With a shimmering voice and a sharp eye, Nanci Griffith captured life in her songs.
I don’t remember how or where I first heard of her. I don’t remember what spurred me to buy one of her CDs but I did. Somewhere. In 1989. And so, I started listening to a singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith.
I think it was probably something in her voice that caught my attention. Even now so many years later I still have trouble putting my finger exactly on what it is in her voice that I respond
to so well. But I know I’m not the only one. Critics from all over the country over the years have commented on the timbre of her voice and its clarity.
And the songs she writes are sharply observant of human characteristics, human feelings, and human failings. She is as good a songwriter as she is a singer, and that’s saying something.
She was born on July 6, 1954 in Seguin, Texas. Her father was a book publisher and singer in barbershop quartets, and her mother a real estate agent and amateur actress. She and her parents moved to Austin shortly after she was born and they split up shortly thereafter. Griffith was raised in Austin. She learned guitar and played her first gig when she was 12 at a beat coffee shop downtown.
While she started off resolutely as a folk singer, the line from most critics is that her style changed over the years from folk to country to pop. I’m not sure I agree with that fully—her music is clearly “country” flavored at some points, and comes very close to pop at other points depending on your definition, but there’s some quality of it that always stays rooted in folk music. I think it’s the story-like quality of her songs and how, like, say, Bob Dylan, she writes from the position of an observer.
That first album I bought of hers was called Storms. And while it’s one that the critics point to as her transition to pop, it was unlike any pop music I had ever heard at the time. The label likely comes from the instrumentation she used on that record.
One of the favorite things I ever heard her say was about how she approached being an artist and how she understands that contrary to labels, she doesn’t really plan for songs to come out the way they do. “Artists don’t choose to be artists, writers or singers,” she said in 2010. “It’s just something that you know you have to do.”
Griffith was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and thyroid cancer in 1998. That was years ago. So the music world was stunned when word came on August 13 that Nancy Griffith had died in Nashville. She was 68.