Nanci Griffith, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who fused folk and country, died in Nashville today (August 13). She was 68. The cause of death is unknown.
Griffith’s recording career spanned five decades and nearly 20 albums, including 1994’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, a collection of classic folk songs featuring collaborations with Emmylou Harris, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and Guy Clark, for which she won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Griffith was born July 6, 1953, in Seguin, Texas but raised in Austin, and by 12 years old she had already written her first song and played her first gig. She would attend the University of Texas and begin working as a teacher before committing to music full-time in 1977. In 1978, Griffith’s debut album There’s a Light Beyond These Woods won a songwriting prize at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
She moved to Nashville in the early ’80s, writing songs for the likes of Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, and Dolly Parton. She recorded several solo albums for the independent Philo Records before scoring a major label deal with MCA following her 1986 album The Last of the True Believers, which Country Music Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young called “a template for what is now called Americana music.”
Her first hit as an artist was a cover of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance,” which Bette Midler would later record to even greater success. It was a theme that would persist throughout Griffith’s career; while she never had a radio hit of her own, songs she wrote or performed would achieve greater commercial success when recorded by others. Kathy Mattea’s version of “Love at the Five and Dime” hit No. 3 on the country charts in 1986, and Suzy Bogguss scored a top 10 hit in 1991 with “Outbound Plane,” which Griffith wrote with Tom Russell for her 1998 album Little Love Affairs, ended up as a Top 10 hit for Suzy Bogguss in 1991.
A masterful storyteller, her music was often imbued with pointed social commentary, and later, an explicitly political bent. Her 1987 song “Trouble in the Fields” sung of the plight of rural farmers, and her 1989 anti-racist screed “It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” drew a parallel of prejudice between Catholic kids in Belfast and Black children in Chicago. Her 2009 album The Loving Kind was inspired by Mildred Loving’s obituary; it featured pointed criticisms of then-outgoing president George W. Bush.
Griffith was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award by the Americana Music Association in 2008. Her last album was 2012’s Intersection.