Nanci Griffith, 1953 – 2021

There used to be a record store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, across the street from Selfridges, and if I were down in London from where I was then living in Nottingham, I’d make a point of calling in. Good and varied stock; friendly and knowlegeable staff. Can’t remember what it was called. But there I was – autumn of ’86? early ’87? – leafing through the racks of albums when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I was looking for anything special.

‘John Stewart?’

‘You’ve got the Kennedy one?’

The Last Campaign. Yes, I had.

‘Nothing newer than that, I’m afraid. But look …’ Reaching in amongst the albums. ‘If you like John Stewart, you might like this. Give it a listen.’

This was The Last of the True Believers by someone called Nanci Griffith. Presumably that was her on the front cover in a polka dot dress standing outside Woolworth’s, a fat hardback cradled in both hands. [On later investigation it turns out to be Donald Spoto’s biogrpahy of Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers.] And over to her right there’s a couple who might be just holding hands or maybe even dancing and the man is Lyle Lovett, surely?

I turn the cover over. Yes, Lovett’s on the record, singing harmony. And there are a couple of other names I know, Bela Fleck on banjo, Phil Donnelly, guitar. Plus another picture of Nanci Griffith with yet another book and this time it’s clearly Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel I’d only recently read and liked a great deal. 

And as if that weren’t enough in the way of little markers of temptation, there’s a note saying the album is dedicated to Count Basie. Count Basie?

“This album is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie because he once made my clumsy feet dance upon the University of Texas ballroom floor as if on wing …”

Lovett, McMurtry, Basie – something interesting was going on here. Passing up the invitation to listen before buying, I paid up and was on my way. Perhaps I was in a hurry. It wasn’t till several days later, back home in Lenton, that I gave it a listen. 

Side one begins with The Last of the True Believers and Love at the Five & Dime – two tracks still high among my favourites. Maybe all the songs weren’t equally strong and in the higher register her voice took a little getting used to, but with the next album, Lone Star State of Mind, which followed soon after, I was totally hooked. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds; Ford Econoline; Trouble in the Fields. Great songs. She even manages to purge some of the sentimentality from Julie Gold’s From a Distance

It wasn’t so much later – the spring of ’88 and I was in New York, visiting a friend – when I noticed that Nanci Griffith was playing at a small club in Greenwich Village – I like to think it was The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, but can’t be sure – whatever it was called both Griffith and her band were on terrific form and what sounded very good on record was even more so live. 

I didn’t know then that not long after I returned to England she would be appearing at Nottingham’s Rock City. Monday, 2nd May, 1988. Tickets £5.00 in advance. [My friend, David Belbin, saved his ticket, which is how I know.] It was as good as New York had been, if not better. Another friend who was there that evening, the singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, describes it as a key moment in her life. 

Liz was with me again a few years later when Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra played a concert in London – and this is where the wheels of coincidence start turning – because who should she invite to join her on stage but John Stewart – over here on tour himself – to play lead guitar and sing duet vocal on Stewart’s song which closes the Little Love Affairs album, Sweet Dreams Will Come.

Just one more connection. The last time I saw Nanci Griffith was at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and a change in the personnel of her band had brought in the English guitarist – and singer/songwriter – Clive Gregson. The same Clive Gregson who would record and tour with Liz Simcock not so many years later. 

Small world or what … ?

Author: John Harvey

Writer.

5 thoughts on “Nanci Griffith, 1953 – 2021”

  1. Nice piece John. Whilst we knew she was in ill health the news of Nanci’s death still pulled us up short. It’s to be expected when teenage musical heroes and heroines pass on, but when it’s someone who’s provided the soundtrack to your early married life and children etc it’s a bit different.
    We encountered her about a year after you via a great Radio One ‘In Concert’ (that in itself dates it) with Phil Donnelly in her band and assuming the John Prine role in ‘Speed of Loneliness’ and playing some fine guitar. Those early albums of hers are quite something and I’m gratified that you’re ambivalent about ‘From a Distance’. Back in the late 80s she was in the vanguard of some great American stuff by the likes of Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom Russell, John Gorka and Pat Alger among others. There were some later artistic misfires (I really don’t like that LSO thing very much at all) but at least she never treaded water and the ‘Ruby’s Torch’ album is truly lovely.
    RIP Nanci.

  2. So sad to hear of Nanci Griffith’s passing. Pete and Maura Kennedy, who were in her band for many years, are also worth checking out. They livestreamed a tribute show to her this past Sunday.

  3. Our daughter, Molly, referred to Nanci Griffith’s voice as the voice of my childhood, just as decades before, my older daughter, Leanne, said the exact same about John Stewart – another in the line of coincidences I could have mentioned.

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