On Nanci Griffith
By Louis Black
There's a Light Beyond These Woods
A fan letter to Nanci Griffith
Austin Chronicle, February 25, 2005,
“From Boston to Southshore in the back of the bus ...
it's the last winter storm of the season and such
And I am lost to the fiction of the book in my lap
the snow makes me drowsy ... while the dreams roll and tumble ...
It's a long way to Texas ... it's a long way back home”
– "I'm Not Drivin' These Wheels (Bring the Prose to the Wheel)," Nanci Griffith
Lunch was taking whatever was left of a case of assorted liquors, during it into glasses, stirring and downing the concoction. We toasted the summer just past. Then we picked up our packs and walked out of the kitchen to the road we followed across the wooden bridge and up to the highway. We were leaving Vermont, heading back to Boston.
The day was chilly but not cold. The sky was a shade of blue I've never gotten out of my head. We were hitchhiking and rides came easily.
I was pretty sure I was in love, but only three months later, in November, I drove with a friend down to Austin, our first trip to Texas. She stayed in Boston.
Country music, which I had not grown up with anywhere around, had already won my heart. Before we left, Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes was already a favorite. On the way down Willie Nelson won us over (once you fall for that voice it can do anything it wants to you). We weren't traveling to Austin because of the music scene, though; it was just time to move, visiting anyone anywhere. The music scene was a bonus; reading about it made it seem fun. We had no idea.
“She sure could turn the boys' heads to stare,
Swim wear saunter, tan and haunt them
that's all she learned in school;
Books were for the other girls
and the other girls were fools
In Texas back in '69,”
It was drive-in movies and dashboard lights
– "Drive-in Movies and Dashboard Lights," Nanci Griffith
Texans love stories, they love an eye for detail, a smart turn of phrase. They expect to be misled and they love to have their state and its way of life flattered. They know stories help define a sensibility, suggesting how we should live, by what rules and with what goals. Texans are of their stories, guided by these stories, their lives illuminated. Tough but romantic, funny but haunted, hopeful and doomed, rooted deep in the past while striding purposefully into the future. Rather than being contradictions, these oppositions complement each other. Stories help give majesty to one too many nights in one too many bars. Back-seat lust is reframed as romantic love, lost love translated as an empty house or a song on the jukebox played over and over.
Nanci Griffith is a storyteller, but her work is rarely about the twist, even less about the surprise. Her songs are stories, but they're about life and love, quiet and noise, staying still and traveling far, waking, sleeping. They're stories about wanting and not having, being together and being alone, sometimes at the same time. They're about people and the lives they lead. They're about people and the lives they dream.
I'm at the typewriter working on a short story. She sits on the corner of the bed sketching. We're friends, thrown together at a small Vermont college. Outside it's snowing, but outside it's almost always snowing. There's no hope for romance; she's too lovely, I'm already all used up and looking it even though I'm just out of my teens. I stop typing, turning to look at her. It's late. I know we weren't drinking because I hadn't begun to drink yet. It's that time.
"Would you like me to drive you home now?" I ask.
She looks up. Moments pass, in a tone of voice as though I was badgering and begging her, she finally says, "Okay, I'll stay." I had said nothing. There was no way I could have been more surprised. I'll always remember how the weathered barn-wood walls, rustic, rugged, ill-fit, looked in the glare of the bulb of the partially shaded lamp beyond her head. In the morning she tells me she hates me, that I must take her right home. A couple of days later, again she spends the night.
Discovering Texas music was discovering a breed of storyteller closer to the earth than the high rise, fonder of poetic allusion than Tin Pan Alley craftsmanship, telling stories out of life, love, and work rather than politics, great literature, or urban visions. There was a surprising sense of purpose. Sure, some of it was born out of a determination not to ever work at a real nine-to-five job, but there was something else. There was a sense of mission – songwriting as a noble calling. They knew the importance of what they were doing; they understood how the stories wove through and around life, both talking about it and being an integral part of it.
Discovering Nanci Griffith was a part of this journey. Griffith's music is deep Texas, of back roads and bramble bushes, blowing in fast across the plains, tumbling slowly through hard scrabble fields. It's a music of yearning, of heartbreak, love. By the time I first heard it, the days I dreamed of great adventures were long gone. It was a time of trying to stay whole. Griffith's is a music of dishes being washed, crops growing, love burning.
