The Curmudgeon: Nanci Griffith, or Emily Dickinson at the Rodeo

Music Features Nanci Griffith
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The Curmudgeon: Nanci Griffith, or Emily Dickinson at the Rodeo

Nashville tried to turn Nanci Griffith into a country star in the mid-1980s, but it didn’t take. It seemed like a good idea at the time, for she was a terrific songwriter, a sweet singer with a girlish face, and a Texan through and through. Griffith, who died on Friday at age 68, never quite fit in on Music Row, though. She was too much the troubadour folk poet. She was Emily Dickinson at the rodeo.

She left behind some wonderful albums and songs—mostly from the first half of her career—and she was one of the more popular folk singers of her generation. But she was never able to push that popularity beyond the small worlds of Texas, Ireland and folk music.

Flash back to 1986. Tony Brown, who’d been a pianist for Elvis Presley and Emmylou Harris, was installed as president of MCA Nashville. With that background, he was inevitably dissatisfied with the current state of country music and determined to shake things up. He signed three of the best young singer/songwriters from Texas—Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith—and produced their first mainstream-country albums. That same year Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart also released their first major-label albums, and these six acts became known as “The Class of 1986.”

Travis, Yoakam and Stuart went on to have successful country careers, but Brown’s three Texan misfits didn’t. Earle had two top-10 country singles off his debut album, and Lovett had three top-20 hits. But Earle was too ornery and Lovett too eccentric to be comfortable at country radio, and they soon went their own way to become successful Americana artists before the term even existed.

Griffith was neither ornery nor eccentric, but she never had a single climb higher than #36. Mary Chapin Carpenter, another literary folk singer crossing over into country, made her debut in 1987, and would score 18 top-20 hits—and four top-twos—from her first six albums. Kathy Mattea launched her string of 16 top-10 country singles with her own version of Griffith’s composition, “Down at the Five and Dime,” in 1986.

Why did it work for Carpenter and Mattea, but not for Griffith? Well, the first two projected a frankness and swagger in their performances that country audiences crave. Those qualities never came naturally to Griffith. Connected to this was the smallness and purity of Griffith’s soprano, qualities better suited to the airy fables of folk than to the earthy lusts and laments of country. She eventually pulled back into her comfort zone of exquisitely crafted cabaret-folk songs delivered with an intimate understatement so every word could be savored.

And many times, the songs deserved such scrutiny. “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” the title song from her 1978 debut album on a tiny Texas label, is a wonderful evocation of a friendship between two 10-year-old girls. After an all-night gabfest, the way the rising sun hides behind the trees and shines through them embodies the future beyond their grasp. Even when the song jumps forward to the high school senior prom and to an adulthood where one is a traveling singer and the other a mother and wife, there’s still something shining beyond the woods.

That same year the 25-year-old singer-guitarist won the New Folk Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival, which allowed her to stand out in a crowded field of Texas singer/songwriters, all trying to follow in the footsteps of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Mickey Newbury. One of those aspirants was the gifted Eric Taylor, who was married to Griffith from 1976 to 1982. She continued to perform his songs at her shows even after they separated, often introducing their author as “the only singer/songwriter I’ve known biblically.”

By the time she moved to Nashville in 1985 in search of greater visibility, Griffith had already released four small-label albums, much admired within the insular folk world, little noticed without. The first time I saw her was at Northern Virginia’s Barns of Wolf Trap a week into January of 1986. Her straight, brown hair hung nearly to the waist of a white sweatshirt bearing a rhinestone pin of Texas; beneath her black skirt, her white ankle socks were turned down neatly.

Accompanied only by acoustic guitarist Frank Christian, she began the show with “Lone Star State of Mind,” the title track and first single off her soon-to-be-released first MCA album. This bouncy, twangy ode to her native state was written by Nashville’s Pat Alger and Fred Koller. She followed it with the traditional folk song, “The Banks of the Pontchartrain.” So right off the bat, she was acknowledging the nations of country and folk—and the no man’s land between where she was camped.

During the show, she paid tribute to Tennessee Williams and Rosalie Sorrels, as if the famous playwright and cult-figure singer/songwriter were equals; she also nodded to country songwriter Lynn Anderson and to the friend who inspired “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” “Mary Margaret grew up with me in Austin,” she explained. She added, approvingly, “Recently she’s lost 30 pounds, divorced one rancher husband, married another 12 years younger than her and moved to Denver.”

She sang songs by Bill Staines, Tom Russell and Kate Wolf, but the evening’s best songs were her own. They were literate without being artsy, romantic without being sentimental and melodic without being precious. She could evoke a Saturday-night dancehall on “Fly by Night” and the desperation of a woman fleeing her husband in a “Ford Econoline.”

Best of all was “Trouble in These Fields,” which described the plight of the nation’s farmers in lines such as these: “When the bankers swarm like locusts out there turning away our yield / the trains roll by our silos, silver in the rain / They leave our pockets full of nothing / but our dreams and the golden grain.” For the encore, she sang “Love at the Five and Dime,” already a #3 hit for Kathy Mattea.

The country stardom that seemed to be in store for Griffith, though, never materialized. Brown co-produced three albums with her and allowed her to make two more MCA albums with British producers: the Rolling Stones engineer Glyn Johns (Storms) and Zombies keyboardist Rod Argent (Late Night Grande Hotel). Nothing worked. Brown let her go to Elektra, where she teamed up with esteemed folk producer Jim Rooney to create the Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1993. She paid tribute to her favorite songwriters, either by singing their songs or inviting them to perform with her. Bob Dylan and John Prine served both roles.

That was followed a year later by The Flyer, which included musicians from R.E.M., U2, Dire Straits and Counting Crows. It gave her a new, non-country, non-folk sound and also inspired her best crop of compositions in six years.

After that, though, she seemed to lose her way. She tried gimmicks to jumpstart her creativity—another tribute record, an album with the London Symphony, a duet with Hootie and the Blowfish, a collection of torch ballads—but nothing clicked. She survived two cancer episodes and a painful skin disease. She mailed an angry letter to several Texas newspapers and magazines, complaining about their treatment of her—an episode that delighted her critics and saddened her supporters.

As her prominence dwindled in the U.S., it remained strong in England and especially Ireland. She was the first to record Julie Gold’s secular hymn, “From a Distance,” and while Bette Midler had the big hit with it in America, Griffith had the top-10 pop hit in Ireland. There was something about Griffith’s bell-tone voice and stoic style of storytelling that connected to Celtic folk music. She released her album Hearts in Mind in Ireland and England in 2004, four months before its 2005 U.S. release. She even sang on two different albums by The Chieftains.

But she remained inalterably rooted in Texas. Her most covered composition and her song most likely to be remembered is “Gulf Coast Highway,” her tribute to the old Route 90, which hugs the coast from Mississippi into Texas. Only in the latter state, though, do the bluebonnets blossom along the road every springtime, and that’s what keeps the older couple in the song going from year to year. And when they die, Griffith sings over her lilting Texas-Celtic melody, they’ll “fly away to heaven, come some sweet bluebonnet spring.”