Thank You Kindly
Nanci Griffith, one of the finest Texas songwriters ever, left this earth two years ago. Her music lives on in a new tribute album out today. Mary Gauthier writes about the lasting power of Griffith’s songs.
It was 1987 or ’88. My best friend Sydney called and told me I must go to the record store and buy There’s a Light Beyond These Woods by Nanci Griffith, a songwriter he’d just discovered.
We so loved finding new artists who spoke to us that we’d race to tell each other about our discoveries. We’d met when we were two underaged queer kids sitting on barstools, drinking at George’s, a windowless Baton Rouge gay bar. We quickly discovered that not only were we both sixteen years old (pretending to be eighteen), but we were also adopted from the same institution in 1962—St. Vincent’s children’s home on Magazine Street in New Orleans. We could have easily had each other’s adoptive parents.
This bizarre reality, plus our love of music, bonded us. We became fast friends. Music was our life. Music mattered: it explained things, gave us strength. We found our identity in it, back then. So, of course I immediately went to Tower Records and bought There’s a Light Beyond These Woods. I dropped the needle in the groove, Nanci sang, and I knew why Sydney had sent me to this record.
There’s a light beyond these woods, Mary Margaret
Do you think that we will go there and see what makes it shine?
He was my Mary Margaret, or, maybe I, his? Either way, this songwriter got us. We’d wandered the wilderness of our own dark woods, a haunted, swampy Louisiana bog we both had to leave in search of a bigger world, a better place.
The song “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods” is a folkie, Southern, woman’s “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” “Born to Run,” or maybe even “Free Bird.” But less bombastic than those male songs, with no mention of a “pretty young girl” to run away with or to run from. Instead, Nanci’s song sang of two young female friends dreaming of a better place out there, beyond the horizon, somewhere. Two friends who were a lot like me and Sydney.
He’d left for the North the year before me and was building a new life away from the downward pull we’d both gotten tangled up in in Baton Rouge. I stayed behind, hoping to finish college at Louisiana State University, while bartending four nights a week at Neiman’s, a three-story gay bar near the college that served thousands of people on weekend nights. It was the happening dance club in Baton Rouge, and I was making a lot of money, all of which I spent on drugs, getting high till sunrise, then skipping my morning classes.
I’d never heard a woman sing like that. I sensed the singer’s resolve, wrapped inside the deceptive prettiness of the voice. There was melancholy, wanderlust, ambition, and loneliness, a tender/tough sound.
I had called Sydney late one night after I got home from work—wasted, sad, and lost. I had no memory of our conversation, but a few days later he’d called back and said he’d found me a basement apartment on the bottom of Beacon Hill in Boston, a few doors down from where he lived. He’d rented it for me. “Girl, you’re moving to Boston. Pack it up.”
It was my first month living in Boston when I sat in my sparsely furnished Beacon Hill basement apartment, listening to the record I’d just purchased, as the voice coming out of the speakers gave rise to an old familiar ache in my soul. I’d never heard a woman sing like that. I sensed the singer’s resolve, wrapped inside the deceptive prettiness of the voice. There was melancholy, wanderlust, ambition, and loneliness, a tender/tough sound. It reached into my soul and triggered an old familiar longing for a home I’d never truly known, while also steadying the orphan in me. High and lonesome but defiant, her voice was real.
Nanci told me years later, “The radio person at MCA Nashville told me I would never be on country radio because my voice hurt people’s ears.” She told this to a lot of journalists, too. She was hurt. Who wouldn’t be? Nanci Griffith was a Southern folksinger, and Nashville did not know what to do with her. Perhaps Nanci’s voice was too folk for country and too country for folk? Who knows? All I knew was that Nanci Griffith resonated, when country radio often sounded like a saccharine imitation of a smothering place I had to leave to survive. And as much as I loved her voice, I also knew that Nanci Griffith was no “chick singer.” She was first and foremost a songwriter.
There’s a Light Beyond These Woods came out in 1978, and has nine songs on it, seven written by Nanci. I knew of no female country singer who did that (yet), aside from Loretta Lynn. A Texas -born songwriter, Nanci was a woman out of time, a bridge to an earlier era where regional traits like her Texas twang were strengths, not something to smooth out or extinguish. She was also a bridge to the future, where literate, sophisticated songs written by a woman would one day be taken as seriously as song written by a man, where female songwriters would one day be seen as important as male songwriters. But we weren’t there, yet. An educated, well-read, fiercely liberal Democratic woman, Nanci was a groundbreaker, a trailblazer who would never fit into the country genre of her time. Being a throwback and a trailblazer can make for great art, but it is no easy road to travel.
