RIP Nanci Griffith: Listen to the celebrated folkabilly artist’s 1988 set and interview on KCRW

Written by Myke Dodge Weiskopf

The late singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith in 1988. Photo courtesy MCA Nashville.

Beloved singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith died on August 13 at the age of 68. To many, the Americana of the Grammy-winning Griffith embodied the integrity of the lifelong singer-songwriter. She had been writing and performing publicly since age 12, and was an Austin fixture by the time her debut album, “There’s A Light Beyond These Woods,” arrived in 1978. Griffith recorded consistently through the ‘80s until she secured a deal with MCA Nashville. The label attempted to bend Griffith’s sound towards mainstream country and pop over four acclaimed but commercially ambivalent records. Jumping ship to Elektra, she enjoyed a proper breakthrough with 1993’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” which returned her to a leaner folk-roots sound. 

Upon its release, Griffith became the torchbearer of an iconoclastic but tradition-minded form of country and roots music which she cheekily named “folkabilly.” As with so many songwriters, she enjoyed her greatest commercial success through others’ interpretations, including hit recordings by Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss. (She was also the first to record “From A Distance,” which later became a stratospheric smash for Bette Midler.) On her own terms, Griffith found commercial acceptance most of all in Ireland, where she enjoyed a pair of Top 20 hits in 1988⁠—also the year of this interview.

From the archives, we present a long-unheard interview and performance from KCRW’s “SNAP!” program. Griffith appeared live on the evening of November 10, 1988, in conversation with host and DJ Deirdre O’Donoghue. “SNAP!” was, in O’Donoghue’s words, the epicenter of “new and strange and bizarre stuff that you don’t tend to hear on most of the FM airwaves.” Her show ran on KCRW from December 1982 to June 1991. This is the second post in a series intended to bring more of O’Donoghue’s interviews and in-studio performances to light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deirdre O’Donoghue: You've got a brand-new album out that you describe on the back of it. It's called "One Fair Summer Evening," and you say this is a "bare-bones acoustic performance." We've got you even barer-boned here for “SNAP!”

Nanci Griffith: “Well, it's truly an acoustic album, [recorded] live at Anderson Fair in Houston, Texas. I call it ‘bare-bones’ because that's really what it is. And it's an album that the fans have been requesting for a long time. So ‘One Fair Summer Evening’ is truly my Christmas gift to the fans this year.”

Well, we thank you. Can I encourage you to play a song from it?

“Sure. There's only two new songs on the album. The rest of them have been the most-requested songs from the earlier six albums. This is a song that was written by Eric Taylor, and it's always been real special to me, so it was nice to finally get it down on tape there. This is all about a little saloon in a little town called Deadwood, South Dakota, a hundred years back down the road. 

[It's] about some news that they got in the newspaper one day that turned everybody's head around, [and] kinda changed the West, really. It's all about a very famous Indian by the name of Crazy Horse and the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, which were the Jerusalem to the Sioux Indians and Crow Indians. Lately it’s seemed very appropriate that this song should go out to the majority in South Africa.”

Music: Nanci Griffith,“Deadwood, South Dakota” (Live on SNAP!)

Very moving song there.

“Thank you. Yeah, it always brings tears to my eyes.”

Well, I think it's an important function. Another thing you mention on the back of the album cover is you give thanks to the various folk clubs or folk halls, the music halls around the country, [which] I thought was a very nice gesture as well.

“Well, they supported me for many years. And even now, over the past couple years, we're in larger theaters and not able to accommodate the audience in a small folk club that I used to be able to. Still, they supported me for years and were so lovely. McCabe's has always just been great out here, and Great American Music Hall up in San Francisco.”

It seems to me that might be a network where the style of song that you just played, and those types of rooms, are the place where the function of music as a troubadour continues.

“I think so. And as I said on the back of the album, we've really come into a real high-tech type of music situation where, when you strip away all the electronics and all of that high-tech, there's no song there, there's no real melody, and there's no real heart and meaning to what the song is. So it just seems like to me that real music is still being written and played in places like McCabe's. When you hear a song and it just stands on its own by itself, then that's a real song to me.”

Nanci Griffith on the cover of her acclaimed fourth studio album, “The Last of the True Believers.” Photo courtesy of flickr4jazz/Creative Commons. 

You have a lot of them. Many, many, many. And that's why you can't play little halls anymore, 'cause lots more people want to come and hear it. You got another one you can do for us?

“Sure. Let's see … This is a song that's brand-new. I always like playing new songs. My hero when I was a young girl was Loretta Lynn, because she was the first female that I had ever seen who wasn't just a girl singer. She wrote her own songs and she played her own rhythm guitar. And she didn't bouf her hair so high that you couldn't see a bar clock through it. She was the real thing. So I always felt like I really owed Loretta a little tribute of some sort. And this next song is a tune that we've not yet recorded, and it's a song that goes out to Loretta. It's a little tribute to her called ‘Listen to the Radio.’”

