Nanci Griffith wrote songs that the music world loved to cover. With news of her death on August 13th at the age of 68, many are revisiting her folk and country standards — or learning about her incredible singing and songwriting gifts for the first time. But throughout the 1980s and into the Nineties, she was a stalwart for many in the folk and evolving country music scene — what Steve Earle termed “the great credibility scare” when Nashville “opened its doors (and ears) to such left-of-center artists” as Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Earle, and others.
No less than John Prine was a fan of Griffith, and he played an angel in the video for her cover of his song “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” telling Rolling Stone in 1995: “I still have my wings at home. We spent the day filming in a cemetery with angel wings on, and it was about 13 degrees. Every time a little wind came under me and Nanci, we’d begin to take off.”
Her influence reverberated across genres and drew new acolytes to roots and Americana music. In fact, Darius Rucker (known to most as the frontman of Hootie & the Blowfish) told Rolling Stone that her song “Mary and Omie” changed the trajectory of his life: “Her songwriting is so crazy, her vocals are so crazy, the production on that song is incredible. … Nanci is something special. She’s also one of the reasons I’m singing in country music today. When I heard that song I thought to myself, ‘I’m missing something.’ Back then I was listening to so much alternative music like Hüsker Dü and the Smithereens and not much else. But ‘Mary and Omie’ made me realize I should be listening to a lot more country music. I put it on almost every playlist I have. I get that song and I get Nanci.”
In 1991, Griffith performed for an Austin City Limits “Songwriters Special” — which later aired on PBS in 1992 — and invited the Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Julie Gold to join her. Check out their rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations” above. In it, they take Keith Richards and Mick Jagger’s track from 1968’s Beggars Banquet and transform the song into a joyous, rootsy, female-fronted anthem of solidarity.
Below, see her 1989 ACL appearance (that also featured Emmylou Harris), in which she sings Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” — later made into a huge hit by Bette Midler.