Nanci Griffith put me through college

I was just about sit down and write this when John Harvey’s notes on Nanci Griffith popped up in my Twitter feed. It would have been at John’s house that I first heard Nanci Griffith, in 1989, when I was on a visit to Nottingham. Was it for a reading?

The album I heard then was Lone Star State of Mind, a fresh addition to the Harvey library, and I liked it a lot – especially the title track. Those were the days when I was new to the New Country scene, and Nanci Griffith opened up a rich new seam for me of literate female singers and songwriters and was the herald of that great era of 90s country, when the women were producing all the best music and Garth Brooks was selling a lot of records – very few of them to me. From Nanci to Patty Loveless, Matraca Berg, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood.

Those were the days when I was going through some changes. Ending a relationship, quitting my job, going to university. That was the night that decided me. That was when I spoke to some lovely girls after the reading and they made me think, where am I ever going to see colours like that? So it was off to night school for me and within a couple of years I was walking those same Nottingham streets and browsing those same Nottingham record stores on a Wednesday afternoon, between the lunchtime beers and the teatime chips.

What I loved about Lone Star State of Mind was the beautiful production, every instrument sitting perfectly in the mix, the shimmer of the exciter, the high-strung guitars, the banjos and dobros and fiddles all working together an over the top Griffith’s bright, crystal soprano. That record has always been the benchmark against which I measure the rest.

But, of course, it would turn out that Griffith’s MCA albums weren’t really her in the sense that they don’t really sound like the artist she became after Late Night Grande Hotel (1991), which I think was the last of hers I bought. I’ve always preferred the commercial sheen of the rockier side of country, and I’m not that into folk music. I’m always listening out for Lone Star State of Mind, and for me Nanci Griffith always seemed a bit too much of a finger-wagger.

It’s telling that the Apple Music Essentials playlist contains very little that I don’t know. The Essentials algorithm (or person) has chosen the slick sounding commercial stuff, and it’s a fact that Griffith didn’t trouble the US Country charts after Storms (1989). But she was never an artist about platinum records. I think Tift Merritt has followed a similar trajectory, from her very commercial Tambourine through to Stitch of the World which Wikipedia reckons sold 3900 copies in the USA.

Listening to that Griffith Essentials playlist wrecked me though. I took me back to the younger man I was, that late-20s career and relationship crisis haver, and the turbulent next few years. Her voice still rings clear, and as I’ve always said about the country genre, it’s timeless really. Things in that genre from 1987 do not sound dated. You can listen to Nanci Griffith forever and she will never grow old.

And that’s the other thing, isn’t it. She was only 68 – a a couple of years older than Tom Petty was when he died, and it’s too young. Clearly, there were health problems. Very few musicians retire at 60. And to make it all about me for a second, I do wonder, at the age of 58, what I might do over the next 10 years. And if I knew I only had ten more years, what would I do with them?

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