You Can’t Go Home Again

Repeatedly abused (she says) in the Texas press, folksinger Nanci Griffith attacked the media in a blistering letter that has everyone in her native state talking—and wondering if she’s okay.

January 1999By Comments

SHE WAS BEYOND MAD. SHE WAS RIGHTEOUS. “IN RESPONSE TO the Years of Brutal Abusive Reviews in your Publication,” she wrote in salutation. Then the letter began: “There has always been a certain amount of pathos within artists who leave their sacred bountiful homes of birth for the benefit of preserving their own belief in their art—especially in cases such as my own where my native soil that I have so championed around this globe has done its best to choke whatever dignity I carried within me.”

Nanci Griffith felt justified. She gave a nod of thanks to Thomas Wolfe, who wrote deeply autobiographical novels that so angered the folks in Asheville, North Carolina, that he could never go home again, and compared herself to writer Katherine Anne Porter, who was born in Texas but left at age 28, never to live there again: “She too had the wisdom to get the hell out of there and you hated her because she wrote of you as you are, not as you so self-indulgently perceive yourselves. That mirror must be incredibly difficult to accept.” She ended with: “I carry with me always the pride and the knowledge that great things have come from my native soil—very few ever return there. Texas is, after all, the only place on earth that actually eats its young.”

She sent the identical letter last August to writers and editors at the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Austin Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman, and Texas Monthly. The recipients were perplexed. Several had never penned a word about her. Most of their publications, in fact, had been generally favorable to her work. Only one addressee, Michael Corcoran of the Statesman, had written anything negative.

Then, when the Houston Chronicle and the Austin Chronicle printed Griffith’s letter, it was her fans’ turn to be confused. This was not the Nanci Griffith they knew, the gentle writer with the angel’s voice, the romantic who writes sensitive love songs and winsome ballads about Texas and the old days. This was a wounded missive, the kind that comes from an artist who has never gotten her due, in Texas or anywhere else. Yet in a twenty-year career Griffith has released fifteen albums, sold a couple million copies, and won a Grammy. Her songs have been covered by dozens of other musicians, and her peers line up to play on her records. She is recognized as a pioneer singer-songwriter who broke ground for artists like Lyle Lovett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, and Robert Earl Keen. She is about as big as a folk star can be.

Still, her critics hate her—or at least some do. To them, she is a greeting-card folkie whose songs are full of sentimental caricatures and sweetness and light. Some go beyond her work and actually attack her personally. They see a faux naïf—an artist too sensitive for her own good, someone so thin-skinned that she mass-mails a hurt letter. They see a phony in a genre beholden to authenticity, and there is nothing writers hate more than phoniness. It reminds them of their own well-crafted deceit.

How could one person, a folksinger, provoke such extreme reactions? Clues could be found in the letter and the life that led to its writing. Critics figured the whole thing had something to do with the mixed reviews of Griffith’s last album, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful). Fans speculated that it had something to do with rumors that she is sick. Everyone wondered: Is she okay?

The short answer is yes, but the longer one is more complicated.

NANCI GRIFFITH IS LIKE A CHARACTER IN ONE OF HER SONGS: strong, melodramatic, folksy. She loves chili dogs. She smokes cigarettes. She likes to laugh. At 44, she is slim and small, with big eyes, high cheekbones, and a worried face. As she takes a break in a Nashville photo studio, her handlers buzz around her, finalizing plans for seven upcoming shows in Dublin, Glasgow, and London. She talks about performing her songs with the Nashville, Austin, and London symphonies, and about her first novel, Two of a Kind Heart, which she hopes will be published by Random House later this year. The future is bright, or at least busy.

