Nanci Griffith Biography
Last updated: 07/19/2011 12:00:00 PM
Nanci Griffith travels well. Her musical journey has taken her from folk and country roots, to her own brand of "folkabilly"; from Austin’s Hole In The Wall bar to New York’s Carnegie Hall, Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and London’s Royal Albert Hall; from an eight-year-old girl in Texas learning to play guitar from a television instructor to a woman of the world, visiting and performing in Vietnam, Cambodia and Kosovo in support of the abolition of landmines. Today, the journey of one of the most admired and acclaimed of singer-songwriters--a career marked by a beautiful voice, brilliant songwriting and uncommon emotional commitment--continues.
The torchbearer of a music that brings together folk and country, the female sensibility of a new genre that embraced the likes of Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, Griffith has penned such classics as "Gulf Coast Highway" (a notable duet by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson), "Love At The Five And Dime" (a Grammy nominated hit for Kathy Mattea) and "Outbound Plane" (a hit for Suzy Bogguss). In turn, she was the first to record Julie Gold’s Grammy winning classic "From A Distance." She has also been honored with five Grammy nominations, three as a solo artist (winning once) and twice for performances on albums by The Chieftains (winning once).
Born in 1953 in Seguin, near San Antonio, Griffith grew up in Austin. She learned to play the guitar from a Saturday morning PBS series hosted by Laura Weber and began writing her own songs because she found that easier than learning how to play those of other people. Her first professional gig was at Austin’s Red Lion club on a Thanksgiving holiday evening when she was 14. Later that year, singer-songwriter Tom Russell heard her singing around a campfire at the Kerrville Folk Festival and became her earliest champion.
She would play the local club circuit, at first with her parents as chaperones, throughout high school and college and her first jobs as a teacher. Graduating from the University of Texas with an education degree, she taught kindergarten and first grade in Austin during the ‘70s even as she held a five-year Sunday night spot at the Hole In The Wall.
In 1978, she debuted on album with the locally released There’s A Light Beyond These Woods. In 1982, Poet In My Window was issued via another hometown indie. Her third album, 1985’s Once In A Very Blue Moon, was released by the nationally distributed Philo/Rounder label and the following year she formed The Blue Moon Orchestra, her backing band.
Her breakthrough finally came with 1986’s Grammy nominated Last Of The True Believers. Featuring Griffith’s signature songs "Love At The Five And Dime" and "The Wing And The Wheel," the album was Grammy nominated. When Mattea covered "Love At The Five And Dime" for her Walk The Way The Wind Blows that same year, the recording reached #3 Country. It was also Grammy nominated for Best Country Song of The Year (a songwriter’s award) and won a BMI Award for Griffith, whose first two albums were now re-released by Rounder. Major labels quickly came courting and Griffith joined MCA. Her 1987 major label debut, Lone Star State Of Mind, was helmed by MCA Nashville executive and renowned producer Tony Brown, who had signed Earle and Lovett as well as Griffith (she also co-produced the album). Along with the Country Top 40 title track, the Country Top 30 album introduced "From A Distance," which reached #1 in the U.K. and Ireland, places where Griffith has been a major star ever since. Five years later Bette Midler would have a smash hit with the song, though it is Griffith’s version that was used twice to awaken astronauts on space shuttle missions.
Hailed by Rolling Stone as "the Queen of Folkabilly," she followed with 1988’s Little Love Affairs, again Top 30 Country, which was graced by "Outbound Plane" (co-written with Russell), the Top 40 Country "I Knew Love" and a duet with Mac McAnally, "Gulf Coast Highway" (co-written with Danny Flowers and long-time Blue Moon Orchestra pianist James Hooker). That year also brought the live-in-Houston One Fair Summer Evening. The next year found her singing "The Wexford Carol" on the Grammy-winning A Chieftains Celebration.
Controversy ensued with the poppier sound on 1989’s Storms, produced by Glyn Johns (The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eagles, The Who), and 1991’s Late Night Grande Hotel, produced by the British team of Rod Argent and Peter Van Hook. Though the albums drew a wider audience, Griffith decided to return to her roots as well as move to Elektra Records. Meanwhile, her performances on The Chieftains’ An Irish Evening: Live At The Grand Opera House, Belfast helped that 1992 disc win a Grammy and her "Outbound Plane" went Top 10 Country for Bogguss from the latter’s Aces album.
Her Elektra debut, 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, won her the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Performance. Her interpretation of songs written by other artists, the album included Bob Dylan’s "Boots Of Spanish Leather," a song that Dylan the previous year requested she perform at his historic Madison Square Garden 30th anniversary concert. After Griffith’s 10th studio album, Flyer, the following year, her momentum suffered when she was treated for breast cancer in summer 1996, which caused her to exit from a tour with The Chieftains.
In 1997 she celebrated 10 years with The Blue Moon Orchestra on Blue Roses From The Moons, and in 1998 released Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back To Bountiful), the sequel to Other Voices, Other Rooms. She also published her first book, Nanci Griffith’s Other Voices -- A Personal History of Folk Music, a companion to the Other Voices albums. And again she battled illness as she underwent treatment for thyroid cancer. A renewed Griffith took a fresh look at her recording career in 1999 with The Dust Bowl Symphony, featuring her best-loved songs performed with the London Symphony Orchestra at the famed Abbey Road Studios.
In January 2000, she traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), tracing the steps of her ex-husband and still friend Eric Taylor, a veteran of that war and a songwriter for Griffith, Lovett and others. The next year she returned there and also visited Angola and Kosovo for the VVAF. In addition, Griffith has supported the VVAF, along with the U.K.-based Mines Advisory Group and the Campaign For A Landmine Free World, in their efforts to locate and remove existing landmines and to rehabilitate the victims of landmines with counseling and prosthetic limbs, helping them to regain their independence and self-respect as well as mobility. Clock Without Hands, her first album of new songs in four years, arrived in 2001, and the live Winter Marquee (which briefly returned her to Rounder) in 2002. The latter included a duet with Russell on Phil Ochs’ "What’s That I Hear," the theme song of the TV show that taught her how to play guitar and in fact the first song she learned to play.
The new millennium also brought three new retrospectives, including 2002’s two-CD The Complete MCA Studio Recordings, which marked the U.S. debut of "Stand Your Ground," an impassioned anti-war statement she recorded during Gulf War-era sessions a dozen years earlier for Late Night Grande Hotel.
In 2003, more than 20 years after Griffith left her Texas home for Nashville and became one of the brightest lights in a new generation of artists merging country with folk and pop music, she made her first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry.
2004 has brought her return to a Universal Music label, the newly formed New Door Records, and the release of her new studio album, Hearts In Mind.
The title of her debut album has proved prophetic: There is indeed a light beyond these woods--and it’s Nanci Griffith.