Many stars and big names in Nashville have wasted little time accessing social media to pay tribute to Nanci Griffith, one of Americana music’s finest singer-songwriters. Her death was announced on August 13.
Griffith was not only a beautiful singer and insightful songwriter, she was also one of the greatest interpreters of other’s music. Her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms won a Grammy and is regarded as perhaps the finest covers collection in the musical genre.
So there are many in the world of folk/country music who owe her a huge debt.
None more so than country star Kathy Mattea whose third release - in 1986 Walk the Way the Wind Blows - was regarded as her breakthrough album, largely due to her cover of Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime,” which reached #3 on the country music singles charts.
She said Nanci changed her life.
“I think ‘Love at the Five and Dime’ was not one of her favourite songs. But for me it’s been a treasure, so simple, the story of a lifetime of these two people told in three minutes, like some kind of epic movie.”
She added: “There have been times I’ve been on stage singing it and suddenly some line jumps out at me like it’s the first time I’ve ever heard it and I think how did she do that? ‘… sporting Miss Rita by his back side …’ Who writes that? There was a rhythmic thing to her lyrics and her songs are just fun to sing, brilliant, quirky and compelling, insightful and so very musical.”
To provide full context to Mattea’s thoughts, this is the full verse from “Love at the Five and Dime” - one of the most quirky in any folk ballad:
One of the boys in Eddie’s band
Took a shine to Rita’s hand
So Eddie ran off with the bass man’s wife
Oh but he was back by June
Singin’ a different tune
And sporting Miss Rita back by his side
Mattea remembered when they both attended the Grammy Awards for the first time.
“I was up for ‘Love at the Five and Dime.’ She was up for her album Last of the True Believers which included her version of the ‘Love at the Five and Dime.’ We met in the lobby of the hotel in LA and celebrated before going to the show. And I don’t think I saw her again. We were sitting in different parts of the auditorium. But it was a lovely moment to share to know that we were both at our first Grammys."
She added: “And that same song had something to do with it for both of us. I feel I waited my whole life for ‘Love at the Five and Dime’ and when it came, it was almost like a miracle.”
In her later years of touring, there were no artists closer to Griffith than Pete and Maura Kennedy, who perform as The Kennedys. After months on the road with her in 2011, the pair relocated their recording studio from Manhattan to Nanci’s home in Nashville. They then co-produced her 2012 - and last - album Intersection.
On hearing the news, The Kennedy’s immediately substituted a gig set for Sunday August 15 with a special YouTube tribute event on the same day.
Pete Kennedy soon posted on Facebook: “The name Nanci Griffith is synonymous with Texas, not the Texas of the oilmen with their mansions on the hill and long-black limousines. Nanci’s voice - sometimes dry like the tumbleweed, sometimes rich and full like the Colorado River after a spring rain - was the voice of the working people, the oil riggers down the Gulf of Mexico and the red-dirt farmers out west. She sang about their struggles, their heart-ache, their sun-drenched days and their dark nights on the soul.”
Another singer-songwriter synonymous with Texas is Rodney Crowell who was among the group of alt country artists from the Lone Star State – Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle et al – who descended on Nashville in the late 1970’s. He is now one of the city’s elder musical statesman and wasted little time posting his thoughts about Griffith.
“Although she’d been out of the spotlight for a while, losing Nanci Griffith leaves a gaping hole in an art form that has long stood by the notion that a thoughtful audience sows the seeds of change. This was how she explained to me the responsibility that came from being a folk singer.”
Crowell added: “Nanci was an unflinching opponent of social injustice and a purveyor of hope and man could she ever sing and play a guitar. Sadly I’ll remember her fondly.”
Last year, Nashville lost another great when John Prine died from the affects of the COVID virus. His links to Nanci became firmly established in the early 1990’s when they toured as a duet after her version of Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” became one of the most popular tracks on Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Nanci was indeed one of Prine’s first duet partners, though she was one of the big names not included in his 1999 release “In Spite of Ourselves” which featured duets with established folk/alt-country female vocalists.
“It is never a secret that John loved to sing with women. He marvelled how the best and beautiful voices in music agreed to sing with him and especially at how good they made him sound,” Prine’s widow Fiona Whelan Prine posted on her Facebook page.
“This is a sad day for our music community in Nashville, she added.
“It gives me comfort to know that John had reached out to Nanci in January 2020. He missed her. He tried to persuade her that there were young women who needed her experiences, friendship, humour and the gift of her singular craft. She was amazed to hear him say those things and she said she’d think about it. They spoke one more time before John passed in April.”
Fiona concluded fondly: “Rest in peace and music sweet Nanci. And if you see that old duet partner please hug him from all of us.”
Among all the heartfelt tributes, perhaps the most compelling came from popular singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier.
She recalled her early days in Nashville when she struggled to find gigs and in particular one night when she attended a concert featuring Nanci and some of Americana’s big names like Guy Clark. Nanci, who had seen Gauthier perform, spotted her in the crowd and invited her onstage, handing out her guitar as she did so!
She posted on Facebook: “When I was done, I handed Nanci her guitar back. She shook her head and said: ‘Keep it.’ I froze, holding her engraved signature Sunburst Taylor 612 cutaway guitar in mid-air, question marks in both of my eyes. ‘It’s yours,’ she said. ‘When I moved to Nashville, Harlan Howard gave me his guitar. I’m giving you mine.’ I was speechless but somehow found the courage to say: ‘Will you sign it?’ She signed: For Mary because YOU WILL sing.”
Gauthier later discovered it was a Nashville tradition to pass down a guitar.
“It is an attempt to stay on the good side of the muse and the mystery. Some songwriters believe it is one way to keep songs flowing . Harlan gave Nanci one of his guitars because he felt there were no more songs left in it for him but there might be some in there for her,” she added. “Nanci had done the same for me. Welcome to Nashville kid.”
Gauthier concluded: “RIP Nanci and thank you. Your guitar is in my hands right now. I will play it, remember your kindness, your music and the influences you had in my life. And I cry.”
Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation