APPALACHIAN CHORDS, a voice wide open to the Great Plains, a ringing blond guitar stuffed with Kerouac-ian love songs about leaving here to go there, leaving there to go here, mainly just leaving, hugging the by-God road with the radio turned up, headed toward the end of the 20th century or back to the heart of Texas, whichever might come first. This, you could say, is the acoustic flight pattern of Nanci Griffith, whose stubborn artfulness in the troubadour life has carried her above the prevailing winds of America’s playlists and hit parades for 15 years to a place unmapped by country radio but known to more and more smitten listeners picking her up on radar and CD.
Hearing her voice for the first time, a few years ago coming out of a cassette player in someone’s kitchen in Los Angeles, I heard the sound of home. It wasn’t just the Texas in her tone, it was the richness, too, a deep, waking dream of Texas coming off the speakers like the essence of fresh-plowed earth after a thunderstorm.
Her songs weren’t aimed at the comfort zone of rural nostalgia; here was a genuine feeling for the land, combined with a big-city sensibility educated in the compulsive, heart-twanging migrations of her generation in America.
There was so much character in her voice – on the high end trilling like a bird, then swooping down into heartfelt growls on the bottom – that whatever seams were showing didn’t matter. Her songs had been recorded ably by Emmylou Harris, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, and others but hearing Griffith herself sing them was to suddenly get the whole picture. A place of wise women still possessed of wonder under big prairie skies. The world of Larry McMurtry before Hollywood got there.
You could say that since 1978, Nanci Griffith has steadily built one of the most admirable and unclassifiable careers in the latter-day singer-songwriter trade. The line separating folk from country is often hard to see or hear, but even in the new Nashville it has something to do with politics and style, and Griffith, waving her sometimes girlish, sometimes boot-kicking contralto, is walking right down the middle of it.
She has stuck with dangerously literary ballads and her own vocal whimsy when torch songs and big hair would have been more commercial choices. Many of her songs examine the familiar chest pains of love gone wrong, cold, or impossible, but she’s also written sharply drawn melodic short stories, about her prairie ancestors (“Trouble in the Fields”), children beset by the violence of the world (“It’s a Hard Life”), the streetwalker’s lot (‘Workin’ Girl”), and the homeless (“Down ‘n’ Outer”).
Last year, as if determined to prove that folk music is an affection, not an affliction, she recorded an album of 17 songs by other writers (including Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Kate Wolf, Malvina Reynolds, and Bob Dylan) that harked back to the folk revival of the ’60s and framed her own musical coming-of-age in Austin. She named the collection Other Voices, Other Rooms, in homage to Truman Capote’s first novel. Somehow, Other Voices, her tenth album and the first for her new label, Elektra, became her biggest seller, closing in on gold record status (500,000 units) at the end of the year and challenging the conventional wisdom that acoustic music and popular music are not to be thought of as the same thing.
“‘Nanci Griffith changed my life,” says Tony Brown, former Elvis sideman, president of MCA Records-Nashville, and producer of three of Griffith’s earlier albums as well as top-selling titles for Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Reba McEntire, and Wynonna Judd. “To me, she was the consummate folk artist. ‘When I look back on my career years from now, she was a turning point. I know people who can’t stand her voice, and I know people who have to play it every morning to get their Nanci Griffith fix.”
And then there’s the Griffith fix you get in concert. Bubbling over like a pitcher of carbonated mint juleps, romancing her audience with soliloquies of joy, melancholy, and humor, she could be a heroine in a Beth Henley tragicomedy. Onstage she favors a sort of southern Annie Hall look, with long skirts or slacks, high-necked blouses, and oversize designer jackets. She used to wear a custom-made rhinestone brooch in the shape of Texas, though it’s been missing since the day she put it in her back pocket, then sat on it. In the summer of 1988, touring with John Prine, she would leave the stage after her set with the cheerful admonition “Y’all be sure and vote in November, and remember, George Bush isn’t really from Texas!”
Two years later, she campaigned in Texas for Ann Richards, at that time the Democratic candidate for governor, and last spring, when Griffith returned home to play Austin, Governor Richards took the stage at the Paramount Theater to introduce her.
Divorced from Houston songwriter Eric Taylor since 1982, Griffith has been based in Nashville for almost ten years, many of them spent camping in endless hotel rooms on tour. She has given the past year and a half to Other Voices, “bringing this music back to the open ear,” in her words. She has traveled America and Europe with an entourage at times 22 strong, often joined by some of the songwriters and singers she was saluting – Tom Paxton, Odetta, Janis Ian, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, and Carolyn Hester. The show played mostly in 1,000- to 1,500-seat theaters, and touched down at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Royal Albert Hall in London.