Nanci and John [Prine]’s songs helped blaze the trail for what we now call Americana music, music too authentic and left of center to be embraced by the Nashville country music establishment.
There’s a Light Beyond These Woods was her first record. It was recorded live, straight to two tracks in a small studio in Austin on four days in 1977 and ’78. No overdubs. The instrumentation—basic folk/bluegrass stringed instruments—suits her voice and songs perfectly. This record is Nanci Griffith at her folkiest. After an afternoon of listening, I went back to Tower and bought everything they had in the store with her name on it. Poet in My Window, Once in a Very Blue Moon, Last of the True Believers, Lone Star State of Mind. I devoured all of them, and her music soon became the soundtrack to my life. I went on to follow her career for the next forty years.
As her body of work grew, she continued the confessional lyrics and political urgency of the Greenwich Village folk era, but with a twangy vocal style and musical flourishes of both bluegrass and traditional country. She called her music Folkabilly. Similar to John Prine in some ways, Nanci Griffith was deeply Southern, but steadfast in her commitment to the fundamentals of folk music, which was her first love. Nanci and John’s songs help blaze the trail for what we now call Americana music, music too authentic and left of center to be embraced by the Nashville country music establishment. Other women singers—Kathy Mattea, Suzy Bogguss—had hits with her songs on country radio, and I found it frustrating that she did not. I treasured her own recordings of her own songs, and I wanted Nanci to have those hits herself. But it was not to be.
I went to see her play at the de Cordova Museum Amphitheater. I saw her again at Sanders Theater at Harvard, and several times at Boston’s Symphony Hall. I once sent flowers to her green room backstage at Symphony Hall, which was across the street from the Cajun restaurant I owned and ran in Boston, to thank her. During the hardest of the hard days of my addiction and early recovery, Nanci’s music brought me back to myself in some vital way. It offered me a measure of peace and was the only music I could listen to for a while. It was strange that the first song of hers that grabbed me was a wanderlust song about leaving the South, but after I left the South, the Nanci songs that grabbed me were about returning. Dare I say it was the restlessness, the longing, that spoke to me? “A Year in New Orleans,” “Banks of the Pontchartrain,” “Lone Star State of Mind.” Over and over, I’d listen. I found deep comfort in both the words and the sound of her music. It all sounded like home, a home I was still looking for.
In the mid-2000s, I opened a string of shows for her on the West Coast. I wished throughout the tour that I could tell her what her music meant to me. But I never was able to fully say it. I wish I could have put into words how her music carried me when I did not know how to carry myself.
Today, I understand there are experiences words cannot express. It’s impossible to convey to a songwriter whose music was a salvation what their music means to you. The experience is too big and too important to describe it to the artist who gave it to you. To try is to crumble into stammering self-consciousness. Some experiences in life are ineffable. There simply are no words to describe them properly; they can only be pointed to, nodded at. All attempts to do so end up feeling awkward because they miss the mark.
It’s impossible to convey to a songwriter whose music was a salvation what their music means to you. The experience is too big and too important to describe it to the artist who gave it to you.
“Thank you for your music” is about the best we can do. While saying so little, it says it all. So, I will end with this: Thank you for your music, Nanci. It wove its way deep into my soul, and I am forever grateful. As you used to say at the end of every show with a smile and a wave, thank you, thank you kindly.
Listen to More Than a Whisper: Celebrating the Music of Nanci Griffith. The album features a duet between Kelsey Waldon and John Prine, recorded before his death in 2020, along with performances by Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, and many others. Mary Gauthier performs the title track.
Mary Gauthier is a Grammy-nominated folk singer-songwriter and author, whose songs have been covered by performers including Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Kathy Mattea, Boy George, Jimmy Buffett, and many more. She has won awards from the Americana Music Association, the International Folk Music Awards, the Independent Music Awards, the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards, and the UK Americana Association. Gauthier has never shied away from difficult self-exploration. Her songwriting brilliance always offers beauty in sorrow, healing in loss, and a perspective only an artist of uncommon generosity can give. Her latest book is Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting (St. Martin's Essentials, 2021). Her latest album is Dark Enough to See the Stars.