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 … ?

(Annotated) iPod Shuffle, Feb. 2018

  1. Somewhere Over the Rainbow : Buffy Ford *
  2. 44 Vicksburg : Little Brother Montgomery
  3. Lady Day : Rod Stewart **
  4. Joanne : Michael Nesmith***
  5. Arkansas (Part 1) : Bill Frisell
  6. Lights of Laramie : Ian Tyson
  7. If I could be With You (One Hour Tonight) : James P. Johnson
  8. Rosetta : The New York All Stars
  9. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison ****
  10. My Girl : Otis Redding
  11. Now’s the Time : Charlie Parker*****
  12. Me & Paul : Willie Nelson
  13. Going Home : Leonard Cohen ******
  14. Pancho & Lefty : Willie Nelson
  15. Evening Shuffle : Johnny Shines
  16. Gimme An Inch Girl : Ian Matthews
  17. Duke of Earl : Gene Chandler
  18. Billie’s Bounce : Charlie Parker
  19. Time on My Hands : Billie Holiday *******
  20. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith ********
  • * This solo version was recorded by John Stewart’s wife, Buffy Ford, as part of a short-lived project called Darwin’s Army, a four-piece group in which John & Buffy were joined by John Hoke & Dave Crossland sing a mixture of traditional American folk songs, mixed with compositions by the likes of Tim Hardin, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan … and Yip Harburg & Howard Arlen’s all-time classic. Not, in truth, a great album [Appleseed APR 1025] but this, I think, is a lovely version of the song.
  • ** My only other experience of Rod Stewart having been seeing him at the Richmond Jazz and Blues Festival in the mid-60s, when, introduced as Rod the Mod, he was a less-than-convincing second vocalist to Long John Baldry in Steampacket, a relatively short lived blues band [the nucleus of which – Brian Auger on organ, Julie Driscoll on vocals – went on to form the more successful Brian Auger & The Trinity] I was almost totally unprepared for Stewart’s first solo album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, (1970) on which, supported by Ronnie Wood & Ian McLagan from the Small Faces amongst others, he uses his rusty voice to great effect on a range of songs, from Jagger & Richards’ “Street Fighting Man” to a rearranged “Maid of Constant Sorrow” (“Man” in this version) and – quite superb this – Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town”. Four of the songs, including the title track, were written by Stewart himself, as was this one, “Lady Day”, which comes from the equally fine follow-up album in the same vein, Gasoline Alley41NA4mNgHdL
  • *** Probably the most musically literate of The Monkees, Nesmith [whose mother made a fortune from Liquid Paper – Tippex to you and me] released some good country albums with the First and Second National Bands in the 1970s, the majority of them featuring Red Rhodes on pedal steel guitar. “Joanne” is perhaps the best known of the songs he composed, along with “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care)” and “Some of Shelley’s Blues”, both of which are on the album, Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash. I saw him perform a couple of times during this period, once at the Roundhouse in Camden, the other time at a theatre in Victoria, at the end of which evening, in the spirit of something I didn’t quite understand, he told us the evening had been as much about  the way we were communicating with him as he was with us and bade us, therefore, not to applaud after his final number, but to leave in a mood of quiet contemplation. Which, mostly, we did.
  • **** I first heard this in the late 50s/early 60s, and almost certainly bought the album, Local Colour, from Chris Willard’s jazz record shop in New Cross, because it was one of the tracks. Allison was a better-than-average post-bop pianist – he made early recordings with Al Cohn/Zoot Sims and with Stan Getz – and a distinctive singer with a soft and insinuating southern blues-tinged voice that was a clear inspiration to Georgie Fame. When I saw him performing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho some dozen years ago, it was good to see Georgie sitting in the audience. R-4576302-1368876126-1817.jpeg
  • ***** There are two quintessential sets of early Charlie Parker recordings; those he made for the Savoy label in the mid-40s and those on Dial, mostly slightly later. Both “Now’s the Time” and “Billie’s Bounce”, also included in this shuffle, were recorded in New York City on November 26th, 1945 by a group known as Charlie Parker’s Reboppers, in which Parker’s alto was joined by Miles Davis on trumpet and a rhythm section of Curley Russell on bass, Max Roach on drums and (possibly – there’s some discographical argument, I understand, about this) Dizzy Gillespie at the piano. And talking of the piano, my favourite version of “Now’s the Time”, Parker’s aside, is by John Lewis on his 1960 album, Improvised Meditations and Excursions. Love it! Play it all the time!
  • ****** It’s difficult to listen to any of Cohen’s albums in the last decade of his life – Old Ideas, 2012, Popular Problems, 2014 and You Want It Darker, 2016 – without realising that he had a keen and growing awareness of his own mortality. You Want It Darker, which he was only able to finish with help from his son, Adam, was released just a few weeks before his death and is, to my ageing ears at least, easeful and disturbing to varying degrees. Comfort listening for those about to enter their final decade.Cohen
  • ******* There’s an affecting scene in David Hare’s film for television, Page Eight [the first of what later became The Worricker Trilogy] in which Bill Nighy shows Rachel Weisz a segment  from the 1957 American television programme The Sound of Jazz from 1957, in which Lester Young on tenor sax is among Billie Holiday’s accompanists as she sings “Fine and Mellow”. In the clip Nighy chooses, we see Young, far from well, soloing, then a close up of Billie Holiday listening intently, love, regret and admiration mingling on her face. As Nighy points out, however, the moment the solo is over, she is sharp to the mike to continue singing. For Nighy, it’s both a way, I think, of persuading Weisz into loving him, at the same time as saying that when push comes to shove, as inevitably it must, it’s work that wins. The critic, Nat Hentoff, was in the studio during the filming of The Sound of Jazz, and had this to say about that part of the session: Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.
  • ******* “Time on My Hands” was one of the many songs Billie Holiday recorded with various Teddy Wilson aggregations during the late 30s and early 40s, many of them featuring Lester Young. Here, the tune is played almost painfully slowly, Billie’s voice weary yet knowing; the only solo is from Wilson on piano, and all we hear of Lester is his saxophone behind Billie’s voice more or less throughout, the sound distant and subdued.
  • ******** This begins with two of the best opening lines from a Dear John song that I know … “Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs, Got a ticket in my  pocket says I’ll make it out of here”. Only rivalled, perhaps, by these from “Bittersweet” on the Everything But the Girl 1985 album, Eden. “Don’t talk to me in that familiar way/When the keys are in my hand.”
  • Nanci