During a two-week hiatus in this itinerary, she was back in Nashville on a steamy hot July morning. She makes her home now outside the city, in Franklin, a picturesque Civil War era town where a number of country’s younger stars like Vince Gill and Alan Jackson also live, but I found her on Music Row inside the cozy, brick–and-clapboard house that also serves as the management office for Lyle Lovett and Los Lobos. She was there to check her mail, even though, menaced by a stalker a few years ago, she has stopped answering most of her mail.
“It’s sad that it’s become dangerous to respond to anything. For me that’s one of the reasons that I talk so much onstage, and my audience talk back because that’s the only time we’re going to get to do that.”
The woman John Stewart once called the Greta Garbo of folk music is wearing casual beige slacks, ballet slippers, a white linen blouse and invisible makeup, her hair hanging straight to the shoulder. She has a reputation for not having the warmest of personalities offstage. “I love hearing from my fans, but I’m nor the type that goes out and stands by the autograph table,” she acknowledges.
When she’s off the road, she sees a lot of Harlan Howard, legendary 66-year-old Nashville paterfamilias and author of countless number one country hits (most recently “Blame It on Your Heart” for Patty Loveless). “I come into town during the day and spend a lot of time with Harlan, ’cause he’s a day person, like me,” she says.
“I’m a fan of songwriters,” says Howard, by way of explaining how he sought out Griffith after she moved to Nashville. “She impressed me kind of like Gordon Lightfoot did twenty years ago, or the young Paul Simon. In the same way, she had her own ID.”
She and Howard frequently book lunch at a hamburger joint or cafe, sometimes joined by Emmylou Harris, whom she describes as “a dear, sweet friend, but it’s taken a long time for us to get to know one another because we’re never in the same place. And I don’t think either one of us is particularly an easy person to get to know socially.”
AT 39, NANCI GRIFFITH is tall and reedlike, with wide, wet brown eyes dominating a face with the pallor and texture of fine-combed cotton. On the mantel behind her, as she sits in an overstuffed chair, is a photograph of Bob Dylan, whose whispery harmonica can be heard on Other Voices accompanying Griffith on her version of his early ballad “Boots of Spanish Leather.” When Columbia Records staged its 30th anniversary tribute to Dylan at Madison Square Garden in October 1992, Dylan was asked if there were any performers he wanted to add to the list the label had already assembled (Eric Clapton, Neil Young, George Harrison, Chrissie Hynde … ). Dylan said yes, there were a few others – and had Griffith put on the bill.
“Every album has been different, every one has had a different sound,” she says, talking about a career that has flourished just beyond the pale of the latest country boom, out there beyond the hit markers posted by such talented mavericks as Mary-Chapin Carpenter and k. d. lang. “By being an artist who is not mainstream, I’ve been allowed the creative freedom to go my own way and explore anything I wanted to do musically. I would hate to be a young artist today starting our and just trying to identify themselves and maintain their original passions and also have to deal with that phenomenon of ‘How are we going to market this person? What are they going to wear? What are we going to do with their hair? By the time I came to a major label, I already had a certain sound, and no one ever tampered with me.”
It’s a sound that refuses to choose between folk and country.
“Nanci is making me face the schism between folk and country in my own singing,” says Carolyn Hester, the Texas-born folk star from the `60s whom Griffith often cites as her first inspiration. “She’s right there where country and folk come together.”
“I always thought that folk music and country music belonged together,” Griffith says. “The Carter Family, that was folk music, that was hillbilly music, that was country music. I call it folkabilly.”
Whatever it’s called, in big-time-small-mind country radio, which commands some 2,000 stations coast to coast, it’s pretty much forbidden. Singers Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss managed to have radio hits with Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Outbound Plane” while her original versions went begging.
“I think that radio and I are kind of allergic to one another” is the
way Griffith puts it, not counting public radio, college radio, and “alternative” radio, where smaller audiences have been listening to her for years. And not counting lreland, where her recording of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” became a number one hit in 1986, five years before Bette Midler’s cover climbed the U.S. charts during the Gulf War. MCA never released Griffith’s version as a single in America.
“When I first signed with MCA,” she remembers, “Lone Star State Mind” came out, and country radio said, ‘We can’t play her, she’s a folk artist. We don’t play folk on country radio. It made sense to me.” There is a light flavoring of sarcasm in her voice now. “They don’t play Loretta Lynn anymore on country radio either. As far as I’m concerned, Loretta Lynn is one of the greatest folk songwriters ever. She’s also one of the greatest country artists who ever lived. She happened to be on country radio, but what she did was folk because she captured the times that she lived in with ‘Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’’ and ‘The Pill’ and ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter.’ She captured the time and set free an entire country of rural women. She set them free – literally. She said, ‘You can do this.’
