Remembering Nanci Griffith, the greatest Austin-raised singer-songwriter ever
The renowned country-folk musician, a frequent 'Austin City Limits' guest, recently died at age 68 in Nashville
“I grew up here in Austin, Texas. I spent my girlhood with a friend named Mary Margaret, watching the sun come up and the sun go down over Mount Bonnell, wondering how the heck I was ever gonna get outta here. Now I spend a great deal of time wondering if I can just slip by here for a couple of days a month. Mount Bonnell may not be the tallest mountain in the world, but it’s home.”
— Nanci Griffith on “Austin City Limits,” 1985
Growing up in Austin in the 1960s, Nanci Griffith had big dreams. Born in Seguin in 1953, she arrived here with her family a few years later, meeting Maggie Graham when they were preteens in the Rollingwood neighborhood. Their youthful adventures became the basis for “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” the title track of Griffith's 1978 debut album.
Its title signaled what made Griffith special as a songwriter: She knew how to tell a compelling story, how to paint a picture with words. There was a light beyond these woods, yes, and Nanci was going to go there. She spent the next two decades dreaming, planning, writing, playing, singing — finding her way to the light.
Word of the renowned country-folk musician’s death at age 68 on Aug. 13 in Nashville sent waves of sadness through the town where she launched her musical career in the 1970s. Griffith moved to Nashville in the mid-1980s, made records for major labels MCA and Elektra, won a Grammy for her 1993 album, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and collaborated with everyone from folk legend Odetta to U2’s rhythm section.
The cause of death has not been announced. On Tuesday, Griffith’s manager, Burt Stein, issued a brief addition to the original statement issued Aug. 13: “Nanci’s wishes were for no funeral or religious ceremony be held in her name. She asked that in lieu of flowers to make donations to Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, the Mines Advisory Group of Manchester, England, or The Store in Nashville, TN.”
In recent years, Griffith had receded from the spotlight. She hadn’t played live since 2014. Her last Austin concerts were a pair of sold-out shows in February 2007 at the Cactus Cafe, the University of Texas campus acoustic haven she’d first played in 1982. Her most recent album came out in 2012.
But close friend Joy Lewallen — a longtime bartender at storied Houston folk club Anderson Fair who’d known Griffith for nearly 50 years — says Griffith still had plans for the future. She'd expressed interest in making another record along the lines of “Other Voices, Other Rooms” and had written a novel.
“Other Voices,” which featured guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Guy Clark and others, was all about paying tribute to songwriters such as Woody Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot and Kate Wolf, who’d inspired her across the decades. A second volume came out in 1998.
Griffith was quick to acknowledge her influences throughout her career, but she also became a formative influence on a generation of singer-songwriters in her wake. She brought rising talents such as Iris DeMent and Mary Gauthier with her as opening acts on national tours. She recorded songs by upstart songwriters such as Julie Gold, whose “From a Distance” won a song-of-the-year Grammy in 1991 when Bette Midler recorded it. Griffith had introduced it to the world on her 1987 album, “Lone Star State of Mind.”
And she gave an early push to Lyle Lovett, who first opened for Griffith in College Station in 1978. “She really was a champion of other folks coming up, and would go out of her way to shine a light on them,” Lovett says.
It’s fitting, then, that Rounder Records, with whom she released several albums, is now shining a light on her. A tribute album of Griffith’s songs has been in the works for a couple of years; it's tentatively due to be released in 2022. Griffith got to hear some of the recordings before she died. “She talked about how pleased she was that her music was going to be honored in that way,” says Lewallen, who last spoke to Griffith in early August.
Plans are in the works to honor Griffith in Austin, as well. She’ll be inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association’s Hall of Fame next February at the Paramount Theatre, where Griffith taped a live concert in 1993 that was released on DVD. That was already in the works earlier this year, and Stein says Griffith was looking forward to it.
"When I told Nanci she was going to be inducted, she just lit up," Stein recalls. "She said, 'That is just so important to me.'" Griffith had planned to attend: "She said, 'I’ll go if you go. Book it!'"
In addition, “Austin City Limits” is discussing a possible “best of” episode culled from her eight appearances on the TV program between 1985 and 2001.