She looks good, especially for someone going through her second bout with cancer. Her first was three years ago, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery and underwent six weeks of radiation treatment, and the cancer went away. Last spring she got sick again. “The cancer was in my thyroid,” she says. She spent two months undergoing successful oral radioactive-iodine treatments. “My TSH [thyroid-stimulating hormone] count is normal now. The therapy worked. Essentially, what they do is kill your thyroid. Once it’s completely dead gone, I’ll be taking synthetic thyroid for the rest of my life.” The thyroid, she says softly, can strongly affect a person’s mental health. “Without the stuff your thyroid gives out, you’d be totally immersed in depression—you wouldn’t be able to function. I am a person who has suffered severe longtime depression. It’s probably more of a chemical thing than anything else.” On her recent album covers, she’s smiling like a model: beatifically, ecstatically. Here, in the place where some of those images were shot, the smiles retreat into her face.

“I come from a basically really dysfunctional family,” she says. “I had very, very irresponsible parents.” They were, in fact, beatniks. Marlin was a graphics artist, printer, and barbershop quartet singer; Ruelene was a real estate agent, amateur actress, and jazz fan. Nanci, the last of three children, was born in Seguin on July 6, 1954. Her family soon moved to Austin, and in 1960 her parents divorced. Through her father, a fan of traditional music, twelve-year-old Nanci met folksinger Carolyn Hester, who would become a big influence; at that age she also wrote her first song, “A New Generation,” and played her first gig, at the Red Lion, a downtown beat coffeehouse. When she was fourteen or fifteen, she recalls, her father took her to see singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. “I was just blown away by his eloquence and his writing—and he was so strikingly handsome. Halfway through the show, he played a song he’d just written, ‘Tecumseh Valley.’ It’s about a young woman named Caroline. My middle name is Caroline.” The lonely, doomed character would become a sort of guardian angel for Griffith, and the song an essential part of her repertoire.

In the mid-seventies Griffith began playing at various Austin clubs—including the Hole in the Wall (where she had a regular Sunday night slot in 1975 and 1976), the Alamo Lounge, and emmajoe’s—as part of a growing scene that included Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Lucinda Williams. “She was the first accomplished person to play the Hole in the Wall,” says Doug Cugini, who owned the noisy UT-area club back then. “Lots of people got up there with a guitar. It’s hard to get the attention of that room. She got the attention of that room.”

Griffith was apprenticing in the great folk tradition: singing other folksingers’ songs and learning how to write her own. The results were well-crafted ballads that featured everyday people with names like Rita and Eddie, images of drive-in movies and five-and-dime stores, and stories of wandering, loneliness, and longing. If they were sometimes quaint, they could also be hard-edged; if they were predictably elegiac about lost innocence, they were unpredictably melodic. If Griffith confused sincere expression with artistic achievement, well, so do a lot of young writers. You could hear the sincerity in her voice and see it in her pensive poses on the covers of her first four albums.

Even before releasing her debut, 1978’s There’s a Light Beyond These Woods, Griffith hit the road, touring by herself and with a band, doing her own booking and publicity, playing small clubs and college radio stations. She was a folkie but she was no softie, and the hard work began to pay off. Fans heard the yearning in her voice, identified with her characters, and loved her literate songs about Texas; critics gushed. In 1985 she recorded her first Austin City Limits. Wearing red shoes with white socks, she looked kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Lovett sang backup. Between songs she spoke in a hushed little-girl voice, then fell into a wobbly twang, then became meek again—sometimes in the space of one story. The rapt audience didn’t seem to mind.

That same year, Griffith moved to Nashville, where she found that she had a reputation. “The day my phone was hooked up, [revered country songwriter] Harlan Howard called me, and the next day Chet Atkins,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is really something.’” The major labels came calling too; she signed with MCA. She was a breath of fresh air in conformist Nashville. Her first two albums for MCA—Lone Star State of Mind and Little Love Affairs—had a folk heart but a country-pop body (they were coproduced by Griffith and Nashville heavyweight Tony Brown). She put together a band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, that would stay with her until the late nineties. She had her first hit, Julie Gold’s “From a Distance,” which went to number one in Ireland. Other Nashville artists—Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea—had hits with her songs. Though she couldn’t make the leap to being a country star, she moved out of the clubs and into the concert halls, especially in Ireland (she loved Dublin so much she kept an apartment there for six years) and England. “She became well-known and popular, in a way without any of us knowing it,” Gilmore says. “And she surprised a lot of people. The industry seemed to have decided that literary folk music wasn’t commercial, but she proved that was wrong. Her degree of success paved the way for others, like Lyle and me, to go that way.”

