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Texas To Nashville Americana Trailblazer Nanci Griffith Is Dead At 68

Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith, an endearing and poignant songwriter/artist who contributed to a wave of late 1980s mainstream recognition for roots country music, has died at age 68. No cause of death has been released. Recognized with a Trailblazer Award by the Americana Music Association in 2008, Griffith emerged as the lone female icon from the new Texas songwriting movement that produced Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen. Testimonials and fond remembrances emerged on Friday afternoon as news spread.

“A beautiful soul that I love has left this earth,” wrote recording artist Suzy Bogguss on Facebook in mid-day, in what’s been said to be the first public announcement of the passing. “I feel blessed to have many memories of our times together along with most everything she ever recorded. I’m going to spend the day reveling in the articulate masterful legacy she’s left us.”

One of Griffith’s finer songs, “Outbound Plane,” became a hit for Bogguss. And Kathy Mattea took “Love At The Five And Dime” to the top five in 1986. Griffith’s other superb songs included “Trouble In The Fields,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Ford Econoline” and “There’s A Light Beyond These Woods.” At the same time, she was a gifted interpreter of others’ work. Her version of Julie Gold’s “From A Distance” put the song on the national map, paving the way for Bette Midler to have a pop hit with it a few years later. And Griffith’s Grammy Award came for her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms, on which she covered songs by her favorite writers, including John Prine, Tom Paxton and Kate Wolf.

Griffith grew up in Austin and parlayed youthful interest in literature, theater and music into coffee house songwriting as a teenager. In her early 30s she moved to Nashville and began working with Jim Rooney, who produced her 1984 breakthrough album Once In A Very Blue Moon on the Philo label. That helped get the attention of MCA Records executive Tony Brown, who added her to his growing roster of dissident country artists of the potent era, including Lovett, Steve Earle and Kelly Willis. Her lilting and ultra-clear voice was heard then on MCA albums Lone Star State Of Mind, Little Love Affairs, Storms and Late Night Grande Hotel between 1987 and 1991. Most of the rest of her catalog then came on Elektra Records.

While her best songs did better on the charts recorded by others, Griffith did become a core artist of the emerging Americana field, performing on Austin City Limits numerous times and winning over a fervent fan base in the United Kingdom. She collaborated with a diverse array of musicians as well, including Peter Buck of R.E.M., the Indigo Girls, Darius Rucker and Buddy Holly’s former Crickets. Her most recent LP, her 20th, was 2012’s Intersection, which was released just before she retired from touring and recording.

Correction: The story inadvertently indicated the title of Griffith's final album as Indigo.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org