Texan songwriters often address the linguistic alienation native Texans can experience upon leaving home. Countless Lyle Lovett songs play off the trope of the awkward country boy overwhelmed by the big city. On the epochal “London Homesick Blues,” Gary P. Nunn is taunted by unfriendly Englishmen who tell him, “You’re from down South / And when you open your mouth / You always seem to put your foot there.” But it was Nanci Griffith who spoke most directly to how I sometimes feel, tripping over my words like a third left foot as a county girl up north: “How I miss my native tongue / ’Cause New York City sorta brings out the stupids in me,” as she put it on “Spin on a Red Brick Floor.” Nanci never realized how twangy her voice was until after she left Austin: she once said that she never thought she had much of an accent until she listened to her 1988 live album One Fair Summer Evening: “And then I could hear it. I sound just like my great-aunt out in Lockney, Texas.”

That song serves as the euphoric coda to Nanci’s 1984 album Once in a Very Blue Moon, one of four of her early records recently reissued by Craft Recordings after having long been out of print. Alongside the new Working in Corners box set comes the tribute album More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Work of Nanci Griffith, from Rounder Records, which features friends and disciples alike—from Lyle Lovett and the late John Prine to younger acolytes like Billy Strings and Sarah Jarosz—honoring the words and stories of the singular poet, who died in 2021 at the age of 68.

“Spin on a Red Brick Floor” traces a lyrical map up and down the Eastern Seaboard, traversing the highways and byways Nanci knew too well as a hard-touring musician. She guides us through the Blue Ridge Mountains to New England and on down to a rendezvous with a sweetheart in Tennessee, accompanied by a rabble-rousing string band including Béla Fleck on banjo and Mark O’Connor on fiddle. She finds beauty wherever she goes, but none of it can compare to the state where she was raised, the “East Texas dust” and “hot Houston neon buzzin’,” which all roads inevitably lead back to. 

Once in a Very Blue Moon saw Nanci embracing a warmer country sound after the more stripped-down folksiness of 1978’s There’s a Light Beyond These Woods and 1982’s Poet in My Window, but she was still far from the bright industrial lights of Nashville. Only one song from the album, the resilient “Daddy Said,” was released as a commercial single that year. But as the album’s closing track—and the finale of countless performances—it’s “Spin on a Red Brick Floor” that captures Nanci’s wild heart more vividly than almost any song she wrote. It encompasses the vivid spectrum of her life: not just the lone songwriter observing the world around her, but a feisty bandleader and a lightning bolt who lived on her feet.

In her introduction to the encore of “Spin a Red Brick Floor” on One Fair Summer Evening, Nanci dedicates it to the tiny clubs that served as way stations along that trail, places where you can feel the music “between the bricks.” She thought of music as a living organism cultivated by its environment, nurtured by the voices who sing it. There’s a boundless restlessness to Nanci’s songwriting, as she and her protagonists travel by outbound plane, southbound train, and Ford Econoline

More than a classic country songstress, she could evoke the untamed expressionism of Kate Bush or the sensitive introspection of Suzanne Vega, and she studied a wide variety of vocalists far beyond Nashville tradition, just as she studied at the feet of skilled prose writers. Nanci described 1999’s lush and schmaltzy The Dust Bowl Symphony, a reinterpretation of her most iconic songs with the London Symphony Orchestra, as her attempt “to have this brief moment of being Edith Piaf.” On 2004’s “Beautiful,” she even breaks into a jazzy little scat, later citing Ella Fitzgerald’s observation that, as Nanci put it, “scatting [is] like standing naked onstage, because it [is] so revealing and no two people do it alike.”

But every point of comparison always seems to fall short when writing about Nanci—no matter which voices shaped her own, she could have only ever been herself, and she could have only ever been from Texas. Her “native tongue” was always unmistakable, audibly representing her Hill Country home the world over. As Michael Hall wrote in Texas Monthly in 1999, “An accent is a safe place to go, an exaggerated sign of who you are, especially if you aren’t always sure.” Nanci’s accent became a way of carrying her home with her, like the bejeweled Lone Star State brooch she often wore onstage.

Critics often latched onto Nanci’s unclassifiable voice as a sign of her alleged “authenticity,” ignoring the fact that almost every vocalist in the country and western tradition has embellished their own accent. She was judged harshly, held to an impossible standard compared to male songwriters of the day. In the late nineties, she penned a letter to the editors of several major publications in Texas—including this one—taking them to task for alleged slights and insults slung her way over the years. By this point, she’d won a Grammy and found plenty of fans outside of country music, but her sincerity seemed to preternaturally rub some folks the wrong way. For every positive contemporary review she received, there was another that saw her as too sentimental or too schmaltzy, or that dismissed her accented voice as mere shtick. In retrospect, it’s hard not to see so much of the criticism as simple sexism. Nanci’s most-cited vocal hero was Waco-born folk singer Carolyn Hester, but she also credited performers like Tom Waits and Iggy Pop as inspirations—male songwriters with clearly affected deliveries who might have been acquired tastes but never received the level of constant critical interrogation that she did.

The Texas singer-songwriter circuit sold itself as an antiestablishment alternative to Nashville’s assembly line, but like the political counterculture of the New Left, it suffered from much of the same institutional sexism as the mainstream. The state’s music scene was, by and large, a boys’ club; those boys might have been more sensitive and perceptive than the ones who roamed Music Row, their hair a little longer, but they had the same tendency to talk over women’s voices. Maybe that was part of why Nanci’s voice was so powerful and defiant—she had to firmly stand her ground to keep the good ol’ boys from pushing her around, just like she had to sing loud to be heard over the unruly chatter of drunken honky-tonkers. She often joked that teaching several years of elementary school before she became a full-time musician prepared her for the job of wrangling easily distracted audiences.

Contrary to the opinions of the time, Nanci never pretended to be innocent; there was always a wounded edge to her writing, a weariness that ran deeper than the naiveté her folksy speech patterns might have implied. She spoke about Texas with as much apprehension, and even disdain, as adoration; like so many of us, she seemed cursed to yearn for home whenever she left it but want to run away whenever she returned. Beneath the tales of unrequited romance and star-crossed dreamers was a bleakness, the irreparably broken heart of a girl who lost her teenage lover in a motorcycle accident. The essential loneliness Nanci often wrote of wasn’t self-pitying, but self-reliant, with a sense of resolve found in learning to survive on your lonesome. It was the stubborn independence of a frontier woman, like the subsistent defiance of Clara Allen from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove—a book Nanci cradled on the back cover of 1986’s The Last of the True Believers.  

Like the state’s endless landscape, Nanci’s voice was never one thing. Her lyrics conjured an evocative sense of place, from the dusty plains of the Panhandle to the humid bayous of the Gulf Coast and beyond. But that voice was a place unto itself. She sometimes sounded childlike and innocent, but she could turn wild on a dime, stretching a word into a wounded yelp, a fearsome growl, a howl at the moon.