Why Nanci Griffith Matters to Writers
On Friday, the news broke that singer/songwriter Nanci Griffith, who effortlessly blended folk, country, and rock and roll, passed away at age 68.
Nanci's songs have had a ripple effect throughout her 40+ year career, mostly due to the wide array of musical peers she mentored, advocated for, and collaborated with. Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pete and Maura Kennedy, Darius Rucker, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Kathy Mattea, U2, Bruce Springsteen, and the late John Prine are but a brief list of artists whose music bears her influence.
She was charming, effervescent, and wildly funny, with a voice that breaks hearts and makes them soar.
It’s impossible to measure how much Nanci’s life impacted mine, both personally and creatively. I’ve listened to her voice for more than half my life. It’s been there for every milestone and every heartbreak.
There is a sense of empathy in her music that has always been precisely what I’ve needed. Nanci Griffith has always “gotten me,” even when nobody else in my world seems to. But even beyond that, her work has impacted me as a creative person. In fact, it’s safe to say that without Nanci Griffith, my own work isn't the same.
This week, I had planned to continue my series on independent publishing that chronicles my journey toward the release of The Goodbye-Love Generation. But in light of her passing, I think it’s crucial that we hit the pause button and talk about why Nanci’s work is so important—not just to me, but to writers in general—and why we owe it to ourselves, whether we’re songwriters or not, to study it.
I have to be honest. The first time I heard Nanci Griffith sing, I wasn’t impressed. When I was thirteen, a friend bought me a copy of Other Voices, Too: A Trip Back to Bountiful, the sequel to her Grammy-award winning Other Voices, Other Rooms, after hearing it played in Borders (RIP). He was totally gung-ho over this album, but I didn’t get it. Her voice was whiny and weird. So I put the CD away and put the Dixie Chicks and Lisa Loeb back on.
Still, there must have been something that grabbed my attention. I dabbled in Nanci’s music for awhile because I figured that if my friend was that nuts about her, there must be something I was missing.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, particularly its entrancing cover of folk music luminary Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide,” piqued my interest a bit more, but I still wasn’t totally on board.
Then, about a year and a half later, it finally clicked. On a visit to Borders of my own, I picked up a copy of Lonestar State of Mind, the album that best exemplifies her country roots, and figured I’d give this one more try. From the opening notes of the title track, I was transfixed. Each of the songs took me to a unique, vivid three-minute world populated by characters who captured my imagination.
There’s a woman who drinks a glass of wine while reminiscing about a long-ago love affair in Corpus Christi. An abused wife hits the road with her five kids to escape her husband in a van he bought for her, only to become a country music mega-star. A married couple during the Depression vows to stick together and survive even as dust storms devastate their farm.
I played the album over and over. As much as I would have liked to have slammed down the money for the rest of her discography, I was in ninth grade and broke. This was the early 2000s, there was no Apple Music, and CDs were pretty expensive.
But the upside was that over the next year, I was forced to savor each album in a way that a Spotify binge could never allow for.
When I look at the stories I wrote during that period of my life, her influence in playing those CDs over and over again is palpable. I can see myself experimenting with the kind of sweeping story lines and character development featured in her songs.
I think her music hit me so hard as a creative person because she saw herself as a storyteller, not just a songwriter. She loved books, counting Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Larry McMurtry among her favorite authors and giving pointed shout-outs to Capote, McCullers, and Graham Greene in her lyrics.
Her album covers even contained coded and carefully placed references to literature, from the album titles (Other Voices, Other Rooms and Clock Without Hands) to Nanci posing with the books themselves.
Writers talk often about the influence of music on their work, but in Nanci’s case, fiction writers in particular can learn as much from her songwriting as they can from reading actual prose. Her songs have characters and conflicts that could be two-hour movies, but are instead compressed into three or four minutes.
In listening to a Nanci Griffith song, you experience the same depth of emotion in that time frame as you would from watching a film. “Love at the Five and Dime,” which was a hit for Kathy Mattea and remains one of Nanci’s best known songs, is not just a study in songwriting craft, but the stuff great novels are made of, a story about Rita and Eddie, a couple that experiences years of tumult and tragedy only to remember what first made them fall in love.
The song takes place over a period of decades and is packed with concrete details of these people’s lives that make them as real and rich as any characters in a novel. It’s a story that bears studying, not just for the craft of writing songs, but storytelling in general.
Beyond her fictional narratives, Nanci excels at telling true stories with the precision of a biographer. “The Loving Kind” gives the history of Richard and Mildred Loving, who played a pivotal role in the legalization of interracial marriage, while “Pearl’s Eye View” relates the life of Dickey Chapelle, a female photojournalist who served as a correspondent during the Vietnam War.
I had never heard of Dickey Chapelle before hearing Nanci’s song. Neither had most people who listened to it. Now thousands of people know.
As I’ve said before, Flannery O’Connor is my biggest influence as a writer, but Nanci Griffith isn’t far behind her. The more I look at what I write today, The Goodbye-Love Generation included, the more I see evidence of my 23-year study of her work. I don’t know if Nanci liked Flannery—even though Nanci was influenced by many of her contemporaries, I get the sense that Flannery may have been a little too dark for her.
However, Nanci clearly practiced the O’Connor credo I wrote about last week that writers must understand where they come from if they’re going to write anything enduring. Nanci wrote what she knew, and what she didn’t know, she explored with fervor until it became a part of her. Her stories of small-town life in Texas, including love gained and lost, came from her deep love of her home state. But she also traveled far beyond where she came from, exploring not just the true stories she wrote about, but the experiences of Vietnam veterans. In support of her ex-husband, fellow singer/songwriter and Vietnam veteran Eric Taylor, she traveled to Vietnam, interviewed veterans about their lives, and partnered with the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World.
Perhaps my own exploration of the experiences of Kent State students, northeastern Ohio artists, and National Guardsman was influenced by Nanci’s own research into these challenging topics.
For the past three days, I’ve been listening to her music pretty much nonstop. When we lose a person whose art we admire, it really is like losing a close friend. Songwriters pour their lives and creativity into their work, and while Nanci and I never met, I feel like I knew her as closely as any of my fellow writers.
I’m sad that she’s left us, but I’m so thankful that she made storytelling her life’s work and for the treasure trove of tales she left behind for writers to learn from.
Having said that…all writers need to listen to Nanci Griffith.
I don’t give a flip if you hate country music or if the extent of your knowledge of folk music is that time you sang “If I Had a Hammer” in your elementary school music class.
I don’t care if you like punk rock or rap or know all the words to every song in Hamilton. (I like all those things, too, just FYI.)
I also don’t care if you write sci-fi or fantasy or horror or literary stories. And even if your first reaction to her music is the same as mine was when I was thirteen and heard it for the first time, there is something in Nanci Griffith’s songs waiting for you as a writer. I’m so convinced of this that I made you a Spotify playlist of Nanci’s greatest story songs so you can find out for yourself.
Just listen to it. You’ll be glad you did.
Once you listen to Nanci, though, you’re going to need something to do with all your newfound inspiration. And that’s where my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook comes in. Grab a free copy and get access to writing prompts, worksheets, templates, and more to create amazing things with words.