Nanci Griffith, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter from Texas who kept one foot in folk and the other in country and was blessed with a soaring voice equally at home in both genres, died Friday at age 68. Her management company announced her death but did not reveal a cause of death. They said it was her wish to keep the death private for a week after her passing. This has led to speculation and rumors about what could have caused her untimely demise.
She had a high-pitched, twangy voice that effortlessly delivered songs about Dust Bowl farmers and empty Woolworth general stores. But she was also an accomplished guitarist and an adept songwriter. Griffith’s early albums for tiny labels were praised for their craftsmanship and her writing became more complex with time. She recorded several collaborative albums and won a 1994 Grammy Award for her recording, Other Voices, Other Rooms. In addition to her musical career, she published personal essays and taught memoir writing. She was a frequent guest performer on the PBS music program Austin City Limits and helped launch the careers of artists like Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris.
In her later years, Griffith turned increasingly political and spoke out against George W Bush and the Iraq war. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 and thyroid cancer in 1998, but she continued to release albums and tour. In 2012 she released her final album, Intersection. She also became a champion for women’s rights and advocated for gay rights.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a brief period when Nashville-centered country music flirted with a wider artistic palette. It was described by Steve Earle with biting wit as “country music’s great credibility scare.” But that was a short-lived era, and in the years after it ended, Griffith’s popularity waned. Her recordings for MCA were not hits and she reverted to her earlier folk and literary style on a few later albums.
In her early days, she was hailed as the next great folk singer. Her music was a mix of folk, country and pop influences with lyrics that were often deeply personal. In the early 1970s her high school boyfriend, John, lost his life in a motorcycle accident following their senior prom and that event weighed heavily on her for years. Her songs were often intensely personal and she had a small but devoted group of fans. She never became a household name, but she had a long career.