She didn’t believe in genres and actively crossed styles to the delight of thousands who cherished her tumbling homespun melodies. Nanci Griffith who has very sadly passed reflected her roots and home so charmingly and with such grace she easily cruised to star status in roots circles and beyond. Simon Jones remembers and reflects.
There was this album left in the review box in the offices of City Life the Manchester listings mag for which I served as folk/roots correspondent. Editor Mike waved it at me with a line about it being acoustic and nobody else wanted to write about an unknown American. Clutching that week’s Brit folk delights and the wayward copy of ‘Lone Star State of Mind,’ I departed to find a typewriter – remember those?
On listening to the album from the moment the needle hit the vinyl I was entranced, here was a voice which spoke of back porches and bobby sox and late night dinettes. The music blended what we’d now call Americana in an appealing , seductive mix, a thousand miles from rock and way over the mountains from bluegrass or country. Her voice spoke of past times, old ways and a simpler life than the 1980s offered outside the door. One track stood out ‘From A Distance,’ written by someone called Julie Gold, so uncluttered with its winding piano line, Griffith’s voice lending an urgent poignancy to the come together lyrics. I played the album repeatedly for the rest of the day, giving it a five-star review and raving about the potential of this singer called Nanci.
Next thing I knew she was playing Manchester and I got to sit front row with a huge grin on my face as a packed venue rose to its feet applauding the arrival of Miss Griffiths and her homespun music. Her star was certainly on the rise and I happily dived into her back catalogue discovering the delights of such albums as ‘Once In A Very Blue Moon,’ ‘Last Of The True Believers,’ both of which were particularly seductive late night listening.
Nanci was a pure pleasure to interview even if she was somewhat bemused by her growing success, “I’m just a back woods girl with a guitar,” she told me in a massive understatement. Music had a new heroine and she didn’t even realise her potential.
In no time at all she’d conquered even more territory and played headline sets at festivals like Cambridge, on across Europe and the globe. With her band The Blue Moon Orchestra she continued to delight and record, with each tour the venues got bigger until her visits to Manchester regularly filled the city’s Palace and Opera House theatres. Nanci widened her musical circles mixing with the likes of Rod Argent, Emmylou Harris, The Chieftains, John Prine, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, Don McLean, Dolores Keane and never forgetting her Texas roots Buddy Holly’s old band The Crickets. Later British folk rocker Clive Gregson joined her band both writing and playing with her as she ventured out on further adventures. Other recognisable names who played with her included Steeleye Span and Paul Brady drummer Liam Genockey, all related the pure pleasure of working with someone so likeable and easy to get along with. “She trusts you,” Gregson told me when I ran into him in a local folk club, “mind you, she knows exactly what she wants too.”
The list of Nanci Griffith’s achievements and awards is long, longer than I have room for here. She won folk awards over and over, The Americana Music Association named her a Trailblazer, a Grammy came her way in 1994. Yet despite all the adulation, attention, record deals and name associates she remained at heart a girl with a guitar who possessed that special ability to transcend normal classification. Latterly she toured simply and unplugged perhaps comfy in the kind of environment that had raised her so high. ‘Intersection,’ her last album was released here on roots label Proper, she settled into a quieter pace of life, gigs with plenty of stories and reflection.
But then her songs were always just that, stories. they told of love, life with all its ups and downs, actively celebrating a generation without complexity, proper values and the lure of home.
Nanci Griffiths went home on August 13th. I’m convinced she’s watching us – from a distance – but watching us all the same. Remember her more than just once in a very blue moon.