On August 13, 2021, iconic “folkabilly” singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith passed away at 68. For four decades, she — alongside artists including John Prine — represented the generational continuation of folk-style singer-songwriter excellence emerging from Austin, Texas’ capital city. Griffith was frequently a performer on the PBS music program Austin City Limits. Also, in 1994, she won a Grammy Award for her tenth studio album Other Voices, Other Rooms, plus in 2008, the Americana Music Association awarded her its Americana Trailblazer Award.
“I was struck by how perfect everything was about her singing, her playing, her talking,” said notable folk artist Christine Lavin in the May/June 1995 edition of Acoustic Guitar Magazine. “I realized from the get-go that this was someone who was a complete professional. Obviously, she had worked a long time to get to be that good.” As well, in a poignant Variety in memoriam piece, Holly Gleason writes, “[Griffith was the] ultimate contradiction: ’aw shucks’ presence with a gumption that took listeners by surprise…the Austin, Texas songwriter traveled around the world many times as a songstress, an activist and a beacon of what so many women who wanted to carve out a life in letters without losing the guilelessness of innocence abroad.”
As early-to-mid 90’s country and pop sensibilities merged with a passionate, emotional core, it’s oftentimes Griffith’s work — either as a songwriter or vocalist, herself — that emerged at the peak of excellence in music, overall. Here are five of these notable moments.
Bette Midler – From A Distance
Though Bette Midler’s 1990 version of “From A Distance” won the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1991, Nanci Griffith first recorded the song in 1987 for her album Lone Star State of Mind. For Midler’s version, Griffith is credited as a producer, which adds to the song’s journey from potentially needing a little “something extra” to becoming a top-five Billboard pop hit.
Suzy Bogguss – Outbound Plane
Six years and three mainstream albums into her pop-country career, Suzy Bogguss was a Dolly Parton-cosigned artist looking to break into the top-10 of Billboard’s Hot Country Charts. Nanci Griffith’s co-written song “Outbound Plane” had already appeared on Griffith’s 1988 album Little Love Affairs. Bogguss covered the song as the opening track and the second single from her 1991 album Aces, and reached the ninth position on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in March 1992. Regarding working with Griffith, Bogguss noted, “I feel blessed to have many memories of our times together along with most everything she ever recorded.”
Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith – Closing Time
Griffith frequently collaborated with Lyle Lovett before he became an Americana and country star. Regarding the impact of them as a tandem, Austin City Limits Executive Producer Terry Lickona noted, “people like Lyle and Nanci Griffith represented an antidote to the more rowdy outlaw and cosmic country of the Seventies when they came on the scene. Unlike them, she and Lyle were able to break through to country radio and get some significant attention and airplay from the powers that be up there, without sacrificing their musical integrity. Especially Nanci, she really stood out for her songwriting and voice and her whole style.”
Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith – Across The Great Divide
Griffith’s collaboration with her longtime friend Emmylou Harris comes from her Grammy-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms. Overall, the album contains songs written by other songwriters who have influenced her own career, including Frank Christian playing guitar on “Three Flights Up,” Bob Dylan playing harmonica on “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and John Prine lending harmony vocals on “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.” This song was also notable because it was written by acclaimed folk singer and songwriter Kate Wolf, who tragically died at the age of 44 in 1986.
Nanci Griffith – Love At The Five And Dime
Nanci Griffith was intriguingly also an artist with significant global acclaim. In the United Kingdom, she achieved four top-40 albums and two top-20 singles. In a passionate memorial in the Irish Post, her global appeal is notably tied to her “effortlessly smooth” vocal stylings, plus “twangy Texas accent” that wrapped itself around songs like “Love At The Five And Dime,” which center on “Dust Bowl farmers and empty Woolworth general stores.” Even deeper, Irish artist Frances Black added, “I’m so saddened to hear of the passing of the wonderful Nanci Griffith, I was and always will be a big fan of Nanci’s music and voice. In fact I was lucky enough to record a few of Nanci’s songs for my first solo album ‘Talk to Me’ and Nanci came over to Ireland and sang with me on the album.. I was truly honoured.. my deepest condolences to all who loved her.”