“There's a shadow on our wall where I once stood with him in mind
And there is an empty space beside him
here I do take my rest at night”
– "The Last of the True Believers," Nanci Griffith
The day wasn't very hot, but Jill decided we needed to make some ice cream, so we rounded up ingredients. We were living in a large old cotton plantation house in the middle of acres of cotton fields. This was after picking season, but not long after, so there were rows and rows of stripped cotton bushes, with tears of raggedy white hanging from the branches, blowing in the wind, looking like trash washed up on the undergrowth along a riverbank after a flood. Our friends were restoring the house one room at a time.
They were there because they went to a nearby college in North Carolina. It was an excellent, serious, intimate liberal arts college, though for two of them, a deciding factor had been that its campus was wheelchair and disabled accessible.
Cranking the ice cream maker and drinking Southern Comfort from pint bottles we passed time just sitting on the steps. Not in love, not even anywhere near. I wasn't even dreaming. Over the years, we would often stop at that house on our way back from or heading to Texas. As though in some stop-action movie, each time another room would be finished, more of the house inviting rather than barren. It was a time when I wasn't sure who I was or where I was going and why; my rooms were being refurbished, but at a much slower rate than those of the house, and without any of the same care or skill.
“They'd sing, "Dance a little closer to me ... dance a little closer now,
Dance a little closer tonight
Dance a little closer to me ... it's closing time,
And love's on sale tonight at this five and dime"
– "Love at the Five and Dime," Nanci Griffith
Nanci Griffith's songs have always taken me back to those places. Reminded me how light shone through warped kitchen windows, how snow-covered mornings smelled, how a partner looked moving through the house. Griffith's songs develop like Polaroids of lost moments, often of almost mundane subjects – not great passion, but the way the bathtub tilted or heading outdoors to bring in oranges for juice. Photos I'd thought were long lost. Griffith's songs made me realize those snapshots will always be with me in some way.
A generation behind the cosmic cowboys, Griffith grew up in Austin, playing local shows here by her mid-teens. Graduating from UT, she taught kindergarten and first grade for a number of years, gigging at the Hole in the Wall on Sunday nights. There's a Light Beyond These Woods, her first album, was released in 1978 on a local label. It was four years before her next release, Poet in My Window, also on an Austin label.
Playing festivals across the country as well as other gigs, she came into her own in the early Eighties. Once in a Very Blue Moon was released in 1985 by Philo/Rounder, which also reissued her earlier albums. The next year, The Last of the True Believers firmly established Griffith on the national scene and was nominated for a Grammy. Kathy Mattea's cover of "Love at the Five and Dime" that same year saw the song also nominated for a Grammy as Best Country Song of the Year.
Combining folk and country with her unique sensibility and huge appetite for sound and experience, Griffith was always writing and always pushing ahead. Without putting too fine a point on it, Texas songwriting has been mostly a men's club, with women always around, but relatively speaking, only a few women have weighed in aesthetically. Griffith was hard to ignore given her impressive talent and growing reputation as other performers covered her songs. Griffith supported other songwriters by covering their material in her concerts and on her albums.
1987's Lone Star State of Mind found her on MCA, a major national label. An international audience followed her national one. Her albums integrated more pop, which earned her critical chiding and an even larger audience. After five albums on MCA, Griffith switched to Elektra. Her first release for them, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1993, was a collection of songs by some of her favorite songwriters and influences. She won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Performance for it. There were a half-dozen other releases, as well as anthology collections of her work issued by different labels. Now she has a new album out, Hearts in Mind, about love and about war, on New Door/UMe.
As the world discovered her, Austin was not always kind. Forget that she was a superb songwriter, terrific performer, and supported other talents. She broke out in such a way that some didn't really get what was going on, some couldn't handle the accoutrements of success and they blamed her. Some Austin critics didn't like her; some were gratuitously cruel and took cheap shots whenever they could (including the main music writer for this publication during the mid-Eighties).
