Nanci Griffith sings with the sweet, pure, little-girl twang of a Texas choir girl. But, like the harsh scrub brush and prickly pear that mark her home state, the stories she tells in song are often laced with thorns.
Dubbed the “Queen of Folkabilly” by Rolling Stone, Griffith’s early performing days found her teaching kindergarten by day and playing rough-and-tumble Austin clubs at night. (“I discovered there wasn’t much difference between controlling the kids and controlling the drunks,” she once remarked.) In 1977, she ditched her prim-preschool-teacher role for good. There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (BF Deal Records 1978), her poignantly gorgeous — but quickly forgotten — debut album, was the result.
She released her second album,Poet in My Window, in 1982 on the small Featherbed Records label (later re-released on the Philo/Rounder label). Though she looked for all the world like an impossibly innocent high-school virgin (or a young schoolmarm, perhaps?) on the album cover, the Griffith-penned tunes on the record bespoke an uncanny understanding of tragedy, loss and degradation.
On “Marilyn Monroe/Neon and Waltzes,” Griffith offers a requiem for the doomed icon (and a sly indictment of the culture that worshipped, then destroyed, her). “The sun will stop shinin’/Hearts will stop pounding’/The screen is so lonely tonight/The men are out prayin’/The women are sayin’/She died for the loss of her prime/She lived on DiMaggio time. … Farewell you old tinsel city/With your waltz in the mornin’/and your neon at night/I’ve bathed in your loneliness/Drank of your wine/I lived on DiMaggio time.”
“Julie Anne” chronicles the harrowing world of an aging, once-vibrant woman, doomed by alcoholism and poverty to dance in a seedy bar for tips: “The wintertime’s so sweet/Even winos have their needs/They pretend that she is younger/When they are lonely/The barroom floor’s her home/When the lights are low they’ll call for more/How it hurts to hear them say that she is only/old Julie Anne.”
Poet in My Window caught the attention of critics and music lovers alike, and placed the young singer/songwriter on the contemporary folk map.
Griffith was born in 1954 in Seguin, Texas to what she has called “West Texas liberal” parents, who chaperoned the prepubescent singer on her initial Austin, Tex. music-hall tour at the tender age of 14. Had those same parents not stifled Griffith’s budding career on another musical instrument, the music world would likely be far poorer today. “I was six years old when I learned to play the guitar, and only because I had been trying to learn to play the French horn,” she once explained. “I came home one day, and my parents had taken the horn away because they said it was too painful. I highly recommend Taylor guitars. They practically play themselves.”
Though a self-proclaimed Texas girl at heart, Griffith moved to Nashville in the late ’70s, where she joined a new breed of rebellious country/folk artists that included Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam. Now in her third decade as a performer and songwriter, the multi-Grammy Award winning Griffith has worked with just about every luminary in the contemporary folk galaxy (Bob Dylan insisted that Griffith perform at his famous anniversary concert). Touring relentlessly, she’s taken the stage from heartland honky-tonks to Carnegie Hall, from tiny folk clubs to London’s Albert Hall. She has long enjoyed superstar status in the United Kingdom and Ireland (Griffith’s interpretation of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” was a number-one hit in Ireland half a decade before Bette Midler released her hit version in the U.S.).
Along the way, Griffith has recorded 16 solo albums (most with her longtime band, The Blue Moon Orchestra) — showcasing both her original tunes and folk classics — and appeared on countless recordings by other artists.
More recent highlights of her recording career include 1993’s Other Voices/Other Rooms (Elektra) and the following year’s folk/pop masterpiece, Flyer (Elektra).
Other Voices/Other Rooms — titled after Truman Capote’s evocative work of the same name — featured Griffith’s singular interpretations of 17 folk classics, including Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley.” Enlisting a cast of backing musician’s that sound like a Who’s Who of American roots music (including the late John Hartford, Chet Atkins, Alison Krauss, Leo Kottke, John Prine, Bob Dylan and Guy Clark). The album earned Griffith that year’s Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Performance.
Flyer — on which Griffith wrote or co-wrote all but one of the songs — marked a departure for the musician. More lavishly produced than her previous works, the album also exhibited a pop sensibility that Griffith had heretofore not displayed. Featuring a duet with Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz on the percussive, uptempo “Going Back to Georgia” (which he co-wrote), along with appearances by U2’s Adam Clayton, the Indigo Girls, the Chieftains (with whom Griffith has long performed and recorded), the BoDeans, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, the album was a multilayered, scintillating mix of gorgeous love ballads and upbeat pop-rock gems. Rolling Stone raved: “More focused and personal than anything Griffith has done since Little Love Affairs, with some lyrics reading as though they had come straight from her diary, Flyer shows a singer/songwriter who has evolved from a precocious, wide-eyed folkie into a mature artist at the peak of her genre-busting musical power.”
It’s doubtful the lyrics on Flyer came straight from Griffith’s diary, though. “Even though my songs may sound very personal, to me most of them are fiction,” she has said. “It is a great way for me to be able to live a fantasy life as a writer because I get to be someone else, someplace else for three and a half minutes, just like the listener. … Being a good songwriter means paying attention and sticking your hand out the window to catch the song on the way to someone else’s house!”
Clock Without Hands (Elektra 2001) is, however, clearly more biographical — featuring two songs in tribute to Griffith’s gravely ill mother and at least three tunes directly inspired by her recently heightened political activism.
For nearly three years, Griffith has been involved with the humanitarian causes of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation — specifically, their Campaign for a Landmine Free World.
“A number of things came together from the past couple of years which has influenced the music on this album,” Griffith explained in a press statement. “In January of 2000, I went to Vietnam and Cambodia with the VVAF. … They do brilliant work at medical centers over there, putting people back together again.
“I didn’t expect to be as overwhelmed as I was,” she continued. “Along with the work we were doing, I realized that I had been given the blessing of tracing the steps of my ex-husband and dear friend, Eric Taylor [an esteemed songwriter], who was a [Vietnam] veteran. It took him almost 20 years to recover from the experience and get his life back together.”
“Traveling Through This Part of You,” the second cut on Clock Without Hands, was inspired by her trip to Southeast Asia. “You were an American boy/Whose innocence was lost here in the war/And I wear your scars/While traveling through this part of you/Nothing that I’ve ever seen/Now means much of anything/In traveling through this part of you,” she sings in a voice marked with heartbreak.
“Last Song for Mother” resonates with loss and longing, regret and redemption, celebration and resignation: “If I promise not to cry/Will you look me in the eye?/And tell me that you’ve known me/I was your late, your lonely child/I am enhanced by all you’ve shown me/And in my youth I did defy you to the end/Please forgive my wildness then/Even I can’t comprehend/What a mother’s love has lent/To all that is me.” The album ends with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s classic “In the Wee Small Hours” — “my mother’s favorite song,” according to Griffith.
Like Other Voices, the title of the album is a tribute to an esteemed Southern writer — in this case the brilliant, troubled Carson McCullers.
“Clock Without Hands is the title of Carson McCullers’ last novel,” Griffith writes in the album liner notes. “As with all of her work, this piece of fictional art is based around the concept of complacency of emotion, allowing one’s heart to go dormant and the loss of innocent passion in life. To borrow from Jack London and John Terzano (Vice President of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation), once passion has been reduced to ashes, the lights of life are flown and the soul has died in waking memory.
“This collection of my songs and those I’ve covered from my heart are my own awakening.”