The characters danced to Nanci Griffith songs from a small town


Singer Kathy Mattea recorded a four-minute novel titled “Love at the Five and Dime” in 1986, and the song became a hit and a calling card for the country star. She sings it again 35 years later. The songwriter was Nanci Griffith, a Seguin language lover who grew up in Austin. Griffith, with the song, created a rich story that spanned two lifetimes through their connection, disconnection, reconnection and dance for many years. All this living was compressed into four verses and a chorus that possessed the lift capacity of a bird’s wing, as well as its fragility.

Griffith once told a reporter that she was glad Mattea had to sing the song the rest of her life so she didn’t have to. This is the nature of a singer-songwriter: move on to the next song, while listeners obsess over the last one.

(To paraphrase fellow Texan songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard: If you write a song, prepare to sing it every night for the rest of your life.)

Mattea says Griffith called her after this interview, horrified by her own comment on “Love at the Five and Dime”.

“I told her, ‘Honey, don’t worry,’” Mattea said. “There was nothing she could say that I didn’t enjoy this song. I am delighted to be singing it the rest of my life.

“It’s like an epic movie. To get this couple and their love and break up and fight and how they come back to each other. It’s an amazing song. I’ve been living with this for 35 years of my life. I sing it every night I have a show. And even now there is a subtle moment that jumps out at me like I heard it the first time.

Griffith passed away on August 13 and enjoyed obligatory tributes befitting a beloved musician who has recorded for four decades, including Jason Cohen’s magnificent and respectful piece for Texas Monthly. She also enjoyed a few more measured tributes with the usual backhanded comments for a woman who worked for years in an industry defined by men.

Tributes focused on Griffith’s wonderful cover album, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” from 1993. But imagine a tribute to the late John Prine who focused on his “In Spite of Ourselves”, a lovely space. reserved from the 1990s where he covered old country songs he loved. The phrase “thin-skinned” appeared in a commentary, a descriptor made even more comical a week before the death of Tom T. Hall, a distinctive songwriter ravaged by a bard who despite nearly 60 years of accolades , bristled that Hall was not respecting his job. Sometimes the line between bird and thin skin is as fine as the end of the line that differentiates the XY and XX chromosomes.

Such gendered comment lines are not new. They may have more perspective in 2021 than when Griffith first wrote his brilliant and wonderful songs immersed in a Texan singer-songwriter scene full of fellow artists who admired his work. But somehow, the perception outside of his work peers remained patriarchal: Texas songwriting deans were clearly defined as men. Griffith was talented but somewhat less, defined by a certain sensibility that siphoned her to second-class status: “She did lend a beautiful voice to Prine’s songs, however. And we could count on her to smile from time to time on the album covers ”, continues the reflection.

I have heard repeatedly how difficult and sensitive she is. I find it hard to believe that she was more of a problem than her colleagues. Griffith’s ex-husband, songwriter Eric Taylor, told me stories about people he hit when he was younger and more combative. Taylor – also a songwriter of great sensitivity and depth – has had wiggle room for volatility. The problem has nothing to do with Taylor but rather with the standards we have accepted to describe artists.

“I won’t apologize, there was a double standard,” says Denice Franke, singer-songwriter and friend supervised by Griffith. “The critics were harder on her for the things they let go with men. Things were acceptable to men who people saw as bad behavior or irritating behavior. For a woman, it was not tolerated. It was not said at the time. So Nanci fought this battle alone.

Irish singer Maura O’Connell, who covered Griffith’s “Trouble in the Fields” – a wonderfully crafted song about a strained relationship set against the backdrop of a struggling family farm – and sang on some of Griffith’s recordings, has said, “I’ve been told I’m picky and sensitive. It seems like a southern thing when women have an opinion. They are ‘picky’. Especially when they express an opinion opposite to yours.

A double standard is featured in “Without Getting Killed or Caught”, Tamara Saviano’s marvelous documentary about songwriter Guy Clark. Considered a gold standard among songwriters, Clark claimed his wife, Susanna, wrote a handful of songs that went on to become hits for artists such as Emmylou Harris. Without questioning Guy Clark’s legacy, the film still strives to portray Susanna not only as a gifted painter but as a formidable composer. Yet she was considered the painter, Guy the craftsman of the song.

