Two Collections Shine a Light on Nanci Griffith’s Genius
Nanci Griffith (Photo courtesy of Rounder Records)
When Nanci Griffith died in 2021, there was an outpouring of love from fans and peers from all over the world, from her native Texas to her beloved Ireland, Australia, and, of course, Nashville. Writers and musicians that span genres and generations cited Griffith as an inspiration, sharing memories about her tireless efforts to give voice to fellow artists over the years.
To honor her legacy, Griffith’s first four albums are being repackaged and released this Friday as Working in Corners. Most of these albums — her 1978 debut, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, 1982’s Poet in My Window, 1984’s Once in a Very Blue Moon, and 1986’s Grammy-nominated The Last of the True Believers — have long been out of print and now are available digitally as well as in LP and CD sets from Craft Recordings. For longtime fans, it’s a chance to revisit Griffith’s acclaimed early work. And for a new generation, Working in Corners offers an opportunity to discover a trailblazing roots music artist whose first few albums help lay the groundwork for what became known as Americana.
And in just a few weeks, Rounder Records is releasing More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith. The tribute album, out Sept. 22, features heavy-hitters from across the roots music spectrum — Brandy Clark, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea, Shawn Colvin, and many others — putting their spin on favorites from throughout Griffith’s career. It’s a perfect primer to help guide new listeners into Griffith’s rich and deep catalog, which started almost a half-century ago from a strong-willed, determined Texan who seemed to know what kind of sound and career she wanted right from the get-go.
A Light Beyond These Dives
Honky-tonks and small dive bars are rites of passage for musicians. It’s a time-honored trial by fire, especially in Texas. At clubs like Austin’s Hole in the Wall, if your songs could be heard above the rowdy, drunk, and sometimes hostile clientele, you could say you’d made it a notch above most. Nanci Griffith, despite her small stature, was someone who could definitely work the room.
“She could get into one of those barrooms and just take over with her voice and her approach,” remembers producer Jim Rooney. “She was a no-nonsense kind of person. And she had no problem telling somebody that they could either leave or listen.”
And listen they did. As young as 14, she was holding court at some of Austin’s most notorious nightspots, eventually mixing in early folk-leaning original material with covers of Joan Baez and Carolyn Hester. All the while, she wouldn’t back down, telling the crowd to shut up, playing and singing louder until they had no choice but to be swept up by her.
Griffith was fueled by her passion for books and music. The words of Carson McCullers and Larry McMurtry, and the lyrics of Loretta Lynn and Hank Williams, in turn inspired her passion for writing. She was always reading, always writing, always working on a song, always searching.
In addition to her musical ambitions, she had literary goals, too. She dreamed of publishing a novel called Two of a Kind Heart based on her youth and experiences in the ’70s and early ’80s, and began writing it around the time of her debut album. (Rooney is currently working on getting it published.)
Music journalist Holly Gleason remembers the impact Griffith had on her when she discovered that “heart-shaped face,” those “great big eyes, and that beautiful ashy brown hair” on an airing of Austin City Limits in 1985, blowing through the neon plastic era of MTV like a Texas dust devil. “She looked exactly like who I wanted to be,” Gleason recalls. “And she sang with that little voice. She wasn’t some big Linda Ronstadt rock star. She wrote like a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty. As a booky kid, I read a ton. And I was reading Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Capote … and she just she landed right in the perfect bullseye. I was just gobsmacked.”
Griffith recorded three tracks for a sampler Mike Williams was compiling for his fledgling B.F. (as in Big Fucking) Deal label in Austin, which planted the seed for her debut album, recorded over four days in December 1977 and January 1978. There’s a Light Beyond These Woods is striking in its confidence and its bold simplicity. It was recorded live straight to two-track by Williams and Griffith with, among others, guitarist Stephen Doster and Griffith’s then-husband, Eric Taylor, who duetted with her on “Dollar Matinee.”
There’s a Light Beyond These Woods was also notable for containing almost all original material. All those nights sitting in the corner of the bar with a bottle of Lone Star and pen and pad paid off. Griffith had plenty to say, and now she had a way to say it. She was also breaking new ground, whether she was conscious of it or not.
There’s a Light Beyond These Woods was singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier’s first exposure to Griffith. “I found her long before I was a songwriter,” Gauthier says. “Nanci was the person, in addition to John Prine, who married folk music with country music. And created a new genre: Americana. They were the trailblazers of Americana music. What Nanci did was take the folk sensibility and, certainly, the folk worldview as a foundation, as a child of Woody Guthrie, and she married it to a country sound, a Texas sound.”
