Nanci Griffith Biography

6 July 1953, Seguin, Texas, USA. This singer-songwriter brilliantly straddles the boundary between folk and country music, with occasional nods to the mainstream rock audience. Her mother was an amateur actress and her father a member of a barbershop quartet. They passed on their interest in performance to Nanci, and although she majored in education at the University of Texas, she eventually chose a career in music in 1977, by which time she had been performing in public for 10 years. In 1978 her first album, There’s A Light Beyond These Woods, was released by a local company, B.F. Deal Records. Recorded live in a studio in Austin, it featured mainly her own compositions, along with ‘Dollar Matinee’, written by her erstwhile husband Eric Taylor. The most notable song on the album was the title track, and as a souvenir of her folk act of the time, the album was adequate. In 1982, Poet In My Window was released by another local label, Featherbed Records; like its predecessor, this album was re-released in 1986 by nationally distributed Philo/ Rounder Records. It displayed a pleasing maturity in composition, the only song not written by Griffith herself being ‘Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown’, penned by Jimmie Gilmore and John Reed (once again, Eric Taylor was involved as associate producer/bass player), while the barbershop quartet in which her father, Marlin Griffith, sang provided harmony vocals on ‘Wheels’.

By 1984, Griffith had met Jim Rooney, who produced her third album, Once In A Very Blue Moon. This album featured such notable backing musicians as lead guitarist Phillip Donnelly, banjo wizard Bela Fleck, Lloyd Green and Mark O’Connor. It was recorded at Jack Clement’s Nashville studio. As well as more of her own songs, the album included her version of Lyle Lovett’s ‘If I Were The Woman You Wanted’, Richard Dobson’s ‘Ballad Of Robin Winter-Smith’ and the superb title track written by Pat Alger - Griffith named the backing band she formed in 1986 the Blue Moon Orchestra. Following on the heels of this artistic triumph came 1986’s The Last Of The True Believers. Released by Philo/Rounder, the album had a similar feel to its predecessor, and one that set it apart from run-of-the-mill albums by singer-songwriters. It included two songs that would later achieve US country chart celebrity as covered by Kathy Mattea, Griffith’s own ‘Love At The Five And Dime’ and Alger’s ‘Goin’ Gone’, as well as several other tracks that would become Griffith classics, including the title track, ‘The Wing And The Wheel’ (which inspired Griffith’s music publishing company), ‘More Than A Whisper’ and ‘Lookin’ For The Time (Workin’ Girl)’, plus the fine Tom Russell song ‘St. Olav’s Gate’. The album became Griffith’s first to be released in the UK when it was licensed by Demon Records.

Signed by MCA Records, Griffith’s debut album for the label, Lone Star State Of Mind, was released in 1987, and was produced by MCA’s golden-fingered Tony Brown, the influential A&R representative in Nashville who had signed Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett as well as Griffith herself (she also co-produced the album). The stunning title track again involved Alger as writer, while other notable tracks included the remake of ‘There’s A Light Beyond These Woods’ from the first album, Robert Earl Keen’s ‘Sing One For Sister’ and Griffith’s own ‘Ford Econoline’ (about the independence of 60s folk singer Rosalie Sorrels). However, attracting most attention was Julie Gold’s ‘From A Distance’, a song that became a standard in the 90s when it was covered by Bette Midler, Cliff Richard and many others, but which received its first major exposure with Griffith’s own version.

Griffith’s 1988 recording Little Love Affairs was supposedly a concept album, but major songs included ‘Outbound Plane’, which she co-wrote with Tom Russell, veteran hit writer Harlan Howard’s ‘Never Mind’ and John Stewart’s ‘Sweet Dreams Will Come’, as well as a couple of collaborations with James Hooker (ex-Amazing Rhythm Aces), and keyboard player of the Blue Moon Orchestra. Later that year Griffith recorded and released a live album, One Fair Summer Evening, recorded at Houston’s Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant. Although it only included a handful of songs that she had not previously recorded, it was at least as good as Little Love Affairs, and was accompanied by a live video. However, it seemed that Griffith’s appeal was falling between the rock and country audiences, the latter apparently finding her voice insufficiently radio-friendly, while Kathy Mattea, who recorded many of the same songs some time after Griffith, became a major star. In 1989 came Storms, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, who had worked with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Steve Miller, the Who, Joan Armatrading and many others. Johns deliberately geared the album’s sound towards American radio, and it became Griffith’s biggest seller. The album featured Hooker, Irish drummer Fran Breen, Bernie Leadon (ex-Eagles), guitarist Albert Lee and Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers providing harmony vocals on ‘You Made This Love A Teardrop’.

Although Storms was a sales breakthrough for Griffith, it failed to attract country audiences, although it reached the album chart in the UK, where she had regularly toured since 1987. However, her major European market was Ireland, where she was accorded near-superstar status. Late Night Grande Hotel was produced by the British team of Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke, and again included a duet with Phil Everly on ‘It’s Just Another Morning Here’, while English singer Tanita Tikaram provided a guest vocal on ‘It’s Too Late’. In 1991, singing ‘The Wexford Carol’, she was one of a number of artists who contributed tracks to the Chieftains’ The Bells Of Dublin. Griffith’s 1993 release Other Voices, Other Rooms was a wholehearted success artistically and commercially. She interpreted some outstanding songs by artists such as Bob Dylan (‘Boots Of Spanish Leather’), John Prine (‘Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness’) and Ralph McTell (‘From Clare To Here’).

Griffith continued to fail to put a foot wrong during the mid-90s. Flyer, another exquisite record, maintained her popularity with some excellent new material that indicated a strengthening and hardening of her vocals, with greater power and a hint of treble. Blue Roses From The Moons (1997) featured a large number of songs by other artists, and the following year’s Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back To Bountiful) saw Griffith returning to the cover versions format once again, with superb readings of Richard Thompson’s ‘Wall Of Death’, Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ and Woody Guthrie’s ‘Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)’. On 1999’s The Dust Bowl Symphony, Griffith reinterpreted songs from her back catalogue with the help of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Griffith’s first album since 1997 to comprise largely original material, Clock Without Hands, was released in summer 2001. She returned to the Rounder Records label the following year for her first live recording since 1988, Winter Marquee. Recorded with the Blue Moon Orchestra at Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre, the album featured a striking cover version of Phil Ochs’ ‘What’s That I Hear’. Her next studio album, 2004’s Hearts In Mind, was made available in Europe several months before attaining a US release.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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