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Americana Music loses a Great Star

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

Nanci Griffith dead at 68

Americana music has lost arguably the greatest interpreter of its songs with the death of Nanci Griffith at the age of 68.

It is believed that her death occurred on August 6, but the formal announcement was made by her management company Golden Mountain Entertainment seven days later. There was no cause of death stated.

“It was Nanci’s wish that no further formal statement or press release happen for a week following her passing,” Gold Mountain Entertainment said in a statement.

Texas-born Griffith is best-known for writing such folk Classics as “Love at the Five and Dime,” “Lone Star State of Mind” and “Trouble in the Fields.” She was also the first artist to record “From a Distance,” which would later become a hit for Bette Midler.

But her greatest achievement was her 1993 covers collection Other Voices, Other Rooms, named after the Truman Capote novel and Griffith is pictured on the cover grasping the Capote book.

The album features Griffith singing some of the finest folk songs ever written and she is joined by some of the biggest names in Americana music, including Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie and Guy Clark. Bob Dylan even makes an appearance, playing harmonica on a simply stunning version of his “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

Other Voices won a 1994 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, beating out a Dylan album which had also been short-listed. Griffith produced a sequel Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful) four years later.

Legendary producer Jim Rooney worked with Griffith on both albums. She said she wanted to bring together in an album the voices, words and melodies “which had entered her soul” as a young girl growing up in Texas. Besides the Dylan song, there were wonderful renditions of such favourites as Gordon Lightfoot’s “Ten Degrees and Getting Colder,” Townes Van Zandt's “Tecumseh Valley” and Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide.”

But her own work was also interpreted by others with great success.

Kathy Mattea had her first number one with “Love at the Five and Dime,” an enchanting song about young love spawned behind the Woolworth counters – Rita was sixteen years/Hazel eyes and chestnut hair/She made the Woolworth counter shine/Eddie was a sweet romancer/And a darn good dancer/And they waltzed the aisles of the five and dime

And there are many versions of her endearing “Gulf Coast Highway,” the most remembered by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. Again she writes about the ordinary: Gulf coast highway, he worked the rails/He worked the rice field, with their cold, dark wells/He worked the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico/The only thing he ever owned is this old house here by the road

Suzy Bogguss was another artist to find success with the Griffith/Tom Russell song “Outbound Plane.” And she was one of the first to pay tribute to the singer-songwriter. Bogguss wrote on Facebook: “A beautiful soul that I love has left this earth. 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.”

Griffith was known for her distinctive high-pitched – almost baby – voice and she never lost her twangy Texas accent.

Like many Folk/Alt Country singers, her work was often somewhat political. “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” begins in the backstreets of Belfast with a taxi driver lamenting on the political “troubles:” There’s barbed wire at the end of these exits/And there ain’t no place in Belfast for that kid to go. The next verse then moves to Chicago where: a fat man in front of me/Is calling black people trash to his children

“Trouble in the Fields,” off her 1987 album Lone Star State of Mind , deals with the economic impact the eighties decade had on rural America: Baby I know we’ve got trouble in the fields/When the bankers swarm like locust out there turning away our yield

“I wrote it because my family were farmers in West Texas during the Great Depression,” Griffith told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “It was written basically as a show of support for my generation of farmers.”

Griffith found fame worldwide. She was popular in Europe, and Ireland in particular.

“Ireland was the first place I had mass commercial success, and it spread to England and Europe. It’s the only overnight success I’ve had in a 20-year career,” Griffith said in the L.A. Times interview. “I get to be a songwriter and a cult artist here in the United States, and I get to be a celebrity there. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Griffith recorded a total of 18 studio albums, the first being There’s a Light Beyond These Woods in 1978, and the last Intersection in 2012. Her most productive period was between 1984 and 1991 when she released six albums, including Once in a Very Blue Mood (1984), The Last of the True Believers (1986), Lone Star State of Mind (1987), and Late Night Grand Hotel (1991).

Then, in 1993, came the very best Other Voices, Other Rooms.

In 2008, Griffith won the Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association. Last month, she was among the latest group inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame.


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