Music: Nanci Griffith, “Listen to the Radio” (Live on SNAP!)

What a nice round of applause for Loretta. A round of applause for Nanci Griffiths too, here with me tonight on “SNAP!” on KCRW. We're celebrating the release of her new album recorded live down in Houston, Texas: "One Fair Summer Evening." You've received a lot of acclaim, a huge amount of acclaim, in England and Ireland. I've just been reading some articles about your recent tour. They've taken you completely to heart.

“It's been amazing to me. The first time that we went to Ireland, I was doing a television show. And I had started playing the song ‘From A Distance,’ and people came to their feet. And I was so surprised, and I had no idea that people knew my music over there. And of course, when you're doing a television show ... This show is somewhat like ‘Austin City Limits,’ and you don't know if the audience is there because they wanted to hear you or [because] it's a television show, right? Y’know, nothing on television is real.

Anyway, I was so shocked, and come to find out that two wonderful singers, Mary Black and Maura O'Connell, who had both been with De Danaan years ago, they just have a massive following in England and Ireland, and they had recorded my songs over the years. And people were just so wonderful. "From A Distance" went to No. 1 on the pop charts three times this year in Ireland. And both ‘Lone Star State of Mind’ and ‘Little Love Affairs’ went to No. 1 on the Country charts in England, and they're still in the Top 10. It's a record for the charts over there for the amount of time they've been on. They've been in the Top 10 since March, I think, both records.”

You do something on the new album, this version of the song "I Would Bring You Ireland," that is just heartstopping. Having roots there, you know, the whole family thing Deirdre O'Donoghue in addition to which, having spent some time living there and discovering what an incredible place it is. I cannot imagine a more beautiful thing to wish someone.

“Ireland is such a beautiful place. I think I'd been to Ireland five or six times before I actually came across a disagreeable waiter or a disagreeable clerk somewhere. You know how you run into those types of things every day here. And I've been in Ireland five or six times before I ever came across even one, you know? Irish people are just so lovely, and they have so much heart. And I think that's really spreading worldwide now. I think people are coming to realize how lovely the Irish arts are, with U2 becoming so popular, and Seamus Heaney, the poet. And all kinds of wonderful things are coming out of Ireland. It's great to see it happening. It's their time. This is their era, I think.”

It's a fine place. We're going to take over the world. Of the songs that you put on the new album, is there one that is a favorite of yours, that you have a special place in your heart for?

“Well, I do indeed have a very special place in my heart for the song ‘I Would Bring You Ireland.’ I always thought that it would be wonderful to be able to take a spoonful of Ireland back to every friend that I had in Texas, and have it be some sort of honey that they could take every morning. And in Texas, where I come from, there's not much rain, and I guess bringing back a spoonful of rain would be what everybody in Texas would want.”

Lord knows Ireland has enough of that.

“Yes, a lovely rain.”

Music: Nanci Griffith,“I Would Bring You Ireland” (Live on SNAP!)

Nanci Griffith performs in 2006. Photo courtesy of flykr/Creative Commons. 

Taking me back to the green cliffs of Toe Head. Skibbereen. Luna Cottage. Toe Head, Castle Towns in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland, was the address there. 

“The address? That's a long address.”

One of the memories that struck me when you were playing that song this particular time was the idea of the dust of Amarillo, thinking of Texas. And bringing it back was [this] one time in the summer, and it was a perfectly glorious day. And we noticed two farmers walking back in from the hill early in the afternoon, which they never did, much less the both of them together. And [we] went down over the ridge to pick up the milk and the eggs later in the evening from them. They were sprawled out in their chairs, just completely withered, totally blasted. They said, "Ah, the heat, the heat. It's something horrible, isn't it?" And it had been a lovely day. A glorious day was really all it had been. We went into town a couple of days later, walked in, and that was the news. That was the story of the heat wave, how hot it had been. 

“And it was 70 [degrees], right?”

It got up to 74. But [they were] completely blitzed from it. I guess when you're not used to it, it is like that. There's something very fresh and wonderful about it that you capture.

“Well, it's just such a beautiful place. Our drummer is from Dublin. He lives in Dublin, Fran Breen. And when he [came] over to the States this summer when we toured, of course it was the worst heatwave in the South we've ever seen, you know. And he loved it. He would go out every day, and we'd find him at a swimming pool at the hotel basking in the sun, because he's just like, ‘This is the only chance I'm ever going to get any, unless we pack up and go to Spain.’"

People from Ireland and England, you get them over here and the first thing they do is tilt their heads to the sun, because they don't see it too much. But, having mentioned that he lives in Dublin, and as we were talking earlier about the amount of time you spend on the road ⁠ — which is apparently the great majority where do you base yourself now when you're not traveling?

