Nanci Griffith’s ‘Love At The Five and Dime’ was one of the first songs I ever learned to play on the guitar, so it was the end of an era for me (Ellie) when the Texas-born country singer-songwriter passed away on August 13th, aged 68. It was the first song that I realised was played in a different tuning to the ‘standard way’ —a mind blowing discovery for a young guitarist!
Nanci often spoke out in her songs against injustice, violence, the death penalty, environmental damage, racism, and sang in support of gay marriage. Her song ‘Hell, No (I’m Not Alright)’ was a protesters anthem used during Occupy Wall Street in 2012. Her songs were always delivered in a style that was light, bouncy and feel good, though the lyrics were often deeply challenging. ‘Its A Hard Life Wherever You Go’, for example, which she wrote after she moved to Ireland in the late 1980’s goes:
I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney, and Cronkite, and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am the backseat driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can't drive on the left side of the road
One of her catchiest and most feel good songs for me, ‘Drive in Movies and Dashboard Lights’, is about a girl whose whole life is about being beautiful with no other expectations of her, and it is brutal and sad:
Where is she now?
She’s a backseat queen of fraternity,
Where is she now?
She’s heavy of thigh and light on integrity
Listen to it here
Nanci Griffiths was also often said to be incredibly generous. She had an amazing way of being kind towards fellow musicians, especially those who were up and coming that she could help. She worked closely to help develop the careers of some great artists like Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris. She really cared about people and championed their creativity - not getting sucked into the competitive dog-eat-dog nature of the music industry. She would find people she wanted to help and take them on the road, and encourage people to go to their gigs and support them. In one article I read recently, a songwriter called Mary Gauthier recounts how she found herself at a party with with a group of songwriters including Nanci:
“I was handed her guitar and asked to play a song in the song circle, and when she handed it to me, I did play. And then when I was done, I handed it back and she said, ‘I don’t think so; I want you to keep it.’ And she gave me that Taylor with that, that sunburst cutaway that you see in all those pictures.”
Mainly though, Nanci Griffith just wrote some really amazing songs, and I’m really glad she did. I would encourage you to have a listen for yourself.
RIP Nanci Griffith.