That she appeared on the show so many times is evidence of Griffith's profound legacy in Austin. Many major artists, from Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker to Shawn Colvin and Patty Griffin, have given the city a reputation for high-quality songwriting. But all of them moved here as adults. Griffith is unquestionably the most accomplished Americana singer-songwriter ever to come out of Austin who actually grew up here.
In the beginning
“I did my first professional gig at the age of 14 on a Thanksgiving evening downtown at the Red Lion Cabaret,” Griffith said in an interview included on the 1993 Paramount concert video. “I made $11. It was a great evening. Nobody came; I was terrible, but I made 11 bucks.”
The interview took place at the former site of Holy Cross, a religious school Griffith attended at the northwest corner of 41st and Red River streets in Hyde Park. (It’s now the site of the Commodore Perry Estate luxury hotel.) “I learned a lot of other people’s songs when I went to school here because I played at the folk mass every week,” she says in the video interview. “I learned a lot of Bob Dylan songs, and a lot of Tom Paxton songs, for folk mass.”
Childhood friend Maggie Graham also attended Holy Cross. In a 1998 email interview published to a Griffith fan site, Graham recalls the two pals hanging out downtown at Vulcan Gas Company, the Paramount Theatre, Woolworth’s and other 1960s-era establishments.
"We did what most people our age did at those places," Graham wrote. "We were wild, at least by our parents' standards, and I suppose I was the wilder of the two of us. Nanci had more sense than I did."
After high school, Griffith attended the University of Texas and began performing at local venues such as Castle Creek, a listening-room at the southeast corner of 15th and Lavaca streets that’s now an office of the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association. She also performed at the legendary Armadillo World Headquarters and at You Scream Ice Cream at 2911 San Jacinto St., now the Crown & Anchor Pub.
A significant turning point came with the 1974 opening of Hole in the Wall, which remains in operation today at 2538 Guadalupe St. Original owner Doug Cugini was there when Griffith walked in shortly after the bar/restaurant opened and asked about performing there.
“She was the first person to bring in a P.A. when she played,” Cugini recalls. “And she actually brought a following with her. She had 20 or 30 people who would come to see her, and in those days, that was a big crowd at Hole in the Wall.
“She commanded the room. She insisted on the people paying attention to her, and the power of her presence on stage got it. It’s the only nights I remember the crowd being quiet during the music.”
When she wasn’t performing, Griffith often hung out at Hole in the Wall. “She became a regular,” Cugini says. In 1979, the bar memorialized its most beloved customers by having caricatures of them drawn and hung on the wall. Griffith was one of them. Those drawings later were assembled onto a composite poster that still hangs on the bar’s wall.
Among those who attended Griffith’s Hole in the Wall shows was John Hagen, a young cellist who’d recently dropped out of grad school and wanted to spend more time playing music.
“I thought, ‘This girl really has it going on,’” Hagen says. “She was a great finger-picker, she had a beautiful voice, and she commanded the room. If you can make Hole in the Wall be quiet, you’ve got something.”
Hagen approached Griffith and said he’d like to play cello with her. His timing was good. “She said, ‘Well, we’re actually making a record right now. We’re going into the studio this week.’”
Griffith had arranged to record an album for songwriter Mike Williams’ label, B.F. Deal. It became “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods." (Three of Griffith’s songs had been included on a B.F. Deal sampler issued in 1977.) Hagen joined a cast that included Eric Taylor, a Houston songwriter she’d recently married, as well as longtime Austin musicians Stephen Doster and Tom Pittman. Her childhood friend Graham sang backup vocals and co-wrote the song “Alabama Soft Spoken Blues.”
That same year, Griffith was a finalist for the Kerrville Folk Festival’s prestigious “New Folk” award. She appeared frequently at the festival over the next couple of decades, including a 1983 visit in which she served as one of the “New Folk” contest judges along with Austin singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson.
Also in 1978, Griffith performed at a club called Grin’s in College Station and met Texas A&M student Lovett. He remembers her closing the show with an a cappella rendition of Mike Williams’ song “Wichita Falls Waltz” — the first line is “Welcome to Austin, my beautiful friend” — and walking off the stage as she continued singing.
“Her voice was so strong that you almost couldn’t tell when she was on or off mic in that room,” Lovett says. “It was really powerful.”
