Somedays you write the song and some days the song writes you. It’s the saddest thing, but that Guy Clark aphorism seems more truthful about sitting down to write the Blog on this sorrow filled day.
Last Friday the news came in via a kind fellow music lover on twitter that Nanci Griffith‘s death had been announced. In some ways the news didn’t surprise me as much as it would of one or two artists who are more senior in years. From what I understood, Nanci’s health had not been good and there has been a prolonged absence from any kind of involvement with public life or performance for a number of years.
Nevertheless, in an age when we have just celebrated a new album by the great Connie Smith on her 80th birthday, it does seem to be tragic to be bidding farewell to such a talent as Nanci, who is twelve years her junior.
I only got to know Nanci a little in the last few years of her creative life, which came to an end after her final studio album, Intersection, in 2012. I had made a bad start. In 1986, my late colleague and first mate, Graeme Kelling and I were asked to review recent single releases for the List magazine by the music editor. So desperate must we have been to promote our own music that we accepted the challenge without giving any thought to how it might look to pass opinion so glibly on a fellow musicians’s output. I’ve run a mile from ever doing such tawdry tasks ever since. Then there was a pile of 45’s and we came across a song called, From A Distance by Nanci Griffith. We both disliked the record but I felt a particular dislike for the song. The central idea of a God who is distant and watches in judgement didn’t really sit well with my own faith experience. I was pleased to learn that this artist, who I’d begun to hear more and more about, wasn’t responsible for writing it.
A couple of years passed before I heard Nanci properly, her own songs, on her own albums and realised I’d been guilty of dismissing her for a crime she never committed. As penance for my sins I went over to my nearest record shop and bought all the Nanci Griffith albums they had in stock. I still have the vinyl to this day. They were: There’s A Light beyond These Woods, Once In A Very Blue Moon, The Last Of The True Believers and Little Love Affairs. I enjoyed them all and fell head over boots in love with her voice and her songs.
Then a funny thing happened. Many of my friends kept me updated on Nanci’s career and especially her live performances which, for reasons that probably involved being on the road myself, I never managed to experience at first hand. So years passed, Nanci’s popularity grew and equally, as it tailed off a little, it came to pass I was set to visit Nashville for the first time in 2007. I was searching around for anyone I knew who could point me to songwriters with whom I should collaborate. A dear friend called Edwina Hayes, a fine songwriter from Yorkshire, had spent some time there and I asked her if she could recommend anyone who might spare a day for me. She supplied a great list and then left an intriguing hanging sentence at the end of her email which, as I recall, went a little bit like….’and, of course, there’s always Nanci?’
Was she serious, I asked? That Nanci? Might she be open to the idea? It turned out she was. And so it passed that we spent a day working on a new song, Nanci came over to my house on her return to come on tour that summer to record a demo and the song, to my delight, made her next album.
Since that time I’ve interviewed her for Another Country three times and finally experienced what it was so many friends had told me about; her compelling live presence.
I’ve also witnessed her deteriorating health at first hand and like many other fans, have come to the conclusion that we were no longer going to experience the joy of new material any time soon. Instead, I’ve done what I am doing right now; I’ve gone back to enjoying her great back catalogue of albums from the eighties and onwards. It’s a body of work which deserves to be celebrated properly. So on this week’s Another Country we will do just that. We’ve assembled a show which will reflect the stories you’ve shared on Twitter and Facebook over these last few days. We loved hearing your stories of where you encountered Nanci’s music and which songs you associate most with the memory. This Tuesday evening we’ll put the memories to music on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Sounds from five past eight . Join me if you can.
The Blog is taking a little holiday. It shall return mid September.
I am shocked and amazed at the outpouring of sadness and loss at this wonderful artist. And yet thinking about it, a part of me is not amazed. I discovered Nanci’s music at a particularly hard time in my life. Working very hard to pay a large debt, and not able to spend ANY money on anything as frivolous as music, but being a total music junkie of almost all genre, I was saved by a suggestion of a friend that I use my library card and check out some new music from the library. I went to the library assuming I would be embarking on a study of old dusty classical music albums, but hey, it would be something new to listen to. Amazed to find that the library was actually lending out CDs of artists actually born after 1900, my eyes came upon the cover of One Fair Summer Evening. Intrigued by the interesting cover, I selected it and placed it in my pile. I took home my selections, and popped OFSE in my cd player and started cleaning and straightening my apartment. A few bars into the first number, I had to stop and just listen. I felt my cares melt away as I got to know the characters in her songs, and heard her angelic but still somehow human voice sing meaningful, beautiful, and heart touching lyrics. I started to cry during the last song,”Love at the Five and Dime”. I played the album for guests then next night and there wasnt a dry eye..
I discovered a few years ago when my assistant decided she could take no more and had to re-alphabetize and index my music collections, that Nanci took up more of my shelf space than any modern artist. I discovered this week how dreadfully much I will miss her presence on earth.
Im torn, and torn up. I know Nanci as the artist that touched my heart the most, but also know the struggles she went thru. Selfishly bereft and missing her presence on earth, but glad she has caught that blackbird’s wing….