I don't want to make more of this than there was, but instead of being honored and celebrated, Griffith, a hometown hero, a Seguin girl who became an international star, was criticized and targeted. There's a book on Texas music that only spends a couple of paragraphs on her (though it notes that three of her albums went gold and two platinum). She appears in just four other places in the book, all about artists whose songs she was among the first or the first to cover, including Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen, and Eric Taylor (to whom she was once married), with one entry noting that she was an early supporter of Darden Smith. In short, there's a certain hometown injustice, but that fades in light of the songs, the stories, the wisdom, the voice, so deceptive, so rich and surprising.
“The telephone is ringin' in the middle of the night
And I pull the bed clothes higher
Will it stop calling out if I turn on the light?”
– "It's Just Another Morning Here," Nanci Griffith
She's always the storyteller, but her skill and style are such that these aren't just stories out of the oral tradition, but rather beautifully worded songs more about people than plot. She starts with what we all know and then offers us thoughts, ideas, scenes, and situations.
Her work is usually beautifully constructed. Look at the following stanza. It starts out in the back seat of a cab with an admittedly bossy passenger. This image is intimate, we know it, we've been there. They pass a child on a corner, another commonplace image. Then, having lulled us, she plunges us into the most complicated darkness.
“I am a backseat driver from America
They drive on the left on Falls Road
The man at the wheel's name is Shamus
We pass a child on the corner he knows
And Shamus says, "Now, what chance has that
And I say from the back, "I don't know"
He says, "There's barbed wire at all of these exits ...
And there ain't no place in Belfast for that kid to go."
– "It's a Hard Life (Wherever You Go)," Nanci Griffith
The voice. How do you write about a voice? A voice that slides down your memories, wrapping them close to your emotions and smoothing over your nerve endings. Obviously there's a lot you can say about a voice. Let me rephrase the question. What can I say about this voice? I can't pretend critical distance. It's been a companion, a beacon through the fog, a memory (both welcome and unwelcome), a resting place, and a dream. It's provided solace, and I've savored its fictions, imagining other lives, myself as other people.
“I saw you once in a crowded bar ...
it was Christmas time.
I was frightened by the thunder of
our hearts in '69
Because I live my life in whispers now
and I choose to live alone
So I slipped back to the avenue and
flipped my collar to the cold”
– "So Long Ago," Nanci Griffith
Sometimes at the Austin Chronicle we used to get letters complaining about why reviewers can't just offer objective reviews and leave themselves out? I barely understand these. Music, art, culture work because we interact with them. There are not clear objective standards by which to measure them. There are standards, but different folks champion different ones, and nowhere is there a set-in-stone dictate about art or any aspect of it. Writing about culture is to write about yourself even if you never get specifically personal. It isn't that this album is "great." It's that this album is a great example of a kind of music I like for these reasons.
For a long time, I've carried around a big piece in my head that I've wanted to write about Nanci Griffith. About how her songs filled my life. So, of course, it was also going to be about me. There's no way to pretend to objectivity. I don't want to write the well-thought-out biographical essay or do an interview, some of which will be the same answers to questions that she's been asked over and over. I wanted to write about the long period when there was always Nanci Griffith albums in the stack next to the record player and later always a couple of her CDs in the changer.
I didn't want to explain Nanci Griffith, explore or defend her, or examine the meanings of her songs. I wanted to sink away from the rational into the instinctive and emotional to write this, a fan letter, a critic's too-personal enthusiasm, a history, a fanatic polemic, an unrestrained celebration, a diary.
From a song on her first album:
“The fantasies we planned, well, Maggie,
I'm living them now.
All the dreams we sang, oh, we damn sure knew
how ... but I haven't changed.
There'll never be two friends like you and me,
Maggie, can't you see?
There's a light beyond your woods, Mary Margaret.”
– "There's a Light Beyond These Woods," Nanci Griffith
I wish I could live with the intensity of the people in her songs. Nanci Griffith's music has amplified joy and provided salve. There have been romantic moments she enhanced and days she kicked off bright with her delighted voice floating through the air in the rooms of my house.
There have been some very rough times, long dark stretches when the internal emotional storms raged without end. Then, it wasn't a light beyond the woods that gave the little warmth I accepted. It was a voice, a woman, her music and her songs. In the coal black dark of many a moonless midnight they lit the way. It wasn't that I returned, it was just that knowing there might be a way back at those times meant everything.