Nanci Griffith, Grammy-Winning Singer-Songwriter, Dead at 68

Nanci Griffith, Grammy-Winning Singer-Songwriter, Dead at 68

Nanci Griffith, born Nanci Caroline Griffith on July 6, 1953, was an American singer, guitarist, and songwriter raised in Austin, Texas, and lived in Nashville, Tennessee. She died on the morning of Friday, August 13, 2021., in Nashville. No cause of death was announced.

 Griffith appeared on the PBS music program Austin City Limits many times starting in 1985 (season 10). In 1990, Griffith appeared on the Channel program Town & Country with John Prine, where she performed at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, along with Buddy Mondlock, Robert Earl Keen, and Barry “Byrd” Burton.

Nanci Griffith was born in Seguin, Texas, and her career spanned a variety of musical genres, predominantly country, folk, and what she termed “rockabilly.” Griffith won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1994 for her recording, Other Voices, Other Rooms. This album features Griffith covering the songs of artists who were her major influences. 

One of her better-known songs is “From a Distance,” which was written and composed by Julie Gold, although Bette Midler’s version achieved greater commercial success. Similarly, other artists have occasionally achieved greater success than Griffith herself with songs she wrote or co-wrote. For example, Kathy Mattea had a country music top five hit with a 1986 cover of Griffith’s “Love at the Five and Dime,” and Suzy Bogguss had one of her largest hits with Griffith’s and Tom Russell’s “Outbound Plane.”

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In 1994, Griffith teamed up with Jimmy Webb to contribute the song “If These Old Walls Could Speak” to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country produced by the Red Hot Organization. 

While a powerful singer in her own right, Griffith was arguably better known for her songs like “Love at the Five and Dime” (which was a country hit for Kathy Mattea) and “Outbound Plane” (ditto Suzy Bogguss) and as a collaborator: She recorded duets with Emmylou Harris John Prine, Willie Nelson, the Chieftans, Darius Rucker, and many others throughout her four-decade career. 

Her Grammy was for an album of classic country covers, “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Yet that circle of collaborators speaks both to her vast influence and the respect she commanded in the country, folk, Americana, singer-songwriter, and other multi-hyphenate musical communities — she called her style “folkabilly.” Possessed of a sweet yet seasoned voice and an intelligent songwriting style, she recorded 18 studio albums, beginning in 1978 with the independently released “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” recorded when she was 24.

Griffith’s genre-spanning style led to challenges from the beginning of her career. She began playing clubs in nearby Austin as a teenager and worked as a schoolteacher before her musical career took off. Initially primarily a folk singer — a style that was hardly at the peak of its popularity in the late 1970s — she was eventually deeply embraced by the Nashville community and made the city her home for many years. However, she was not equally embraced by country radio and eventually worked in a hybrid style.

Nanci Griffith began releasing albums regularly in 1982 with “Poet in My Window,” They followed at a steady clip for nearly 30 years. In the middle of the decade, she moved to Nashville and signed with MCA, releasing the first of four albums, “Lone Star State of Mind,” in 1987. Griffith scored country hits with Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” (later a hit for Bette Midler) and “I Knew Love,” yet consistent radio success proved elusive. Ventures into more commercial territory met with mixed success, and she returned to her folk-country roots upon joining Elektra Records in 1992. Indeed, she won a Grammy with “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” her first of five albums for the label.

She continued to tour widely and release albums until “Intersections,” recorded with her longtime band members Pete and Maura Kennedy, recorded in her Nashville home, and released in 2012 on the indie Proper Records. Regardless of Griffith’s request for a week’s delay before formal statements, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young paid tribute shortly after her death was confirmed on Friday:

“Nanci Griffith, the master songwriter, took every opportunity to champion kindred spirits, including Vince Bell, Elizabeth Cook, Iris DeMent, Julie Gold, Robert Earl Keen, Lyle Lovett, Eric Taylor, and Townes Van Zandt,” he wrote. “Her voice was a clarion call, at once gentle and insistent. Her brilliant album ‘The Last of the True Believers’ is a template for what is now called Americana music, and her Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms is a compelling guide to 20th-century folk songs. Nanci offered gifts that no one else could give.”

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