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



Nanci Griffith, a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter who kept one foot in folk and the other in country and was blessed with a soaring voice equally at home in both genres, died on Friday. She was 68.

Her death was announced by her management company, Gold Mountain Entertainment. Its statement did not say where she died or give a cause of death, saying only, “It was Nanci’s wish that no further formal statement or press release happen for a week following her passing.”

While Ms. Griffith often wrote political and confessional material, her best-loved songs were closely observed tales of small-town life, sometimes with painful details in the lyrics, but typically sung with a deceptive 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 old age, when “Eddie traveled with the barroom bands / till arthritis took his hands / Now he sells insurance on the side. ”

The song was a country hit in 1986 – but for Kathy Mattea, not for Ms. Griffith. Similarly, while Ms. Griffith was the first person to record “From a Distance,” written by Julie Gold, the song was later a smash hit for Bette Midler.

Ms. Griffith sometimes affected a folkie casualness toward mainstream success. She told Rolling Stone in 1993 that she didn’t mind that Ms. Mattea had the hit version of “Love at the Five and Dime”: “It feels great that Kathy has to sing that for the rest of her life and I don ‘ t. ”

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 agent and amateur actress. “I come from a basically really dysfunctional family,” she told Texas Monthly in 1999. “I had very, very irresponsible parents.”

When she was a child, her family moved to Austin; her parents divorced in 1960.

By the time she was 12, Ms. Griffith was writing songs and playing in Austin clubs. A formative experience came when, as a teenager, she saw a performance by the melancholy Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt; she particularly identified with his song “Tecumseh Valley,” about a doomed young woman named Caroline, and it became a staple of her songbook.

She told The New York Times in 1988: “When I was young I listened to Odetta records for hours and hours. Then when I started high school, Loretta Lynn came along. Before that, country music hadn’t had a guitar-playing woman who wrote her own songs. ”

After attending the University of Texas, Ms. Griffith stayed in Austin. She worked as a kindergarten teacher while she pursued music, performing alongside the likes of Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. She put aside finger paints when she won a songwriting award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas; she released her first album, “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” in 1978. It was the first of four folk albums she would make for tiny labels in an eight-year span, during which she also toured constantly.

In 1985, she moved to Nashville, where she was rewarded with a major-label contract. Writing in The New York Times in 1987, Stephen Holden hailed her signing with MCA Nashville as a positive harbinger for the country-music industry, calling her “among the most gifted writers to carry forward a Southern country variant of the confessional singer-songwriter mode that dominated Los Angeles rock in the early and mid-1970s. ”

She assembled a band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, which would stay together for over a decade, and beefed up her finely wrought songs with country-pop muscle, a blend she called “folkabilly.”

Her record label, however, was befuddled by her. She told Rolling Stone in 1993 that “the radio person at MCA Nashville told me that I would never be on radio because my voice hurt people’s ears.” After two albums aimed at the country market were met by positive reviews but middling sales, she made two albums that tried to reach pop fans, an effort that was successful in Ireland but not in the United States. Her breakthrough came when she shifted labels, to Elektra, and returned to her folk roots.

Her 1993 album, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (named after Truman Capote’s debut novel), comprised 17 versions of songs by her folk forebears, including Malvina Reynolds and Woody Guthrie. Hailed by critics as a homey delight, it won the 1994 Grammy Award for best contemporary folk album and was certified gold for sales of more than 500,000 copies.

Ms. Griffith followed it up in 1998 with the album “Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful),” accompanied by a book, “Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices: A Personal History of Folk Music,” but it was less successful.

Ms. Griffith was a living link not just to earlier songwriters, but also to the music of Ireland (she played with the Chieftains) and Texas (she toured with the surviving members of Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets).

She kept playing through two bouts of cancer and a painful case of Dupuytren’s contracture, an abnormal thickening of the skin on the hand, which severely limited the mobility of her fingers.

In 2008, the Americana Music Association gave her a Lifetime Americana Trailblazer Award. In 2012, the year she released her 18th and final studio album, “Intersection,” she explained her motivations to The New York Times: “I am putting to music and words things that have angered me and hurt me. All of a sudden they were there and ready to come out. ”

Ms. Griffith was married to the Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor from 1976 to 1982. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

In 1993, at age 39, when she had not yet won a Grammy and her commercial prospects were uncertain, Ms. Griffith told Rolling Stone what motivated her:

“Longevity – I guess that’s the brass ring for me. I still want to hear my music coming back to me when I’m 65. ”

Jordan Allen contributed reporting.



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