iPod Shuffle, November 2016



  • Trouble in the Fields, Nanci Griffith
  • Wooly Bully, Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs
  • At Long Last Love, Frank Sinatra
  • Respect, Aretha Franklin
  • When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease, Roy Harper
  • I Can’t Get Started, Billie Holiday
  • Thirteen, Kathryn Williams
  • The Glow Worm, The Mills Brothers
  • No Name Blues, Johnny Shines
  • Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan [Take 1, Alternate Take]
  • Brilliant Mistake, Elvis Costello
  • Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, Billy Bragg & Wilco



Tom Drury – “Hunts in Dreams”


I’ve written before about the American novelist, Tom Drury, here, and feel the need to do so again. In his introduction to the Old Street reissue of Drury’s first novel, The End of Vandalism, Jon McGregor warns potential readers of the dangers of becoming obsessed with Drury’s writing, and that seems to be what has happened to me. Sticking to chronological order, I next read The Black Brook, only parts of which worked for me, it certainly didn’t cast the same kind of spell [the difficult second novel?] but with Hunts in Dreams, Drury is back on track – and back in the same territory as The End of Vandalism, obscure, small-town Ohio – and I was captivated once more.

He plays, it seems to me, pretty much the same writerly trick, casting us more or less adrift amidst a small welter of inter-connecting, or more usually, not-quite-connecting, characters, confuses us (and, sometimes, them) with assorted non-sequitors, roads not taken, missed opportunities and misunderstood conversations, before levelling out, tightening down and concentrating on a smaller number of characters and their evolving situations. The prose becomes more straightforward and seemingly controlled (though it’s always been that) at the same time as taking on a poetic edge which seems, at times, to veer towards the over-sentimental, while avoiding it by maintaining, below the surface, a constant sense of danger.