Working in New Corners
Shortly after the release of her debut, Griffith and Taylor relocated from Austin to Houston. There, they found a community of like-minded artists at Anderson Fair (named after its co-founders Marvin Anderson and Grey Fair), a restaurant/performance space that was basically ground zero for the Texas folk music movement of the 1970s. She invited Lyle Lovett to perform there after meeting him while he was a reporter for his college newspaper at Texas A&M. She would champion Lovett for years; sharing the bill, spotlighting his songs, and eventually recruiting him to sing backup and recording his “If I Were the (Wo)Man You Wanted” for her third album, Once in a Very Blue Moon.
“Nanci is responsible for some of my technique,” Lovett explains in the liner notes to the Working in Corners box set. “I was used to alternating with my fingerpicks and a thumb pick or flat pick, and it was tedious as all get out. But when I saw Nanci do that upstroke with her fingerpick, I thought, ‘A-Ha!’ So, I stopped taking off the fingerpick and started going down with my thumb and up with my finger.”
As the 1980s settled in, Griffith was expanding her reach and looking to fill out her sound. She used a wider variety of instruments and textures on her second album, 1982’s Poet in My Window. Poet built on the promise of her debut and included a spirited cover of fellow Texas singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” as a tip of the hat to the scene from which she’d emerged.
The same year Poet in My Window was released, Griffith and Taylor divorced, and she started performing in Johnson City, Tennessee, and Gerde’s Folk City in New York. It was around this time she met producer Jim Rooney.
“I met her through Richard Dobson,” Rooney recalls. (Dobson was part of the wave of Texas singer-songwriters, such as Townes Van Zandt, Guy and Susanna Clark, and Rodney Crowell, that migrated to Nashville in the early 1970s.) “Richard had invited me to a barbecue at his house. There was this young woman there I didn’t know. It was Nanci Griffith. Eventually, we got the guitars out and got to singing around the fire and whatnot. And as soon as I heard her sing and play, I knew she was really good.”
Griffith approached Rooney that night and asked if he would produce her next album. “I said, ‘I don’t know what you need me for,’” Rooney recalls. “[Her first two records] sounded good to me, but she was very clear. She knew what she wanted. She wanted a bigger sound. She wanted drums. She specifically asked for the steel guitarist Lloyd Green, who had played on all those Don Williams records that her aunt liked.”
Rooney was playing clubs in Nashville at the time with singer-songwriters Pat Alger and Pat McLaughlin, and they would get Griffith to open. Soon Rooney was teaming her up with bassist Roy Huskey Jr. and guitarist Mark Howard. Within a year of meeting her, Rooney had also assembled Kenny Malone, Mark O’Connor, Béla Fleck, Terry McMillian, Phillip Donnelly, and, yes, Lloyd Green. He brought them all into Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa.
In addition to the classic title track and the Lovett cover, Once in a Very Blue Moon showed Griffith cutting loose with the driving character study “Mary & Omie,” the anthemic “I’m Not Drivin’ These Wheels,” and the roadhouse-ready closer, “Spin on a Red Brick Floor.” Each one showed a side of Griffith she hadn’t shown before, on record anyway, but it was in no way an attempt at courting radio.
“That never entered our minds,” Rooney insists. “I’ve never paid too much attention to that. Now, the second album I did with her, The Last of the True Believers, I did think that, ‘OK, this might have a chance.’ There were songs like, “Goin’ Gone” and “Love at the Five and Dime.” I thought, ‘OK, this is this is pretty close,’ you know?”
Once in a Very Blue Moon and its follow-up, The Last of the True Believers, were released on the Philo label and distributed by Rounder. Scott Billington, former head of Rounder’s A&R department, remembers first seeing Griffith in 1984 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a club called Passim. “At the time, there was a general buzz about the Texas singer-songwriter scene,” Billington explains. “But it became apparent that Nanci was its bright star. She had everything — the voice, the musicianship, and the songs. She told beautifully observed stories about the small details of life in her songs, much in the same way as the New England folk songwriters, but she delivered them with a soulful and clear alto that was breathtaking. We signed her immediately.”
As she was with every other part of her career, Griffith was “very particular about her album cover photos,” according to Billington, “conceiving each one as a stage set. For instance, the cover for Once in a Very Blue Moon was shot at the Blue Moon Diner in Austin, in her favorite booth, and there’s a Eudora Welty novel under her hand. I’m sure the motorcycle helmet means something, too.”
