Nanci Griffith - Cherishing the Crickets
Nanci Griffith has always loved coming to Scotland. This is partly due to the Nashville-based Texan singer’s Scots-Welsh family background and partly due to the rapport she has with her audience, who make her feel, she says, right at home.
Now Griffith has found another Scottish connection in the shape of a recently hanselled songwriting partnership with Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue. Until Ross got in touch a few weeks ago, Griffith hadn’t written a song in almost two years, a long fallow spell that she puts down to her disaffection with her country in general and her fellow Texan in the White House in particular.
Having grown up near Austin with, as she says, ‘West Texan liberal’ parents, Griffith has never been slow to speak her mind on topics such as land mines and American foreign policy, and she long since earned a reputation as a Bush-whacker.
"I know this should be a good time to be a songwriter because there’s plenty of things going on in the world to write about," she says. "My writing is probably split 50/50 between social concerns and songs on a more personal level but I’ve been so angry at the political situation that I couldn’t come up with anything at all. Then Ricky sent me a note through my friend Edwina Hayes, said he was going to be in Nashville and asked if I’d be interested in getting together to write."
Co-writing songs is common practice in Nashville. Some artists get together with regular partners and arrange writing appointments to create hits or at least usable album tracks. But it’s not unusual for near or even complete strangers to meet up with wildly different results. Recent Glasgow visitor Mary Gauthier tells a hilarious story about a total mismatch that might well have been adapted into songwriting sit-com.
"It can turn out that way," laughs Griffith, preferring not to elaborate. "But I knew of Ricky through Deacon Blue’s music and as I suspected, he turned out to be fun to write with. We got one song off reasonably quickly that I’m really pleased with and I don’t know if there’ll be any more but just getting past that block has been a great help for me."
While she was enduring her dry spell, Griffith realised a long-held ambition, to record an album of torch songs featuring mostly cover versions of songs by some of her favourite writers. She’s put the spotlight on other writers before, notably with her Other Rooms, Other Voices and Other Voices Too albums in the 1990s. Released at the end of last year, Ruby’s Torch found her this time interpreting Tom Waits and Jimmy Webb and walking in the considerable footprints of Frank Sinatra, Crystal Gayle and Willie Nelson.
"They’re songs that have formed a soundtrack in my life," she says. "When I’m off the road, I don’t live surrounded by music, I enjoy the quiet. Some of these songs go back to my childhood, however: In the Wee Small Hours, for example. Taking on something so indelibly associated with Sinatra was quite daunting. So we used his arrangement and actually, just giving it a woman’s voice gives the song a different point of view, a new meaning."
Tom Waits allowed her to put Ruby’s Arms, one of three Waits songs Griffith included, into the third person, a gesture which, as a songwriter herself, she appreciated especially.
"It’s easy to get overprotective with your own songs and in a way that’s why I always consider myself an interpreter," she says. "There are songs that I’ve written that other people have gone on to have success with and I feel that when that happens, it becomes that other person’s song because they’ve taken it to heart and made it their own. So when I sing one of those songs, like Love at the Five and Dime, I feel I have to reclaim it."
After the tour that brings her to Glasgow tonight with her long-time backing group, The Blue Moon Orchestra, Griffith plans to go back to the music that, along with Woody Guthrie and Loretta Lynn, first got her excited and makes her proud to be a Texan.
"You couldn’t be around Texas when I was growing up and not love the Crickets," she says. "People always credit the Beatles for being the first band to write their own songs but Buddy Holly and the Crickets were doing it in the 1950s. Now the Crickets are about to celebrate 50 years as a band and I’m going to co-write an album with them to celebrate. They’re great guys and you know what I like about their music? It’s innocent."
From The Herald, July 12, 2007.
Nanci Griffith R.I.P.
Nanci Griffith, who has died at the age of sixty-eight, was one of the great voices and wordsmiths of the strong Texas tradition of literary songwriting. She was also an activist who used the platform she had gained for herself to speak out on behalf of others.
The gentle singing that won hearts the world over with her tender reading of Julie Gold’s From a Distance, later a hit for Bette Midler, had a forthright flipside that could generate Hell, No (I’m Not Alright), a protestors’ anthem during the Occupy Wall Street campaign in 2012.
