Songwriter and Performer Nanci Griffith Has Died

Singer, performer, guitarist, and songwriter Nanci Griffith who was known for her foundational influence on Texas music, and for contributing greatly to the Americana community in Nashville passed away on Friday, August 13th at the age of 68. Representatives at Gold Mountain Entertainment announced her death, saying, “It was Nanci’s wish that no further formal statement or press release happen for a week following her passing.”

Known for her appearances on programs such as Austin City Limits, her duets with artists such as John Prine, and the hit songs she penned for others, Nanci Griffith was a cherished member of the music community whose influences spanned from independent folk to mainstream country. Kathy Mattea had a Top 5 hit with Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime” in 1986, and Suzy Bogguss scored a Top 10 hit with “Outbound Plane” penned by Griffith and Tom Russell.

Born in Seguin, Texas on July 6th, 1953, Nanci Caroline Griffith was the youngest of three children to parents she characterized as beatniks. The family moved to Austin shortly after her birth, and her parents divorced in 1960. Nanci’s father was a fan of traditional folk music, and introduced Nanci early on to Carolyn Hester. Then when she was 14, Griffith saw Townes Van Zandt play, and she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

By the mid 70’s, Nanci Griffith was playing her original songs and cover tunes in local clubs around Austin, including a now legendary Sunday night residency at the Hole in the Wall near the University of Texas campus. She was considered the first accomplished songwriter to play the room that would subsequently attract Townes Van Zandt and others, and is still around today. Griffith began touring the United States, sometimes with a band, and sometimes solo, and released her first album There’s A Light Beyond These Woods in 1978.

Soon the mystique of Nanci Griffith caught on in songwriter circles, and she became a living legend in Austin. In 1985 she played her first Austin City Limits episode with lifelong friend Lyle Lovett singing backup for her, and by 1987 she was signed to MCA and released her major label debut Lone Star State of Mind. Though Griffith would never really catch on commercially, her critical acclaimed continued to mount.

One of her first major label singles was “From A Distance,” written by her friend Julie Gold. It received some traction, but not nearly the success the song would receive when Bette Midler recorded it in 1990. Finding success with more literary folk material inspired many of Griffith’s contemporaries to stick to their guns, and not give into the commercial influences of major labels in the burgeoning Americana scene.

Now living in Nashville, Griffith did try to give launching more pop-oriented folk and country singles a go while signed to MCA, but when she moved to Elektra in 1993 and released an album consisting of all cover songs from songwriters who influenced her called Other Voices, Other Rooms, it landed her a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Her backing band, The Blue Moon Orchestra, also became legendary in folk and Americana circles.

Nanci Griffith was diagnosed with breast Cancer in 1996, and then thyroid Cancer in 1998, both of which she beat while continuing to record for Elektra. Now settled in Nashville, she turned bitter about her time in Texas, and rebuffed any criticism she received for some of her late career efforts, once sending a strongly-worded letter to numerous publications in the Lone Star State saying in part,

“There has always been a certain amount of pathos within artists who leave their sacred bountiful homes of birth for the benefit of preserving their own belief in their art—especially in cases such as my own where my native soil that I have so championed around this globe has done its best to choke whatever dignity I carried within me.”

Griffith released a couple of records on Rounder in the aughts, and the Americana Music Association bestowed her with a deserved Americana Trailblazer Award in 2008. After Griffith’s final album Intersection in 2012, she had mostly disappeared from the public spotlight. She was always particular with the way she was portrayed in the press, often writing letters to critics or others who said things about her music she found unflattering. It seems fitting that she considered how her death would be reported, and made provisions ahead of time.

In many ways Nanci Griffith was an enigma. And though she never received the wide acceptance from the public her music deserved—or perhaps that she desired—there are few within the folk and Americana community who wouldn’t sing her praises, or cite her lasting influence.

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