“I’m not really a country performer. It would be an insult to real
pure country music for me to ever claim to be a country artist. I listen to U2 more than George Jones. That’s just where I come from, a folk and pop background, though certainly Harlan Howard is my greatest idol,” she says. “I want to grow up to be Harlan Howard some day, still writing hits for people when I’m sixty-five.
Country music is a passion, but it’s not where Nanci Griffith started. “My dad was the folk fanatic in my family. He loved Woody Guthrie music. He loved all kinds of folk music, but he was open-eared to country music. He loved Patsy Cline and Lefty Frizzell and Buck Owens.”
Her father, who would later sing harmony on her second album and join her onstage at Carnegie Hall, was a magazine and textbook publisher and her mother an amateur actress who taught piano. Griffith describes them fondly as “beat-generation people”; they divorced when she was six. “My dad’s influence on me has been so marked, especially with harmony singing, because he was in a barbershop quartet. His family was Welsh, and those people just sitting around the dinner table were almost singing. My mother, who was into jazz, gave me a love of Count Basic, Sinatra, and Dave Brubeck, and also a love of literature, which both my grandmothers had as well. All of my grandparents graduated from college. It’s like they were the high point of our family and now it’s gone downhill from there.”
She claims she barely made it through the University of Texas. “I was a terrible student. I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t care. I didn’t like college. I never liked school.”
FROM THE AGE of 14 she was singing around Austin, playing solo and performing in rock and country-rock bands on through college. “I was fortunate in that I was a good rhythm guitar player. There were lots of backup vocalists, but there weren’t many women who could also be the rhythm guitar player.”
After U.T. she taught elementary school in Austin for two years. But she never put away her guitar, and she played the same small clubs in Austin and Houston that in the late ’70s were home to Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely. In 1978 she made her first album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, for a regional label in Texas. The title track, which remains a signature song for her in Texas, is about a lifelong bond between two childhood best friends.
Jim Ritchey, a songwriter and club owner in Dallas then, remembers her as “very delicate.” Ritchey says, “I never thought she would survive the bar scene. One of the things that she did that was smart was she got out of the bars as soon as she could.”
Pledging her future to the fragile network of folk halls and listening clubs, Griffith took to the road in a big way, often driving long distances alone between gigs in her Toyota station wagon. Her marriage to Taylor ended after seven years, and it’s no mistake that her publishing company is named Wing and Wheel Music, no mistake that she’s authored such lyrics as “Living alone is all I’ve ever done well” and “The only friend that holds me is the cradle of the interstate at night.”
“I never felt I could give the love and attention and support to a child,” she says, “and I was too busy for relationships. Once I was divorced twelve years ago, the only thing I committed to was music. Anything else was going to be second. And children and husbands can’t be second. They’ve got to be first.”
“I think people like her have to jump on the bus and go every once in a while,” Howard observes. “I think puttin’ on a show is like – I wouldn’t call it sexual, but it’s very gratifying. But I think people like her need that – aside from her creativity.”
After she moved to Nashville, she made two albums on Philo/Rounder with Jim Rooney, former manager of Boston’s historic Club 47 who had a reputation for making the most of acoustic music in the studio. He also knew the Nashville scene and introduced her to Patrick Alger, whose “Lone Star State of Mind” and “Once in a Very Blue Moon” became the title songs of two of her best albums.
She signed with a major label, making three albums for Tony Brown at MCA, maintaining the folk sound of well-plucked hollow-body guitars, Dobros, and mandolins, while adding drums and pedal steel in places and letting rip with the harder, honky-tonk vocals of “Love Wore a Halo Before the War” and “Ford Econoline,” an aggressive, working-class feminist escape drama.
But the hard-country cuts still did not get her on the radio. The closest she came was “I Knew Love” from Little Love Affairs, which tickled the bottom of the country charts before disappearing in 1988. Maybe the problem was that you could hear not only the feeling for the land in her songs but also the sound of the reading and the writing. As if to make the point, she was often pictured on her album jackets holding a book. It turns out she was also writing one, a novel she says is about five generations in a Texas family. “I carried my typewriter on the road with me while I was playing music, worked on it every day for four years. There have been several publishing companies interested, but any editor I talked to has wanted to change it. And I like it just the way it is.”
