta records for hours and hours. Then when she began high school, Loretta Lynn occurred. After going to the University of Texas, she stayed in Austin. She put aside finger paints when she won a songwriting award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas.

Griffith launched her very first album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, in 1978. It was the first of four folk albums she would make for small labels in an eight-year period, throughout which she likewise explored continuously.

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