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