The death of Nanci Griffith on August 13, 2021, at the all too young age of 68, robbed the world of a lively wit, a canny observer of life, and a brilliant songwriter-performer. In 2023, Griffith’s formidable songbook was honored with both a multi-artist tribute album, More Than a Whisper: Celebrating The Music of Nanci Griffith, and the boxed set Working In Corners, which gathers together her out-of-print early albums.
Her passing was eloquently, and emotionally, observed by her longtime friend Suzy Bogguss, who had a Top 10 country hit in 1992 with “Outbound Plane,” written by Griffith with Tom Russell. “My heart is aching😔A beautiful soul that I love has left this earth,” wrote Bogguss on Instagram.
“I feel blessed to have many memories of our times together along with most everything she ever recorded. I’m going to spend the day reveling in the articulate masterful legacy she’s left us🌺Rest my dear friend Nanci Griffith💖.”
Many other fellow artists, including Rosanne Cash, Ron Sexsmith, Kelly Willis, and Chris Smither paid tribute to Griffith. Jason Isbell wrote: “Nanci Griffith wrote such beautiful songs. I didn’t know her, but I believe it must be true that she had a big beautiful heart. You can hear it.” Griffith survived two bouts of cancer in the 1990s, but had not released a new record since 2012’s Intersection, cut at home with longtime band members Pete and Maura Kennedy.
Griffith was a Texan troubadour who rose to prominence through the evocative and delicate charms of her own material. Ironically, she was best known to some for a song she didn’t write, Julie Gold’s “From A Distance,” which became a signature from her rightly revered Lone Star State Of Mind album of 1987, before it was a pop hit for Bette Midler in the US and Cliff Richard in the UK.
But by then, Griffith had written her own name firmly into the country music mainstream when Kathy Mattea took her “Love At The Five And Dime” (originally from Last Of The True Believers) into the country Top 3 in 1986. The breakthrough Lone Star State Of Mind was the fifth entry, and major label debut, in a distinguished catalog of 20 LPs spanning 34 years. Her versatility embraced pretty ballads, southern twang, and political messages of her own, and made her an equally adept interpreter.
That was especially evident on Griffith’s Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms set of 1993, and its 1998 sequel Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful). In 2006, she even turned torch singer for Ruby’s Torch, which gathered her favorite romantic covers. And this from an artist who in her early emergence was described by Rolling Stone as the “Queen of Folkabilly.”
Describing her style in her own way, she told The Guardian in 1988: “You take a whole lot of Woody Guthrie and a whole lot of Loretta Lynn and you swoosh it around and it comes out as Nanci Griffith.”
In the first of two interviews with this writer, in 2006, Griffith said of Ruby’s Torch: “I’ve touched on the whole torch song concept several times with one-offs on records, but I’ve never done a whole album of them. Plus, my stepfather was a brilliant big band player. While I was growing up he was the most popular piano bar player in Austin, Texas.”
Songs of many styles were integral to Griffith’s upbringing in Texas, well before she began performing in clubs around the Austin area at a mere 14 years of age. She attended the University of Texas and went on to teach kindergarten, committing late to a career in music at age 23. Her first release was the locally-released but much admired folk-country set There’s A Light Beyond These Woods.
After she signed to MCA, Griffith continued to cover and be covered: Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson recorded her “Gulf Coast Highway” on Harris’ 1990 album Duets. She was then afforded the special compliment of being asked by Bob Dylan to perform his “Boots Of Spanish Leather,” which she’d recorded on Other Voices, Other Rooms, at his anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992.
Speaking about the torch song collection and how quickly it was recorded, live in the studio, Griffith added: “Most of my recordings have been live anyway, because I have a short attention span. I like to go in, put my heart into it and clear out of there. Even if I am the one playing guitar, and I am the leader in the session, it’s still done the same way.”