A first reviewer of a Griffith album mocked a publicity photo of her holding a copy of Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove”.

“She was ambitious, like literary people were ambitious,” says O’Connell. “So I don’t see what the problem was there. She wrote the songs I love to sing: songs and stories that make sense or that provide a window to the world. They can be personal, but they don’t have to be. She did it all.

Mattea adds, “She was part of that wave of Texan songwriters who brought their own POV to their music. Their own translation of Texan culture. This combination of nervousness and honesty and transparency. But she was the only woman. Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle… she stuck with all of them.

“She had a literary side to her writing, and that wasn’t affected. To me, it was just an expression of who she was.

Franke points out that Griffith – while growing up in Austin – drew early inspiration from Carolyn Hester, a 60s folk from Greenwich Village contemporary by a renowned thin-skinned songwriter, who added to harmonica on Griffith’s recording of his “Boots of Spanish Leather.” “

“She had these champions that she admired,” Franke says, “but it’s always difficult for a woman to speak up. To kick them out and feel there is nothing to apologize for. Do something so public. She spoke her truth, and I don’t think all of her peers felt the same challenges that she did this.

The temptation is to use the word “nurture” with Griffith because she has lent her ear to other musicians and given them a helping hand. Lyle Lovett spoke after Griffith’s death about how she got interested in his songs and helped get it booked at the Anderson Fair in Houston. Franke caught Griffith’s attention and ended up singing on stage with her. Kelly Willis was another musician pulled up by Griffith.

Her largesse might appear to be due to her work as a singer of songs written by others. “I see why people call her a performer,” Mattea says, “because she had this singing style of her own.”

But more likely, Griffith’s interest in singing the songs of other writers had to do with the reasons she grabbed books by Larry McMurtry and Truman Capote on promotional photos. She loved the way people played with words, and her covers were simply a byproduct of working in a rich creative pool. But she was a crucial part of the water cycle.

Griffith has written songs throughout his life and career, even after his cover album won him a Grammy. “She had so many great songs,” says O’Connell. “We once had a discussion and she complained that she was not in a relationship. I said to her, ‘Nanci, nothing but the moon will do for you.’ She took it and wrote a song about it. This is how his mind worked.

Unlike Susanna Clark, Griffith didn’t leave a handful of hits. She has written well over 100 songs. Some that she has recorded indelibly. Others were covered by others. But her status as a songwriter certainly matches her position as a singer. And for a state so picky about its Texan character, its stories often took place in that state with landmarks and characters that felt like they were dancing to song from a small town.

Griffith left Texas in the 1980s and inexplicably called into question his Texan good faith, a pointless regional argument that was never attached to Clark or Van Zandt, who lived for decades before dying in Nashville.

Australian born and raised singer-songwriter Emma Swift says, “Songs like Nanci’s introduced me to Austin. Its imagery is what I had in mind when I first went to Texas.

Swift has witnessed some bizarre regional bickering in her home country. “Wars for authenticity are pretty ridiculous and funny,” she says.

That said, Griffith’s tales originated in Texas but have proven relevant far beyond Texas, including Ireland, where O’Connell says, “She’s still loved.”

Swift first heard her music about 10 years ago, and although she is based in Nashville, the songs bring her back to when she first heard them in Sydney.

“I loved her voice and that’s what magnetized me in her albums,” she says. “And that led me to discover that she was also an excellent poet. And a great performer.

Swift frequently watches a live clip of Griffith singing “Love at the Five and Dime”. “She’s such a funny storyteller,” she said. “But so often what she sings is intensely personal and deeply sad. This juxtaposition of humor alongside deep sadness is a beautiful thing.

“She was a keen observer of everyday life, like a great short story writer. So, of course, she had a lot in common with great American short story writers as well as with fellow songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, John Prine. She was a real force to be reckoned with.

Franke adds: “There is a longevity in a song by Nanci Griffith. The same way there is longevity in a Guy Clark song or an Eric Taylor song. Put those words in any genre of music and they still stand, they always tell the truth. And when we’re gone, if anyone hears them or reads them, they’ll understand. That way she’s like all great writers. The truth is the truth. She wrote about her experiences, and they let you know that the world is not that big. That’s what great writers do.

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