Nanci Griffith – If there’s no hope at the end of it, there’s no point in writing it
I loved the whole New York scene. I have so many friends up there. I had been going there back and forth since 1981, so it seemed a reasonable thing to move there. But things didn’t work out that way. I settled in Nashville instead and absolutely love it here. My career would have been a whole different ballgame had I moved to New York.
ND: Do you miss Austin?
NG: I miss the food.
ND: But not, I assume, some of the writers. You were involved in an epic feud with some of them. They wrote bad things about you and you said bad things about them in interviews and things escalated from there. What was that about?
NG: I have never figured out what that was about. There were a couple of writers who decided they were gonna just level me, and I never understood why and I never really got it. It was really baffling for me. That’s my hometown. Part of it is that Austin has a certain amount of competitiveness among artists and among journalists. That doesn’t exist in Nashville, where there’s a really tight-knit community. Folks are really supportive of one another. There are so many great artists in Austin who have never gotten out of Austin, and that is always difficult. You can be totally famous in Austin, but if you drive to Dallas, no one’s heard of you. Well, there’s a certain resentment for anyone who leaves Austin and makes it elsewhere.
I think that a lot of the conflict that went on with these two journalists was the fact that I had left and made it. I was playing the Albert Hall, I was playing Carnegie Hall. But that’s all over with. I have so many dear friends in Austin. I’m going down to South by Southwest this year. I haven’t been there in three years. The Crickets are receiving a lifetime achievement award and I’m going to help honor them.
[One of the writers involved in the feud, Austin American-Statesman critic Michael Corcoran, said via e-mail that it started with a freelance magazine piece he wrote on singer-songwriters from Texas breaking stereotypes in country music: “It was very flattering except where I criticized Nanci’s band as ‘Nashville hacks’ and another where I insinuated that she’s the type to get married in a vintage white Victorian dress.”]
III. EVERYONE HAS A DIFFERENT WAY OF DEALING WITH ILLNESS
ND: Before Bette Midler had a hit with “From A Distance”, which Julie Gold wrote, you scored with it first in the U.K. Is it true it didn’t get released in America?
NG: Yes. The head of radio at the label wouldn’t release it as a single for me because she said Nanci Griffith’s voice hurt people’s ears and Americans would not understand the song. “From A Distance” was a big hit for me in the U.K. in 1987. It made my career in Europe, in the U.K., in Ireland. The first time I went to Ireland for an “Austin City Limits”-type TV show, when I walked out, people rose to their feet. I thought they were leaving. I didn’t know anybody would know who I was. But they broke out into sustained applause. It was incredible.
There are wonderful audiences over there, and they’re not fickle. They don’t go away. They really follow your career. They’re ready to hear your next project. They don’t want to hear you repeat yourself. Don Williams is a huge star over there and has been for years.
ND: How did you cope with your illness, and what impact did it have on your songwriting?
NG: Everyone has a different way of dealing with illness. I kept working all throughout. I really got impatient with it, I think, when I had to take six weeks off for radiation treatment. I was so used to being on the road all the time, and it slows you down. I made some changes and adjustments in that time, and that impatience sometimes came out in my writing.
ND: You say your positive thinking helped you through.
NG: Yes, I think it did. But, you know, Jimmy Griffin died the other day. He was a singer and songwriter for Bread. He was such a positive person, a very secure person, and he just went so quickly. The last time I heard him sing was on Memorial Day. He was diagnosed with throat cancer a few days after that. You would think all the positive things he did, and living his life in such a wonderful way, giving people such beauty, would mean Jimmy Griffin would not have died. But a lot of things go into the mix.
ND: On “Beautiful”, a song about your stepfather, you break things up with some garrulous bursts of scat. Is there a jazz singer in your closet champing at the bit to get out?
NG: Oh, well, my stepfather played piano in the Woody Herman band in the ’40s and ’50s, and that was my vain effort to pay tribute to jazz. Ella Fitzgerald said scatting is like standing onstage naked. You might even get embarrassed if you decided to scat in the shower. I’m not very good at it, and I don’t think I’m getting any better at it. But it’s so much fun and it always gets a great laugh. I really love this song. It gets the best response of anything we’re performing live — standing ovations.
A lot of people want to express to their step parents how much they have meant to them. My stepfather is a wonderful, vibrant, brilliant 82-year-old man who still gets up every morning and plays the piano. He loves the song. He’s just so proud of it. It’s so weird to think that when I first came to Nashville and met this songwriter named Tom Littlefield, who I wrote many songs with over the years and became great buddies — I didn’t know for several years that he is Woody Herman’s grandson. It was like working our way back into a circle.
ND: As an established artist, you’ve had encounters with a lot of younger singers and songwriters. Have you been in a position where you’ve been able to mentor them?
NG: I hope I have. I’m such a believer in Elizabeth Cook; she is just the most talented and beautiful artist. She’s a Grand Ole Opry star, but has not been able to break out of that. She looks like she should sound like Faith Hill, but in reality, she’s this generation’s Loretta Lynn. I just hope my support of her helps to get her name out to my type of audience. And Mary Gauthier, who will open our shows on the west coast, is just absolutely brilliant. It’s great being around artists like her. No matter how down you’re feeling, she lifts you right up.