Nanci Griffith, Dead at 68

Video: Nanci Griffith – “Love at the Five and Dime” (live)

From Austin City Limits, 1989.

Sophomore year of college, a pal and I had both wanted singles, but signed up as roommates in a double and put our names on the waitlist if a single opened up. During the week or so we shared that room we pillaged each other’s small CD collections and dubbed the stuff we didn’t have onto cassette. That’s how it worked in 1990.

One of Casper’s discs I was drawn to was a live album recorded in a tiny club by a country singer with an adorable voice. One Fair Summer Evening blew my mind wide open. At the time I would have said I hated country music. I was a teenager with a bad attitude about anything I didn’t think was cool. And country was definitely not cool. Casper must have described her to me as a folk singer. That would’ve been way more acceptable to me. I mean, I liked the Indigo Girls, right? And of course I loved Donovan. So folk music was okay. Country though? Not yet.

Every song on One Fair Summer Evening tells a story. And every story is beautiful. Beautifully sad, beautifully uplifting, sometimes just beautiful sounding. The lead song, “Once in a Very Blue Moon,” is a nostalgic look back at a lost love. It employs one of my favorite narrative techniques: the one where our unreliable narrator downplays their feelings. Like “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc where the singer is clearly in love. Or in “God Only Knows” where Brian Wilson says, “I may not always love you” (only as “long as there are stars above you”). In this case, Griffith claims to only still miss her ex, “just once…in a very blue moon.” It killed me back then and it still does.

My favorite song, though, was “Love at the Five and Dime” which starts off with a charming story about the connection between Woolworth elevators and guitar harmonics, and goes on to run the course of a long-term relationship that survives its ups and downs (including infidelity and arthritis) and ultimately has a happy ending. Happy enough anyway.

I didn’t really follow Nanci Griffith’s career. I picked up the occasional album if I saw it in the used bin, but her studio stuff didn’t have the same sweetness and simplicity that One Fair Summer Evening has. Maybe I never gave them enough of a chance to get through the slicker production. I don’t know. Saw her in concert one time and she was great. In a live setting, she was able to replicate all the qualities that initially drew me in.

Since she died on Friday, I’ve read a couple critical pieces that made her out to be thin-skinned and bitter about negative reviews and her lack of mainstream success. Apparently some cynical Texas critics think she was a big phony. Their arguments remind me of one time in college when I almost came to blows with a dude who was disrespecting Jonathan Richman for being a “faux-naif” or something like that. It’s horseshit and it makes me angry. But it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten into a fistfight defending a musician’s honor…

In the liner notes to One Fair Summer Evening Griffith wrote about the Houston music hall where the album was recorded: “I learned there that a real song of heart must be able to stand on its own two feet, bare boned and innocent in its purest form of one writer/one instrument, in order to walk out into an audience and become a part of them.” Her songs achieved that.

Nanci Griffith wrote and sang real songs of heart.

Video: Nanci Griffith – “Once In A Very Blue Moon” (live)

From One Fair Summer Evening (MCA, 1988).

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