Fleeting Glimpses of Nanci

Nanci GriffithIn the wake of Nanci Griffith’s death yesterday, people are remembering her through her songs. Many musicians are sharing personal stories of her kindness and generosity, especially in helping other musicians get started or receive recognition.

I myself shared several of her songs on social media yesterday. With over 20 albums, she sure left us a lengthy musical legacy to choose from.

But this is not intended as a retrospective of her career. Better writers than I will provide better versions of that than I can. These are just a few memories from one longtime fan, happy to have been along for portions of the ride.

I never knew her except through the music but I followed her career closely. My memories consist more of her recordings and songs. You always knew you were in for a great show whenever you saw her perform.

70s — The Alamo Lounge

The first place I remember hearing Nanci Griffith play was the Alamo Lounge. I specifically remember ducking under the neck of her guitar as I walked past where she was playing on the small stage to reach the narrow hallway to the bathroom. If she noticed me, she didn’t react but kept on playing & singing.

Alamo Lounge, Martin Wigginngton

Martin Wigginton, who rigidly enforced the Alamo Lounge’s “listening room” policy

The Alamo Lounge, a tiny ground floor bar in an old Austin hotel, hosted up & coming singer-songwriters in a series of Twilite Hour shows back in the late 70s.

There, I saw the likes of Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock, Eliza Gilkyson, Joe Ely, Jimmy Dale Gilmore — and Nanci Griffith — all before they had gained anything more than regional renown.

That little listening room made the perfect launchpad for several of those folks and certainly Nanci Griffith shone brightly among that small constellation of rising stars.

80s — Kerrville

In the mid-80s, I was attending the Kerrville Folk Festival with my then-sweetie, Marilyn Fowler (neé Cain), a contender in that year’s New Folk Songwriting contest. As we were wandering the campgrounds that evening after the stage performances, we ran into Nanci, who had performed that night. She asked Marilyn, “Did you ever get the rights back to that song of yours?”

She was talking about Marilyn’s song “Canadian River.”  Unfortunately, Marilyn had learned one of the hard lessons of a songwriter with that one. Someone bought the song, paying her an advance while promising the rights would revert to her if they failed to record it within 6 months. When no record showed up after 6 months, Marilyn contacted them to regain her rights. They informed her they had only promised to record the song, not release it, so they had met that contractual obligation. The rights to that song now belonged to them.

Marilyn shook her head at Nanci’s question, and Nanci said, “If you ever do get those rights back, I want to record that song.” Too bad, as Nanci would’ve done a great job with it and that certainly would have boosted Marilyn’s career as a songwriter.

That was my closest encounter with Nanci.

90s — Austin Music Awards

Shortly after Sara & I got married, we attended the 1990 Austin Music Awards and Sara got her first taste of Nanci, who was exhorting us all to vote for Ann Richards, saying, “I don’t live here any more so I can’t vote for her, so y’all gotta!”

She also talked of coming of age in Austin, sprinkling stories of taking LSD and walking down Congress Avenue, between her stunning songs. Her backing band that evening featured young James McMurtry, just starting his recording career. Again, she reveled in offering a helping hand to a new talent on the stage.

Nanci finally won a Grammy when she even more specifically turned the spotlight on the work of others with her beautiful 1993 album, “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Drawing on her many diverse musical influences from Woodie Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Kate Wolf to Jerry Jeff Walker to Janis Ian to Odetta to Gordon Lightfoot, she shared some of her favorite songs from these artists.

She included songs from some of her personal songwriter friends as well, and not just the renowned Townes Van Zandt. She featured “Woman of the Phoenix” by Vince Bell, who suffered a life-threatening accident that derailed him as his career was about to take off in the early 80s. Nanci never forgot Vince and, along with another cohort, Lyle Lovett, paid tribute by recording some of his songs.

I don’t know how often I saw Nanci play. From those early days in the Alamo Lounge ducking under her guitar neck to the multiple Austin City Limits appearances through the years to some fantastic hometown shows at Austin’s Paramount Theater, she never disappointed.

I’ll leave you with a handful of songs from our fair songbird. Farewell, old friend — your voice, your songs, your music, and your spirit will forever lift us up.

Once in a Very Blue Moon

“Just once in a very blue moon — and I feel one coming on soon.”

Ford Econoline

A prominent country star wanted to record this song but insisted on changing the word “bosom” —Nanci thought that was crazy and refused to let her record a changed version.

“She’s the salt of the earth,
Straight from the bosom of the Mormon church…”

Listen to the Radio

“‘Cause when you can’t find a friend,
You’ve still got the radio.”

From a Distance

Written by Julie Gold — later recorded & released by Bette Midler

It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go

“This will always be my personal best favorite.”

About bullersbackporch

I am a native Austinite, a high-tech Luddite, lover of music, movies and stories and a born trainer-explainer.
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