She gives a look that says, “‘I know how these things work and I don’t really care.” Even through her smile, it’s the kind of look that you assume has associated Griffith with a touch of the ornery. Some believe such resolute independence, while it may not have speeded her toward mainstream success, helped make way for the acceptance of other, younger nontraditional women in Nashville.
“Mary-Chapin Carpenter is a direct result of what Nanci paved the way for,” says Tony Brown, who still has an orange-and-yellow Nanci Griffith concert poster hanging prominently in his MCA office. “No question that she’s had an effect on this town.”
“I just never thought that the marketing department at MCA was totally sold on Nanci,” Jim Rooney says. “Tony was, but they weren’t. They had a song, they had ‘From a Distance.’ They had a big song there, and it went right by them. They didn’t get it.”
Nevertheless, that song’s soaring popularity in Ireland forged a lasting connection between Griffith and the Emerald Isle. (She has no Irish blood; her mother’s family came from Scotland.) She started spending a few months a year in Dublin, appeared with the Chieftains at the Belfast Opera House and wrote a declaration-of-love song, “I Would Bring You Ireland,” that’s on her live One Fair Summer Evening album.
“It’s been the only place where I had an overnight success – number one album, number one single, sellout concerts – and radio for the first time in my life. It came about because of a lot of people’s support – Mary Black and Maura O’Connell, these incredibly talented Irish singers, had done my songs, and U2 would speak of me in interviews as being one of their favorite American writers. So everything just happened all at once.”
It’s tempting to assemble Griffith’s songs – even the ones she hasn’t written but made her own, like “Lone Star State of Mind” and “I Knew Love” like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle revealing the picture of her life. But her songs, she makes clear, are not all autobiographical.
“I borrow things,” she says. “Harlan Howard likes to really live life, and when he writes, he needs that environment of sitting in a bar and watching life take place, and has been married several times and that sort of thing. He’s said, ‘Oh, that guy over there is just one marriage away from being a great songwriter.’ But me, I’ve only been married once. I’m a great borrower from other people’s lives.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really written the truth,” she says of her music. “There are only one or two songs that I can think of that are just exactly like something that happened to me.”
And those are?
“I’ll never tell!”
“The thing is,” says Howard, “she has been married, she’s been in love, she’s been out of love, she’s left guys and had guys leave her just all the things that can happen to you.”
“Songwriting is the most important thing for me,” Griffith says. “In ten years I don’t want to be touring. I just want to be writing songs. I would like to just have a life, because the road has been my life. And now I’d like something a little more fixed.”
Her last two albums for MCA, Storms and Late Night Grande Hotel, were excursions further away from country into more heavily orchestrated pop. Former Eagles producer Glyn Johns supervised Storms in Los Angeles and Rod Argent, of the `60s English band The Zombies, produced Late Night Grande Hotel with Peter Van-Hooke in London.
Although both have interesting cuts on them, these two collections seem to have puzzled many of her longtime fans. She once told a reporter in England that during the Storms sessions she “wanted to go back to the hotel and cry,” but evidently she has put such thoughts out of her head by now. Asked to sift among her albums for favorites and less favorites, she demurred. “They kind of rotate in my life,” she says. “And with every tour it seems like in choosing the older material that I want to put into the set for a live show, it changes. It’s subconscious with me. Songs come back into favor as they become relevant in my life again. Or you get tired of something and leave it home for a while. You go in the closet and say, “I like that one’ or `I’ll take this’, you know? So it changes, and I still don’t have a favorite record. Every producer and co-producer I’ve worked with, each one has taught me something, and each one gave so much to me and my music. I would do every one of them over again. There is not an experience I would not repeat.”
In the last year she has fallen in love again, with someone in the music business she would prefer not to name. “I’ve met someone that I really feel devoted to, and it’s the first time that’s happened since my early twenties, when I got married. I used to think that you had to be on the road if you wanted to learn anything. Now I realize you can sit at home on your couch and learn. There’s so much to be learned just from another human being.”
Griffith thinks of Nashville as the place where she’s spending the middle part of her life. “I love Tennessee,” she says, “but for me home will always be either Texas or Ireland.
“It’s interesting. During the tour when we were in England, I would play [Ralph McTell’s] ‘From Clare to Here’ back-to-back with ‘Gulf Coast Highway,’ because I get homesick for Ireland sometimes now that it’s a second home to me. But I also get very homesick for Texas. You’re born a Texan, you’re a Texan your whole life through. And I would sing those songs and they would help me overcome my homesickness. For those four minutes of each song, I could be there.”