While Griffith was in town, Lovett interviewed her for an article in Texas A&M’s newspaper, The Battalion. He accompanied her to an interview at a local radio station and took a photo of her through the control room glass. When Griffith died, Lovett posted that photo to his social media accounts.
The next time Griffith came to town, for a two-night stand at a student-run venue called the Basement, Lovett opened for her.
“She listened to my set the first night, which I thought was really nice,” he says. “So many times when you’re the opening act, you never even meet the main act, much less have them listen to your set.” The second night, Griffith sang harmony with Lovett on his song “Walk Through the Bottomland.”
Both Lovett and Hagen, who soon became the cellist in Lovett’s band, performed with Griffith at her 1985 “Austin City Limits” taping. It was the first time on the show for both of them.
Movin’ on up
After Griffith and Taylor married, she moved to Houston for several years, performing regularly at Anderson Fair. (She returned there in 1988 to record the live album “One Fair Summer Evening.”) Griffith and Taylor divorced in the early 1980s, and she moved back to Austin, living in a house on East 42nd Street, just a couple of blocks from where she’d gone to high school.
By then, the folk music action in Austin had gravitated toward the Alamo Lounge, in the lobby of a hotel at Sixth and Guadalupe streets, and Emmajoe’s, a listening room at 3023 Guadalupe St. Griffith played both venues regularly.
In November 1982, she began a 25-year relationship with the fledgling Cactus Cafe when she became the first artist to play a show with a cover charge ($1 for students, $2 for nonstudents). Griff Luneburg, who’d seen Griffith at the Alamo Lounge, was in the process of taking over the booking, and soon Griffith was playing the Cactus once a month.
When she started selling out shows there, he booked her for two-night stands, then three nights. Eventually, he persuaded the Texas Union staff to let Griffith play in the upstairs ballroom.
When she toured, Griffith “would tell other artists about this little club in Austin,” Luneburg says. “I started getting calls. She was a great ambassador for Austin and the Cactus. She really did put the Cactus on the map, because she was the queen of Austin folk music at that time.”
Meanwhile, her career as a recording artist was heating up. Griffith’s self-released 1982 album “Poet in My Window" attracted the attention of Vermont independent label Philo Records, which shortly thereafter was purchased by Rounder. The Philo/Rounder imprint released her next two records, 1984’s “Once in a Very Blue Moon” and 1986’s “Last of the True Believers.”
Both albums were recorded in Nashville at legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement’s studio. Music business opportunities in Nashville eventually compelled Griffith to move there in 1985.
She kept close ties to Austin and Texas all the while. “Last of the True Believers” included the song “Love at the Five and Dime,” which Griffith usually prefaced in concert with memories of the downtown Austin Woolworth’s store that closed in the early 1980s.
Griffith wanted to take the album’s cover photo in front of a Woolworth’s, so she traveled to Houston on Thanksgiving night in 1985 to shoot the cover there. Lovett is among those who appear on the movie scene-styled cover, along with writer John T. Davis, then the American-Statesman’s music critic, and Paisley Robertson, a longtime friend of Griffith.
Robertson remembers traveling with Griffith and several other Austin musicians to Isla Mujeres, a Mexican island off the coast of Cancun, for a folk festival that Kerrville’s Rod Kennedy produced in 1987. “Nanci would start playing every night, and the whole front of the audience was teenage girls,” Robertson says. “They were just in awe of her because they’d never seen a woman on stage, front and center, alone. You could tell how eye-opening it was.”
The glory days
Griffith moved to major label MCA in 1987, releasing five albums in five years before moving to Elektra for a six-album run from 1993 to 2001. The first, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.
In 1990, she played the Austin Music Awards for the first time, delivering an exquisite set on a remarkable bill that also included Townes Van Zandt, Daniel Johnston, Poi Dog Pondering, James McMurtry and David Halley. (Also there that night: Stevie Ray Vaughan, accepting an award for Musician of the Decade just five months before he died in a helicopter crash.)
When the Union Ballroom became too small for Griffith, the Cactus presented her concerts at the Paramount Theatre and Bass Concert Hall. She stuck with Luneburg as promoter of the shows. “That was a great thing about Nanci: She was very loyal,” Luneburg says.