Griffith spoke out against the death penalty and damage to the environment and sang in support of inter-racial and gay marriage. In 1994 she and Jimmy Webb contributed If These Old Walls Could Speak to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country. And though she didn’t mention him by name in song, she had a particular antipathy towards George W Bush and took pleasure in being described as a “Bushwhacker.”
Nanci Caroline Griffith was born the youngest of three children in Seguin in Guadalupe County, Texas. Her father, Marlin, was a printer, publisher and graphic artist who sang in a barbershop quartet and her mother, Ruelene, was a realtor and amateur actor. Although they divorced when she was seven, both parents’ artistic inclinations fed into Nanci’s interests, but it was hearing the Greenwich Village folk icon Carolyn Hester, civil rights campaigner Odetta and country singer Loretta Lynn that really inspired her to sing and learn to play the guitar.
Having taught herself guitar from a TV programme at the age of eight, Griffith started playing gigs in the bars of her adopted hometown, the Texan musical hot house, Austin, at the age of fourteen. An avid reader, she nursed thoughts of sharing her literary enthusiasms as a teacher. With a degree in Education from the University of Texas in Austin, she taught primary school children briefly before the apprenticeship she’d served on the city’s live music circuit earned her a recording contract in 1977. She released her first album, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, which also featured her then-husband, singer-songwriter-guitarist Eric Taylor, the following year.
By this time, she had already caught the attention of leading Americana singer-songwriter Tom Russell, with whom she co-wrote Outbound Plane, a hit for country singer Suzy Bogguss. But it wasn’t until her third album, Once in a Very Blue Moon in 1984, that her winsome voice, her songwriting realism and her superb interpretative talents began to reach the national and international audiences they deserved.
The album gave Griffith the name for her band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, with whom she would tour in various formats and with different personnel for the rest of her career, including a spell when she invited fellow Texan, Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets to join them. She became a frequent visitor to Glasgow, playing in venues including Govan Town Hall, the Pavilion, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, where she teamed up with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, and the Clyde Auditorium, where she staged a concert of her Grammy-winning album, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1994.
An acknowledgement of her roots in folksong, Other Voices, Other Rooms featured songs by Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Ralph McTell, among others. It included duets with Emmylou Harris (on Kate Wolfe’s Across the Great Divide), Griffith’s early inspiration, Carolyn Hester, Iris DeMent and John Prine, whose The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness was a live favourite with Griffith’s audience. The concert also reunited Griffith with Eric Taylor, whom she had divorced in 1982 but whom she still regarded as “the William Faulkner of songwriting.”
Griffith’s own songwriting created hits for other artists, including country singer Kathy Mattea, who took Love at the Five and Dime to number 3 on the Billboard Hot Country Chart, and earned her a Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award from the Americana Music Association in 2008. Her songs were an extension of her literary interests – she wrote long-form and short-form fiction that sometimes became songs and vice versa – and when songs wouldn’t come (she suffered from songwriter’s block between 2004 and 2009), she’d use prose to try and keep the words flowing.
Her voice ensured that she was never short of invitations to sing duets or to guest with other artists. Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Jimmy Buffet and John Stewart were among her singing partners and the Chieftains were one of a number of Irish acts – including Mary and Frances Black, Dolores Keane and Maura O’Connell – with whom Griffith sang. She also appeared on the popular television series Transatlantic Sessions, singing Sandy Denny’s classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes with Karen Matheson, Maura O’Connell and James Grant, and her own a cappella The Road to Aberdeen, which celebrated her Scottish, Welsh and Dutch ancestry.
Music brought Nanci Griffith stardom but she never lost touch with her roots or forgot that that she wouldn’t have got where she was without the public buying her records and concert tickets. When possible she would walk round the cities where she toured to get a feel for where the audience lived and worked and there’s a story about her, while on tour, taking the air in Houston, Texas, where she lived for a time, and remembering that her passport was due for renewal. So she slipped into the photo both in a local Woolworths and became possibly that branch’s most illustrious customer.
No cause of death had been announced at time of writing but although she had suffered health problems – she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and thyroid cancer in 1998 and lost flexibility in her fingers due to Dupuytren's contracture – her passing still came as a shock to her wider fan-base. This generous spirit will be missed by everyone who knew her and everyone who was touched by her music.
Nanci Griffith, singer and songwriter, born July 6, 1953; died August 13, 2021.
From The Herald, August 17, 2021