R.I.P. Nanci Griffith

Nanci/Flyer tour booklet
(Nanci/Flyer tour booklet)

Diane and I were in a doctor’s waiting room yesterday afternoon, when a quick glance at my phone revealed the sad news: Nanci Griffith had passed away at the age of 68. It was like learning an old friend had passed. 

In a blink, I remembered the late-autumn Sunday morning in 1985 when, bleary eyed, I dropped a Fast Folk compilation LP onto one of the two turntables in the deejay booth at WPSU, the student-run radio station at Penn State where I was one of several rotating hosts of a weekend folk show. “Daddy Said,” credited to Nanci Griffith and Frank Christian, kicked off Side 1, which also included treats from folk quintet Left Field, Lillie Palmer and Gladys Bragg, and an upstart named Shawn Colvin. A retreat to the record library revealed two Nanci LPs on the shelves: her 1978 debut, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, and the 1984 album home of “Daddy Said,” Once in a Very Blue Room. Ninety or so minutes later, I played the title track of the former. I was hooked.

In another blink, I recalled a February afternoon a few years on. I’ve told the story before, both here and on Instagram: Out of college, I worked retail for a few years while freelancing on the side and, during that time, found myself toiling for West Coast Video, which was attempting to expand into the new CD market. Initially, I managed a CD department at one store, but then the department manager at another store quit and the bosses decided to save some bucks by having me split my time between stores. Which leads to this: On a cold February afternoon in 1989, a cute brunette walked in, slammed her purse on the counter and said – no, demanded, “Where the hell are the Nanci Griffith CDs I ordered?” I’m exaggerating, of course, but that was how Diane and I met. (The previous manager had stuffed her order into a drawer and forgotten about it.) She was impressed that I not only knew who Nanci Griffith was, but also liked her music. I was impressed that she did, too – plus she knew who the Flying Burrito Brothers were!

Although Nanci played the Chestnut Cabaret a few months later, I didn’t see her in concert for the first time until that October, when she played the same venue with James McMurtry opening. It was a great night that I’ve documented before, so won’t do so again.

Suffice it to say, we saw Nanci just about every time she played Philly after that, including the early and late shows she did with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Beth Nielsen Chapman at the TLA in 1991. Other memorable concerts occurred in 1992, when she headlined the last night of what I believe was WXPN’s inaugural (and free!) Singer-Songwriter Weekend at Penn’s Landing, and her twin-spin with John Prine at the Mann Music Center in 1993.

Those were the days when WXPN was the default option in the car and, when not listening to CDs, in our suburban Philly home: It programmed an addictive mix of adult-oriented rock, roots music and singer-songwriters. So, although now located 400-plus miles south, our first instinct upon release from the doctor’s office and making it to the car was to tune in, as the ‘XPN of yore surely would have suspended its planned programming to celebrate her life and music. I fired up Apple Music, where the station can be streamed, and…no Nanci. Not even a mention. I can’t say I was surprised, but was disappointed. They have played her a few times today, according to their online playlist, but…times change. Radio stations, too. Such is life. Even Woolworth’s is gone.

Anyway, at her best, she was a country-inflected, folk-flavored, pop-oriented singer-songwriter who showed her heart every time she sang. She was alt.country before alt.country and Americana before Americana, and – alongside such artists as Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams – helped shape the landscape (and fanbase) that has enabled many troubadours to flourish in the decades since.

She retired from public life in 2013, as most fans know, but that brought with it the hope that she’d one day return to the studio and/or stage. Now she won’t do that anywhere but in heaven, where she’s likely already joined Guy Clark, John Prine and Townes Van Zandt, among others, in a way-cool songwriters’ circle.

I plan to spotlight some of her essential albums in the months ahead, but for those who aren’t familiar with her music: Give a listen to Once in a Very Blue Moon, One Fair Summer’s Evening, Storms, Other Voices, Other Rooms and Flyer. That said, take my advice – tonight, take a spin on a red brick floor… you won’t regret it.

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