Hole in the Wall founder Cugini echoed that sentiment. “Her loyalty to the Hole in the Wall lasted forever,” he says. “Whenever she was in town to play at Bass or the Paramount, after every show she would come down and bring her musicians, tip $100 to whoever was onstage, and hang out till closing time. There are a handful of musicians who always treated the place like that, and she was at the top of the list.”
“Flyer,” the Grammy-nominated 1994 follow-up to “Other Voices,” attracted an impressive range of musicians, including bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. of U2. (Starting in the late 1980s, Griffith had become quite popular in England and Ireland; she eventually bought a second home in Ireland.)
Also on board for “Flyer” was R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who recorded eight songs with her in Athens, Georgia, around the same time he was working on R.E.M.’s “Automatic for the People” and Uncle Tupelo’s “March 16-20, 1992.”
Griffith’s management offered the recording opportunity to Buck, who was a fan but had never met her. “I flew to Cleveland and saw her on tour with John Prine,” he says. “The three of us hung out all night, and it was a really neat experience. They were really smart people, really fun, and the shows were great.”
Most of “Flyer” ended up being recorded with English producer Peter Collins, but two of Buck’s tracks made it onto the record. In addition to U2’s rhythm section, the album included contributions from Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler, the Indigo Girls, Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz and Sonny Curtis of Buddy Holly’s band the Crickets (with whom Griffith later toured).
Though the ’90s marked the peak of Griffith’s popularity, she also worked through serious health issues in those years. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and then thyroid cancer, but recovered from both.
“I learned not to put off happiness until tomorrow, to go after it," she told No Depression magazine contributing editor Lloyd Sachs a few years later. “I think that’s been the major difference in my life, and I also think it’s kept me healthy.”
A dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who played shows in Southeast Asia to help call attention to landmines that remained in Vietnam and Cambodia after the Vietnam War, Griffith spoke out against former President George W. Bush and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Her 2004 album “Hearts in Mind” touched on those topics in songs such as “Big Blue Ball of War.”
“For me as a pacifist, the war in Iraq is just overwhelming,” she told Sachs. “We as a great nation should be more evolved. We should be out there making peace.”
Not fade away
Griffith began talking about retiring from music in the late 1990s, around the time that a Texas Monthly article addressed conflicts she’d had with a few journalists in the state who’d written unflattering articles about her. All of the writers involved were men; it’s worth noting that Griffith made her mark as a woman in an industry that has long been dominated by men.
But she remained active for another decade, recording several albums and continuing to tour. In 2005, she returned to Austin to induct the Crickets into the Texas Music Hall of Fame as a guest performer at the Austin Music Awards. In September 2006, she gave a graveside performance in the Texas State Cemetery at a family funeral service for former Gov. Ann Richards, who’d introduced Griffith at the singer’s 1993 Paramount show while Richards was still governor.
She made a rare return to the Cactus in February 2007, selling out two $70-ticket shows that Luneburg booked as a going-away gift of sorts for Tomoko Ikeda, a die-hard Cactus patron who was moving back to her home country of Japan. “Her music was a very important part of my life when I lived in San Marcos,” Ikeda wrote in a social media post when Griffith died. “I would play her cassettes I bought at Sundance Records over and over in my apartment. It was a dream come true to see her at Cactus Cafe.”
Griffith returned to Rounder in her twilight years, releasing the 2002 live album “Winter Marquee” on the label and then two more studio records, 2006’s “Ruby’s Torch” and 2009’s “The Loving Kind.” Her final album, 2012’s “Intersection,” came out on English label Proper Records.
Most of the people interviewed for this article had lost touch with Griffith over the final years of her life. But the outpouring of sentiment on social media when she died made it clear her music has been remembered. And just two months earlier, Grammy-winning, Wimberley-raised musician Sarah Jarosz closed a performance on “Austin City Limits” with “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a song from Griffith’s second album.
Listening to that song now, it feels like a bittersweet farewell from an artist whose influence on Austin music was greater than she’s been given credit for, and perhaps greater than she ever knew. She may have started out by climbing to the top of Mount Bonnell with Mary Margaret, but in the long run, Nanci Griffith made it to the top of the world as an artist.
“Let the Colorado River roll on to the sea
I will be crossing it in changes
This old town never did really care that much for me
I only come here to remember my dreams
Sleep tight, Hill Country town
— Nanci Griffith, “You Can’t Go Home Again”