Most of the same players returned to Cowboy Arms in October 1985 for Griffith’s fourth album. The Last of the True Believers also boasted harmony and backing vocals from Lovett, who had by then settled in Nashville and would soon sign with MCA. (The cover of Believers also featured Lovett, in character as Eddie, waltzing with “Rita” under the Woolworth’s sign; a nod to the album’s most famous song.) His self-titled debut would be released the same year as Believers and would be co-produced by Tony Brown.
Brown, former keyboardist in both Elvis’s TCB band and Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band, had started working as a producer under Jimmy Bowen at MCA Nashville and had begun championing a new breed of country artists that were pushing against the slick, adult contemporary leanings of the last half-decade. He would discover Griffith’s genius in the passenger seat of Holly Gleason’s car outside a Holiday Inn at the Okeechobee Boulevard exit on the Florida Turnpike, “so far west of town, you only stayed there only if you had no money or you were working the fairgrounds,” Gleason laughs.
Gleason was taking that rare opportunity to share her love of an exciting and talented artist with someone of influence. She played Brown an advance copy of Believers and after he sat and listened, the future president of MCA Nashville asked if he could take the cassette with him.
“This is why I love Tony Brown,” she says about that moment in the hotel parking lot. “He didn’t go, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ He wanted to think about it. And he did. And he did it in a really smart way, of course.” It turned out to be just what Brown needed to hear at a time he needed to hear it. “We were coming out of the Urban Cowboy slog with all these middle-aged dudes and all these gals with headbands and haircuts,” Gleason recalls. “And [Nanci] was just this beautiful ray of sunshine. So pure.”
Pure, maybe, but don’t confuse purity with fragility. Griffith was not timid, or fragile, by any means, as she’d already proven back when she was performing in front of rowdy Texans. “I remember seeing her in Nashville at Brown’s Diner,” Gleason laughs, “With a cigarette, laughing with all the boys, and they were all in. Now, that’s not something some ‘precious little songwriter girl’ does.”
Griffith eventually would sign with MCA and work with Brown on 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind, released at the peak of the all-too-brief New Traditionalist movement (or what Steve Earle — another Tony Brown signing — would later label “The Great Nashville Credibility Scare”). Her music became relatively more mainstream, the rough edges sanded down ever-so-slightly, and her lyrical concerns became more universal in scope. But she never left the ambitious, idealistic folkabilly singer of those first four albums behind. Instead, she brought her along, presenting her on a worldwide stage in the process.
While Working in Corners revisits Griffith’s earliest work, Rounder’s More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith does what it boasts by pairing over a dozen of roots music’s best with jewels found throughout Griffith’s oeuvre. Years in the making, there are many sublime moments here, such as Lyle Lovett and Kathy Mattea (who had major hits with both “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Goin’ Gone” in 1986 and ’87, respectively) duetting on a moving “Trouble in the Fields” and John Prine in one of his final vocal performances, sharing the mic with Kelsey Waldon on “Five and Dime.” In another full-circle moment, sessions for the tribute were produced by Jim Rooney at Cowboy Arms (now known as Clement House and owned by “Cousin” Bob Clement).
Mary Gauthier, who also contributes liner notes to the album, gives a heart-wrenching performance of “More Than a Whisper.” “There’s something about the loneliness and longing in that song that really got to me,” she explains. “It was one of the songs I dropped the needle on over and over again, long before streaming services where you could just hit ‘repeat.’ I loved it.”
Basically, More Than a Whisper turns the spotlight back on Griffith, an artist who spent so much of her career giving voice and exposure to other songwriters. Gauthier recalls one such moment. “About two years after I moved to Nashville, I was at a song circle at Jim McGuire’s house with Nancy and a bunch of songwriters. And she gave me one of her guitars. It was a transcendent moment for me. That was sort of a christening. She made a big deal of giving it to me in front of all the other songwriters in the room: Steve Earle, Guy Clark, John Hiatt … my God! I’m looking at it right now. I just can’t believe I’m in possession of that instrument. And she signed it, ‘For Mary, because you will sing.’ She was a great champion of other artists. I think it’s an important thing to do, to shine the light back on her.”
Scott Billington puts it this way, “Sometimes, it seems like a great voice, a guitar, and a great song are all you need. Nanci Griffith excelled at all three.”