R.I.P. Nanci Griffith: “Oh I wish it would rain and wash my face clean”

Nanci Griffith. Photo credit: Tunefind

From The New York Times (Gavin Edwards):

Nanci Griffith, a Grammy-winning singer and songwriter who kept one foot in folk and the other in country and was blessed with a soaring voice equally at home in both genres, died on Friday. She was 68…

While Ms. Griffith often wrote political and confessional material, her best-loved songs were closely observed tales of small-town life, sometimes with painful details in the lyrics, but typically sung with a deceptive prettiness. Her song “Love at the Five and Dime,” for example, tracks a couple’s romance from its teenage origins when “Rita was 16 years/Hazel eyes and chestnut hair/She made the Woolworth counter shine” through old age, when “Eddie traveled with the barroom bands/till arthritis took his hands/Now he sells insurance on the side.”

The song was a country hit in 1986 — but for Kathy Mattea, not for Ms. Griffith. Similarly, while Ms. Griffith was the first person to record “From a Distance,” written by Julie Gold, the song was later a smash hit for Bette Midler.

Ms. Griffith sometimes affected a folkie casualness toward mainstream success. She told Rolling Stone in 1993 that she didn’t mind that Ms. Mattea had the hit version of “Love at the Five and Dime”: “It feels great that Kathy has to sing that for the rest of her life and I don’t.”

Nanci Caroline Griffith was born on July 6, 1953, in Seguin, Texas, about 35 miles northeast of San Antonio, to Marlin Griffith, a book publisher and singer in barbershop quartets, and Ruelen Strawser, a real estate agent and amateur actress. “I come from a basically really dysfunctional family,” she told Texas Monthly in 1999. “I had very, very irresponsible parents.”

When she was a child, her family moved to Austin…

By the time she was 12, Ms. Griffith was writing songs and playing in Austin clubs. A formative experience came when, as a teenager, she saw a performance by the melancholy Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt; she particularly identified with his song “Tecumseh Valley,” about a doomed young woman named Caroline, and it became a staple of her songbook.

She told The New York Times in 1988: “When I was young I listened to Odetta records for hours and hours. Then when I started high school, Loretta Lynn came along. Before that, country music hadn’t had a guitar-playing woman who wrote her own songs.”

After attending the University of Texas, Ms. Griffith stayed in Austin. She worked as a kindergarten teacher while she pursued music, performing alongside the likes of Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. She put aside finger paints when she won a songwriting award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas; she released her first album, “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” in 1978. It was the first of four folk albums she would make for tiny labels in an eight-year span, during which she also toured constantly…

Ms. Griffith was a living link not just to earlier songwriters, but also to the music of Ireland (she played with the Chieftains) and Texas (she toured with the surviving members of Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets)…

She kept playing through two bouts of cancer and a painful case of Dupuyten’s contracture, an abnormal thickening of the skin on the hand, which severely limited the mobility of her fingers…

In 1993, at age 39, when she had not yet won a Grammy and her commercial prospects were uncertain, Ms. Griffith told Rolling Stone what motivated her:

“Longevity — I guess that’s the brass ring for me. I still want to hear my music coming back to me when I’m 65.”

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