Perhaps influenced by Lovett’s success, Griffith twice tried and failed to cross over to the mainstream pop market—with Storms (1989) and Late Night Grande Hotel (1991). While working on the latter, producer Rod Argent mentioned to her that the Everly Brothers had been the soundtrack to his life. “I thought, well, you know, folk music is the soundtrack to my life,” Griffith says. That epiphany led to Other Voices, Other Rooms, the celebrated 1993 album on which she interpreted the material of other writers, from the unjustly overlooked (the late Kate Wolf, the soon-to-be-late Van Zandt) to hoary forebears (the Carter Family). A gorgeous set of seventeen songs from her personal soundtrack, it had the good vibes of a living-room performance. By the time it won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Griffith had become a den mother for the folk tradition.

In 1994 she released the fine Flyer; it was as if working in the crucible of her influences had fired her muse. The record had some of her best writing in years (Time’s review said she “may just be one of America’s best poets”) plus smart arrangements and guests like Adam Duritz of Counting Crows and U2’s rhythm section. Two years later she fulfilled a childhood dream by performing her songs with the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1997 she released Blue Roses From the Moon, a pop-country album that featured Buddy Holly’s Crickets, her longtime heroes.

Then, last summer, came Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), another collection of other writers’ songs. But where the original was inspired, the sequel sounded, like its title, forced. Quantity was clearly a consideration—Griffith brags that 83 musicians played and sang on the record—but the quality of some of the songs (“You Were on My Mind,” “Walk Right Back”) was suspect. Strangest of all, Griffith—usually such a sure singer—sounded lost. She bent words unnaturally, self-consciously hammering them as if the eccentricity of interpretation would help deliver the meaning. The most glaring moment was on “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” Griffith gave the lead to the song’s writer, Guy Clark, and then further lines to Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Eric Taylor, and Gilmore before joining in herself. The performance is folk vérité, a bunch of crazy old troublemakers singing about themselves; the song, in the best folk tradition, sings the singers—until Griffith chimes in with, “To me he was one of the heroes of this kahn-try.” Her pronunciation is completely out of sync, as if she’s trying to distinguish herself from the formidable company. It may have been her record, but she shouldn’t have tried to make it her song.

LAST YEAR WAS NOT A GOOD ONE for Griffith. First came the illness, then the cold reception to Other Voices, Too. And then came the letter. The very things that her fans loved—her sensitivity, her vulnerability, her writing—were on the page in a new light. This was not the Nanci Griffith they knew. Exactly, said her critics.

She had written letters before, in reply to specific reviews. This, she felt, was different. “That letter was written only to publications that I felt had really been unfair to me,” she says. “I felt extremely offended. I was selling out four nights at Albert Hall. I was championed in Ireland and given a second home. And every time I came to Texas, I got a bad review. The Dallas Morning News was the most guilty. I took the Crickets out on the road with me. The Dallas Morning News had the audacity—the audacity—to call them a Holiday Inn lounge act. I just said I’m never coming back. There are some Texas artists who can do no wrong. They can spit on the ground and the Austin Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, and Texas Monthly think that’s the greatest piece of art that ever walked. And then some artist like myself—I just get slapped. I’ve won three Grammys, I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve championed Texas writers, I’ve championed the state of Texas, and every time I’ve come home, I get slapped. I don’t like it. It’s a real Thomas Wolfean thing.”

The difference is that Wolfe couldn’t go back because the people he wrote about felt betrayed. Griffith feels betrayed by what others have written about her. And this was just local press. Why would this bother a national and international artist? “It’s my home,” she replies. “It’s my home. If I get a bad review, I don’t really care about it if it’s not Texas. My whole family lives in Texas. You want your family to be proud of you, just like you want your native soil to be proud of you. And that’s all they see, the bad things. All they see is the Austin Chronicle calling me daft. I’m anything but daft. Michael Corcoran’s ten-year campaign of malicious things that he’s written about me—where does it come from? I just felt like I had a right to defend myself.”