“Pretty much in Nashville and Texas, and this coming year, I hope, quite a bit of time in Dublin.”

Wise move. I was wondering if, having been raised in Texas and grown up in Austin, if you were at all in touch with the musical events/scene that's happening there now? It's pretty exciting, it seems.

“Well, I know a lot of the musicians that things are happening [for] in Austin now. And it's great to see things happen. I think that this past couple years, it's been very exciting for me to see things like the Thunderbirds finally find national recognition. Because when I was in high school, they were the band. That was why you got a forged ID, to go hear the Thunderbirds. 

And so it's grand to see them finally get some national attention. And there's just so much music. I know Jimmie [Dale] Gilmore is finally getting some recognition that he's long deserved. Between he and Butch Hancock, they've together written most of Joe Ely's biggest songs. So it's great. The Wagoneers, they're a real hoot for sure.”

What do you see in your musical future?

“Well, I've just switched from the Nashville office to the Los Angeles office for MCA.”

So you've got Nan Fisher taking care of you now. You're in good hands.

“In the future, I'd like to be doing more film work, and really continue on writing [in] the same directions that I've always got. Over the past ten years, I was like that dog with no legs. It didn't matter what you called me, I came anyway, and the music stayed the same. Which is why I've always called it ‘folkabilly,’ 'cause it’s just a combination of so many different types of music. But just to continue on with what I've been doing is what I always want to do.”

There have been a number of guitar-oriented songwriting females who have gotten a lot of acclaim in the last few years. Suzanne Vega certainly has made breakthroughs, Tracy Chapman, etc. etc. Does that affect you positively, negatively, at all? Does it help you? Does it hurt you? Does it open doors for you? 

“Well, I'm glad to see it happening again. I don't know if it opens doors. I think that there is still that stigma in the music industry, in any industry, that if you're a female, I think you have to be twice as good as that guy that lives two doors down from you in your apartment building who does the same thing before you ever get any space up the vine. And so I'm just tickled to see it happening. I wish it would happen more in country music. 

It seemed like country music went through such a blast of creativity with Loretta Lynn in the '60s, with songs like ‘The Pill’ and ‘Don't Come Home A-Drinkin'.’ And I mean, she really opened a lot of women's lives. Women who lived very, very isolated lives in rural America and Middle America, who never knew that there was freedom out there. And Loretta Lynn, because they listened to country music, gave that to a whole generation of women. And then something happened and bouffant hairdos came and took it away again. I'd like to see more singer-songwriters like Emmylou Harris and that type of music take over again in country. And maybe it will.”

It's gone back to the cleaner, more basic ... I hesitate to use the word "pure," because I don't mean that in an aesthetic sense, more in a technical sense of the music. Do you feel any responsibility to include that sort of sentiment, those messages, those announcements in the music that you do and the concerts you play, the albums that you make?

“I think it's very important that not only is the music ... I mean, for me, the definitive of being a songwriter is being able to write three-and-a-half minutes that’s a short story put to music, where someone could close their eyes and go someplace else for three-and-a-half minutes. And that's all very important. But I think it should be a comfortable place where I send them for three-and-a-half minutes. It should be a place that is not only entertaining, but they can learn something as well, even if it's only a little bit of something about themselves that they didn't know before.”

Do you remember when you first knew that you wanted to do this? Because you started playing guitar very young, performing very young. 

“Well, I guess I've always wanted it. I couldn't do anything else. I didn't know how to do anything else.”

Don't do anything else. Keep doing this.

“I taught school for a while, but I was a terrible disaster at that, 'cause I'm just too easy, and five- and six-year-olds ran me over.”

Well, I'm not five, but let me see if I can run you into doing one more song for us here on “SNAP!” In case you're just tuning in, it's Nanci Griffith. She has a new album out called "One Fair Summer Evening" that she recorded live down in Houston, Texas. And she's here with me tonight on “SNAP!”

“Thanks, Deirdre. I guess I'll close up with what's been my only No. 1 song in the U.S., chartwise. And this is a tune that is really ... We were talking about musicians' time on the road, and this is a song that is all about musicians' time on the road.”

Music: Nanci Griffith,“Love at the Five & Dime” (Live on SNAP!)

Nanci Griffith, thank you very much for coming and visiting “SNAP!” for a live performance here on KCRW. I wish you continued, growing, massive success all the time, 'cause I really like what you do. Makes me smile, what more can I ask for? So thanks for coming. And I hope that anytime you're around here, you feel free to come back. We'll look forward to the next time ‘round. 

“All right. And hello to all the folks at McCabe's.”

This interview was originally broadcast on KCRW’s “SNAP!” on November 10, 1988. Audio courtesy the Deirdre O’Donoghue archives.


“Deadwood, South Dakota”
“Listen to the Radio”
“I Would Bring You Ireland”
“Love at the Five & Dime”