Americana Music Songwriting

Nanci Griffith RIP

Toward the end of every week, I start to get frustrated thinking about what topic to post on my blog. When something comes along prior to tthe time to write, I feel relieved and happy. However, today I am not so happy with the news that came to me earlier in the day.

While driving home, my buddy texted me to say that singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith passed away. Although she left us on August 6, it was her wish that her death not be made public until a week afterward. Nanci was an Americana treasure. She wrote fantastic story songs. “Love at the Five and Dime” is an absolute classic. She rode the fence between folk and country music. She liked to call her music “Folkabilly.” Anyone that appreciated fine songwriting knew how great she was with a pen and guitar.

I was fortunate to see her perform twice. Each time, it was not a concert. She had an aura that made each audience member feel like she was singing and talking to that person alone. I know that sounds cliche, but with Nanci, it was true. Her banter between songs was so down to Earth, like you were sitting with her at a coffee house or bar. If she ever felt nervous on stage, you could not tell. She looked at you when she spoke.

She always looked like that girl you knew in high school, the one who was into poetry, but wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty changing the oil on a car if need be. She had an innocence on stage, yet was known for her cussing off stage. That is human, that is personable, that is what you want in a friend.

She was equally at home with a band or solo. Each song was a chapter in an American novel, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Every story, she was there, either as a reporter or protagonist. You could see the location in her words. After seeing one of her performances, it was guaranteed that you walked away emotionally satisfied.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, her record company was trying to pigeon hole her into the wave of neo-traditionalist country music performers. Nanci was much more, and she could not be put into such a category. Yes, her songs were like the country songs of old, but she and her songs were were beyond barriers. Folkies latched onto her. Other country artists looked to her for compositions and inspiration. She was so much better as long-standing singer-songwriter than she could ever be as a short-lived pop star. And the music world is so much better for it.

Like many songwriters, she went through a blockage for a few years, hers during the mid-2000s. She came back strong in 2009 with The Loving Kind. If I were to choose my favorite of her albums, it would be Flyer from 1994. Other great discs include 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind and 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, which won her a Grammy. She collaborated with so many other songwriters, the list is almost endless. I implore you to visit her catalog and listen to a few songs. You will surely be motivated to buy a few of her albums.

Goodbye, beautiful lady, dearest Nanci. You were a crush of mine, if only for your amazing writing. You are taking a piece of my heart with you. I pray that your songs will continue on for generations to come. I imagine some young girl who is just learning guitar and wants to sing, and she gets a hold of one of your albums, and learns from it.

Chew on it and comment.


By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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