Griffith is being disingenuous about specifics. Her letter was less a reply to brutality and abuse than an excuse to rant. Though Texas Monthly and the Morning News printed negative reviews of Other Voices, Too, they were mild rebuffs that praised her other work. Thor Christensen’s concert review in the Morning News ran ten months before Griffith mailed her letter and was moderate at worst (“But without Buddy’s voice, the Crickets sounded more or less like any other good-time oldies band cranking out ‘Peggy Sue’ at the local Holiday Inn lounge.”). Though Texas Monthly ran an unfavorable review of Once in a Very Blue Moon in 1984, four years ago Joe Nick Patoski wrote that Flyer “demonstrates an artistic maturity that makes it clear she could be a pop star.” The Houston Chronicle’s Rick Mitchell says he searched the paper’s files back to 1983 and could find only one lukewarm review. The Austin Chronicle has run both positive and negative reviews, but it never called her daft—that was the Statesman’s Corcoran. (On the subject of specifics, Griffith’s Grammy count is too bountiful—according to the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, she has won one, for Other Voices, Other Rooms.)

If Griffith is wrong about the details, she’s right about the sentiment. Though she has many supporters (the Statesman’s John T. Davis has written that she is “a fearless voyager with nerves of steel, an eagle’s eye, and a heart that blooms like a rose”), there are people in Texas who deeply dislike her work—and her. The prankish Corcoran, who in 1987 called Griffith a “country munchkin” in a positive piece on her and Lovett in Spin (prompting an angry letter from Griffith), is not a fan. “I’m her least favorite critic,” he says. “She’s so calculated. She learned to play up the Texas thing in Ireland and England, and she learned to play up the Southern literary thing here.” One writer who did not get a letter, Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer, says, “I was really pissed off. I was really jealous. She’s so annoying. I think she’s just dreadful.”

Nanci haters start with her Wounded Romantic image: her doe-eyed looks and her affected album covers, which feature books used as props (Lonesome Dove; The Kindness of Strangers; Other Voices, Other Rooms) to telegraph the weight of her intentions and claim kinship with leading literary lights. “She seems incredibly sincere and not sincere at the same time,” says a veteran Austin musician, who calls her Nanci “Icky” Griffith. “It’s a total act. It drives me crazy.” Nobody is that innocent, the theory goes, especially someone who has been around for so long in such a cutthroat business, someone who leads a band and produces her own records. Indeed, there are rumors about Griffith’s meanness to band members and backup singers, but they are only rumors, stoked by the chasm between their ugliness and her clean image.

People with a low tolerance for preciousness have the hardest time with Griffith’s voice. If they can’t abide her earnest singing voice, they find her onstage talking voice unbearable, especially her waffling between little-girl singsong and twangy, folksy Texan (“Nobody raised in Austin has an accent,” says Corcoran with a snort). Sometimes she even falls into a slight Irish brogue. Griffith insists it’s not a conscious thing. “It’s fear,” she says. “It’s a matter of stage fright. I fall into the person I was riding my bicycle down Burnet Road”—an Austin street from her youth. Griffith says she never thought she had much of an onstage accent until she listened to her 1988 live concert album, One Fair Summer Evening. “And then I could hear it. I sound just like my great-aunt out in Lockney, Texas.”

Griffith isn’t the only artist to adopt a false voice onstage. An accent is a safe place to go, an exaggerated sign of who you are, especially if you aren’t always sure. But all successful Nashville artists, even the Texas renegades, have a shtick, an image to help sell records. Why is Griffith judged so much more harshly about her affectations than others? Why did last summer’s letter inspire such howls of delight? Because she peddles sincerity so baldly in a musical form that has always been sanctimonious about integrity. Because she’s so successful at being someone she is not, which drives writers—who would love to be able to pull it off—crazy. Because, as one critic says, “She’s a sore winner, and no one likes a sore winner.”