Take this passage from Hunts in Dreams: Octavia is about to run off with a man considerably older than herself and has persuaded her elder brother to drive her to meet him.

He left. Octavia stood beneath a larch tree, suitcase by her feet. In it she had packed clothes, bracelets, makeup, two sandwiches, and a journal of blank pages. She had never been able to write down her thoughts, which had seemed so run-of-the-mill. Now things would be different.
Her brother stopped a half-mile away. The taillights shone on a hill. Probably he wanted to be sure that her ride would come. He could be very sweet in his way. Her whole family appeared benign, if misguided, in retrospect. Her mother would take it hardest, would feel so cheated. But November would come, December, snow would fly from the rooftops, and she would know her daughter was gone.
Jerry arrived just when it seemed he would not. He took her hands and held them out and asked her to let him look at her. She wore a CPO coat over a black dress. The wind gusted in the branches.
“Where should we go?” he said.
She pushed strands of hair from her forehead. “Texas?”
“Why there?”
“I heard it was nice,” she said softly, the toe of her shoe turning in the grass.


“If you read this book properly,” says McGregor, “you will become invested in these lives. And this investment will be something you have created, as a reader, in collaboration with Drury. You will have given life to these people, only to let them experience pain. You will have allowed yourself to feel something like love for a group of complicated characters who do messy and regrettable and sometimes unlikeable things.”

The young and naive Octavia and her middle-aged postman lover in Texas – how do we think that’s going to work out exactly? She’s moving on from a largely dysfunctional family to an impossibly romantic fairy tale dream; Jerry’s already thinking if we get two good years that’s enough. He’s likely right, two years at best, but he could be wrong, things might fall apart before they reach the border. Or, then again, the thing about dreams, in life as well as fiction, just occasionally they have a way of coming true.


Is it always the women in Drury’s novels who are unsatisfied, who are forever searching for something different, something better, more fulfilling? [Like the Brangwen women at the beginning of The Rainbow? Like women everywhere??] Joan is married to Jerry’s brother, Charles; she and Charles have a son, Micah, and she has a daughter, Lyris, who has only recently come to live with them. For some time, Joan has felt there is something missing in her life, something out of reach but which she feels the need to strive for. [It’s no coincidence that she has played Masha in a production of The Seagull]. When she leaves town for a working weekend away, Charles is afraid she might be contemplating having a brief affair. But it is more serious than that: she’s thinking of leaving.  She calls Charles and tells him she won’t be home on Monday; she won’t be home till spring.

She left the hotel with her suitcase in her hand. There was almost nothing in it, but she didn’t want to be the sort of woman who begins a new life without a suitcase.
The streets that had been empty yesterday were now very busy. Everyone had somewhere to go, and so did she, although she did not know where. Charles would tell the children, and there would be no going back now. He would tell them at the first chance, and with bitterness. If only she had kept Lyris as an infant instead of having her handed back so late, things would have been different. Yet they might all wait for her. Micah would; he was true-blue. And spring was not far away. It would be winter and then it would be spring. She wondered if she would keep her promise. It was easier to say “I’ll be home in the spring” than it was to say “I won’t be coming home.”

So many women on the edge of going; so many women with suitcases by their sides, in their hands, waiting at the kerb.

Makes me think of Nanci Griffith singing …

Bags are waiting in a cab downstairs
I’ve got a ticket in my pocket says I’ll make it out of here,
And I came by here just to tell you goodbye
I can see it in your face that you don’t want to know why;
I made up my mind late last night that I would leave your city behind.
Oh, and love is not in question when you’re holding the answer
In your cold heart and closed mind;
Oh, you got a cold heart and a closed mind.

Cold Hearts / Closed Minds : Nanci Griffith


Tracy Thorn of Everything But The Girl singing …

Don’t talk to me in that familiar way
When the keys are in my hand;
Don’t say that everything is here to stay
And I must try to understand

Bittersweet : Tracey Thorn & Ben Watt




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