R.I.P. Nanci Griffith


I had been planning to give you another in my series of Listen to The Band today, but was stopped in my tracks by the terrible news from Nashville yesterday that Nanci Griffith had passed away. I had to change my plans, as it would have felt wrong not to mark the passing of a beautiful spirit like Nanci.

Nanci Griffith was born on 6th July 1953, which meant that she was two months older than me, and that always made me feel a kind of affinity for her. Given my own recent problems, her death has hit me hard. She was a great songwriter, with a unique voice and a talent for bringing out the best in others. Probably labelled as ‘country’ by most, she was much more than that: many of her albums are of what I know as the singer-songwriter genre, and she dipped into more pop sounds on occasion, too. She termed her style ‘folkabilly,’ which I think fits it rather well. She survived both breast and thyroid cancer in the 1990s, and didn’t let that prevent her from continuing to make lovely music, or to carry on with her humanitarian work.

It is notable that many of the tributes to her from fellow musicians speak of her generosity of spirit, and of her willingness to help others. This, from Suzy Bogguss, is typical:

“My heart is aching😔A beautiful soul that I love has left this earth. I feel blessed to have many memories of our times together along with most everything she ever recorded. I’m going to spend the day revelling in the articulate masterful legacy she’s left us🌺Rest my dear friend Nanci Griffith💖”

Or this, from Gretchen Peters:

“Nanci was a big reason I moved to Nashville. I thought I might find a place for myself there despite being a folkie at heart, and it was because of the trail she blazed. Her songs were fine-cut gems, her voice was utterly her own, and her friendship was an unexpected gift. What a loss to all of us who loved her and her music. Godspeed Nanci.”

There are many more like that, but I think those give you the idea. I thought I’d make my own little tribute by sharing some of her songs with you. Some were better known as hits by others, some were her cover versions of songs by people she admired, and she appeared in a great many collaborations. This selection dips a toe into all three of those waters. Probably the best place to start is the song for which she first became known:

Such a heartfelt performance of a lovely song. It wasn’t one of her own – it was actually written by Julie Gold – but Nanci’s was the first notable recording, a couple of years before Bette Midler had a big hit with it. For me, Nanci’s is by far the better version: it has a heart and soul that Midler took out of it by just bellowing it out.

I thought I’d follow that up with a couple of her songs that were hits for others. She co-wrote this one with Tom Russell, and Suzy Bogguss had a big hit with it on the US country chart:

I wanted to give you a live performance of the song, but the only ones I could find were either of poor quality or barred from being shared. I hope you got a good idea of it from that, though. Suzy’s version is also good: another of my favourite singers!

This next one was the breakthrough hit for Kathy Mattea, who took it to #3 on the US country chart. It was written solely by Nanci, and I’ve found a wonderful live performance by her:

Her introduction to the song is beautiful, and the performance matches it. She is right about Woolworth’s too: at the time she was growing up with the treats of their stores, my sister and I just about lived for those Saturday trips into Dover (Kent, UK, the original) and being let loose on the pic’n’mix sweets display with a paper bag each, while our poor Dad did his best to stop us choosing the entire selection. Our store was only on the one floor, though, so we didn’t get the escalator sound accompaniment – but the fond memories remain, and Nanci has created a little gem from hers.

I was spoilt for choice in selecting one of her collaborations, but this one has always been a favourite so I just had to include it! This is an audio only one, but the beauty of the music more than makes up for that. I also love The Chieftains, so this one is doubly special for me. Despite the static picture, Roger Daltrey isn’t on this one:

The lyrics of this one make it almost unbearable to listen to today, but I just had to include it. Co-written by Nanci and band member James Hooker, this is another piece of exceptional beauty:

If pressed to choose a favourite of mine from all of Nanci’s songs, I think this would be it, and it seems a fitting closing piece:

With a stellar backing band, including the two leading lights of the Transatlantic Sessions – Aly Bain and Jerry Douglas – that is a fabulous version of a song written, as it says, following a conversation Nanci had with the cab driver taking her round Belfast in the days before the Good Friday Peace Agreement, when ‘The Troubles’ still persisted. The song expands the metaphor, and I’ve loved it ever since I bought the album it is on, Storms, when it was released in 1989. It still speaks volumes today, sadly, and will always be relevant – if Nanci was only to be remembered for one song, that should be it.

As the lady herself said:

“And when we die we say we’ll catch some blackbird’s wing
And we will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring”

R.I.P. beautiful spirit 💔