THERE WERE TWO MOMENTS IN March’s Austin City Limits tribute to Townes Van Zandt that stand as touchstones for how people feel about Nanci Griffith. The first came as Earle, sitting next to her, played “Ft. Worth Blues,” the emotional elegy he wrote about his late friend. Tears rolled down Griffith’s cheeks. Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Clark, Lovett, and the rest of the songwriters onstage had their heads bowed or were looking off into the distance, wishing the camera would just go away, careful not to make a sound. Griffith looked on too, not bothering to wipe her face, slick with tears. Then the camera found her, and her countenance filled the screen—all wet face and big sad eyes. And she looked up and stared straight into the lens, like she was advertising her grief. Watching it felt, well, icky. Why couldn’t she just look away like the others?

The second moment came when Griffith sang “Tecumseh Valley,” which she had recorded on Other Voices, Other Rooms. As she had done hundreds of times before, she became the gutsy but lost Caroline. It was one of the highlights of an extraordinary show. Maybe her fans knew that not long before he died, Van Zandt, whose songs were covered by everyone from Willie to Emmylou, who was torn and frayed where Griffith is smooth and pretty, who hid his self-absorption while she displays hers naked to the world, described Griffith’s version of “Tecumseh Valley” as “the best cover of any of my songs—ever.”

One of the things Griffith’s fans love about her is that, like Caroline, she is so determined to survive—and create. “I’ve been on my own since I was sixteen,” she says. “Resilience is something that I really had to nurture within myself, because I’ve had to pick myself up off my butt and move on many times. And when I fell I had no place to fall. There was no mommy or daddy to call. That’s been a real core in all my characters—the woman in ‘Ford Econoline,’ the woman in ‘Listen to the Radio.’ Those are my favorite characters and a real key part of my writing.” Yet it is Griffith’s tendency to aspire mightily to art, to songwriting as literature, that makes her critics cringe. Most of her heroes, from Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie to Buddy Holly, never had this problem—and, oddly enough, they created great art. Unfortunately, wanting to be taken seriously is like a drug addiction. And addicts take up other heavy habits, like exalting their folk songs with violins and French horns (she will tour this year to different U.S. cities to play her tunes with local symphonies), writing books (Two of a Kind Heart looks to be a sentimental dime-store novel), and scrawling letters shoehorning their work with that of other literary outsiders.

Griffith is spreading herself thin, writing letters when she should be writing songs. “Nobody’s doing quality control right now,” a Nashville insider says about Griffith, her career, and her life. “She’s not doing her best work, and some of the people around her aren’t doing their best work.” But even if someone in management had stopped the letter from going out last summer, she would have sent others. Griffith is obsessed with being an unappreciated Texas ex. On her second album, released in 1982, she sings a song called “You Can’t Go Home Again” (“This old town never did really care that much for me”). Three years later she sent a letter to Texas Monthly about its negative review of Blue Moon, calling it “a cheap shot at me when I am only just now breaking into the national market . . . I’ve always found it quite sad that the state of Texas has traditionally ignored their own acoustic artists until those artists were forced to move on to other parts of the country where the media supported their endeavors.”

That, of course, is not the media’s job. Why Griffith should care so deeply and bitterly what writers think about her work makes one question why she makes music in the first place. She is an artist, but not because some writer says so. For some reason she was blessed with a beautiful, clear voice that touches people deeply, that speaks to their longing, to what their hearts want but can’t have—or sometimes even name. And for some reason she started singing, playing, and writing three decades ago, and for some reason she kept it up, through good times and bad, and like thousands before her, she helped keep alive the great chugging American folk tradition—with her own work and her purposeful recordings of ignored artists.

The Guardian in England once asked Griffith, “How would you like to be remembered?” and she replied, “For my music.” She says her next album of new songs might be just her, a guitar, and her pianist. After all the sturm und drawl of the past decade, that sounds pretty good. It might even be something to write home about.

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