As one of the most influential and acclaimed singer-songwriters of her generation, Nanci Griffith could turn simple observations about small-town Texas life into universal truths, complex emotion into digestible wisdom. She combined bluegrass with folk, early rock and roll with country, and, in the process, hit creative heights that most of her peers could only dream of. Here, we look back at her extraordinary career with our pick of the 10 best Nanci Griffth songs of all time.
10. Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
John Prine is widely regarded as one of the most influential songwriters of his generation, even drawing praise from the likes of Bob Dylan, who once commented: “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. . . . All that stuff about ‘Sam Stone’, the soldier junkie daddy, and ‘Donald and Lydia’, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that.” One of his most enduring legacies is Speed of the Sound of Loneliness, a song he first recorded for his 1986 album German Afternoons but which reached wider attention in 1993 when he and Nanci Griffth teamed up to record it as a duet for Griffith’s critically acclaimed album, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
9. Love at the Five and Dime
Love at the Five and Dime tells the love story of a dime-store clerk called Rita and an aspiring guitar player called Eddie, tracing the relationship from its earliest days through to marriage and the loss of a child, affairs, and reconciliation. Griffith first recorded it in 1986 for her album The Last of the True Believers, later revisiting it in 1988 for a wonderfully intimate live recording for the album One Fair Summer Evening. In 1999, she touched base with it again, this time in the form of a duet with Darius Rucker for the album, The Dust Bowl Symphony.
8. From a Distance
From a Distance was written by singer-songwriter Julie Gold in 1985, who at the time was working as a secretary at HBO and moonlighting as a writer in her downtime. She sent the song to Griffith, asking her to tell her what was wrong with it as so many other artists and record labels had rejected it. Griffith wrote back saying she loved it from the first moment she heard it and would love even more to hear Gold perform it. The relationship thus established, Gold gave Griffith the chance to become the first person to record the song, which appeared shortly after on the album, Lone State of Mind. In 1990, Bette Midler’s cover of the song hit the top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 – it’s telling that even though it achieved greater chart success than Griffith’s version, it doesn’t eclipse it.
7. Once in a Very Blue Moon
As Yahoo.com notes, of all her covers, Once in a Very Blue Moon showcases Griffith at her heartbreaking, vulnerable best. Written by Pat Alger and Gene Levine and recorded as the title track to Griffith’s critically acclaimed third album, it’s a delicate, fragile gem. It was later covered by Dolly Parton, but just as Bette Midler’s version of From a Distance failed to meet up to Griffith’s, so Parton’s version of Once in a Very Blue Moon pales in comparison.
6. Tecumseh Valley
Griffith started performing at the age of 12 after she landed a regular gig at a local coffee shop. Shortly after, her father took her to see Townes Van Zandt perform live, an experience that inspired her to continue her journey as a singer-songwriter. Years later, she teamed up with Van Zandt for this gorgeous rendition of one of his most iconic songs for her tenth studio album, Other Voices, Other Rooms.
5. Outbound Plane
As Rolling Stone notes, Griffith hit her creative stride in 1988 with the wonderful album Little Love Affairs, which, amongst its other treasures, includes Outbound Plane, a stunning piece of folk-tinged country written by Griffith and legendary singer-songwriter Tom Russell. A couple of years later, Suzy Bogguss hit the top ten with her cover from her platinum-selling 1991 album, Aces.
4. Sun & Moon & Stars
Late Night Grande Hotel, Griffith’s ninth studio album, is bristling with gems, ranging from the gorgeous interpretation of Julie Gold’s Heaven to the enduringly witty It’s Just Another Morning Here. But even on an album as outstanding as this, the remarkable arrangement of Vince Bell’s Sun & Moon & Stars is particularly compelling, with Griffith’s intimate performance turning what was already a beautiful composition into something utterly unforgettable.
3. Listen to the Radio
Delivered over a driving honky tonk beat, scattered with name-checks to Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, and with lyrics that find the narrator swapping Mississippi and a handsome two-stepped good ol’ boy for a better tomorrow, Listen to the Radio is one of the undisputed highlights of the 1989 album Storms, Griffith’s last straight country album before moving to a more pop-orientated sound in the 1990s.
2. Gulf Coast Highway
One of Griffith’s most endearing works and successful collaborative songwriting efforts (both Danny Flowers and Blue Moon Orchestra keyboardist James Hooker get co-writing credits), this heart wrenching love song about two soul mates who reconnect, pass on, and pay a yearly pilgrimage to their former home in their reincarnated form of blackbirds serves as one of the highlights of the 1988 album, Little Love Affairs. Other versions worth checking out include Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris’ version on Harris’ 1990 album, Duets, and co-writer Danny Flowers’ version from his 2000 album, Forbidden Fruits And Vegetables.
1. It’s a Hard Life (Wherever You Go)
As Genius notes, on It’s a Hard Life (Wherever You Go), Griffth links American racism and Irish religious tensions to create a rousing account of the frustrations of liberals everywhere, and a damning indictment of intolerance of all stripes. It didn’t make a dent on the charts on its release in 1988, but it’s since become one of her most enduringly popular and affecting songs.