NANCI GRIFFITH: FROM A DISTANCE

We are delighted to host another guest post by David HeffernanFrom Dublin, David is a vastly experienced and much-decorated music producer and director. His credits include international films on The Velvet Underground, Van Morrison, Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac.

On a hot and humid Spring morning in 1990, I drove on Interstate 65 from Nashville East to Franklin, the county seat of Williamson County, Tennessee. It was a short journey, just a 15-minute drive. At that time, Franklin was a smaller, less developed place, more like a large prosperous town. A throwback, perhaps, to Norman Rockwell’s idealised image of small-town America with its well-appointed Main Street replete with mischievous boys on bicycles and a selection of outwardly welcoming, if slightly wary, citizens and shopkeepers. I was on my way to lunch with the singer and songwriter, Nanci Griffith: it was an opportunity to catch up and to discuss a television project I thought might interest her. 

Our conversation turned eventually to books: her favourite writer, certainly at that time, was Charles Bukowski, who many musicians, Bono included, have cited as influential. Two years later, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen would play on Nanci’s album, ‘Flyer’ – which was co-produced by Peter Buck of REM – a reflection of U2’s admiration for her work and her many achievements, especially in Ireland.

In 1986, Time magazine called Bukowski ‘a laureate of American lowlife’: as such, I didn’t think he’d be anywhere near her choice of favourite authors. With her ankle socks, school mistress demeanour and crystalline contralto, I assumed that Carsun Mc Cullers – who I knew she adored – would top that list. But I was wrong and, as things transpired, it wouldn’t be the first time that my assumptions about Nanci – and who she was in the world – would be off the mark.

Back in 1987, the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ, unveiled a new television studio – it’s largest to date – at its Montrose headquarters in south Dublin. I was working in the organisation as a presenter and producer of music-based content at the time and had just set up an independent production company, Frontier Films, with my twin brother, Gerald. It seemed like a good time to propose a series of programmes that would provoke creative challenges for musicians and songwriters while maybe engaging those audiences who loved music. Who, in Ireland especially, had little by way of home-produced music television shows.

In terms of form, the series would feature complimentary and unlikely musical pairings. Our ambition was to create a space where music television that couldn’t be found either within or outside the record industry and broadcast world at that time, could be made. And so the first production to be completed in that new studio – Studio 4 – was The Session which, as events unfolded, quickly became an exploration, through live performance, of the connections between Irish and American folk music. That series also marked, for me and my family, the beginning of a series of personal and professional relationships that would endure for many years afterwards.

Nanci Griffith had recently released her first album, ‘Lone Star State of Mind’, for MCA Records in Nashville following a string of critically-acclaimed records on various independent labels. The Irish guitarist, Philip Donnelly, had played on the record and, as I’d appointed him as Musical Director on The Session, it was inevitable that she’d surface on our first series. Philip was also a close friend and collaborator of John Prine, so John too signed up and boarded a plane to Dublin from his home in Nashville.

Backstage at a recording of the Town and Country series in London. Left to right: Gerald Heffernan, Nanci. Clint Black, John Prine and David Heffernan. [Photograph courtesy of the author]

This somewhat unlikely trio – a Chicago-born former postman, a Texan folk singer and writer and a peripatetic Dublin-born guitar player – would provide the musical nexus for the series. In the process, they crafted songs and music that touched the hearts and minds of those Irish audiences that heard them.  

The Session unquestionably launched Nanci Griffith’s career outside of America. As she told the chat show host, Rosie O’Donnell, many years later, she was ‘a star in Ireland and Europe and a cult figure in America’. ‘I have the best of both worlds’, she said. Perhaps, but she would never emulate that same level of success she enjoyed in Ireland elsewhere, and certainly not in her home country. Her long-time friend and collaborator, Jim Rooney, who worked with Nanci over many years and produced her Grammy Award-winning ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ elpee, observed that ‘the Irish part was the highlight of her career’.

‘Be careful of what you wish for’ was a favourite epigram of Nanci’s and one she would often use. I’ve long come to think that she may, in that line, have been reflecting and verbalising some her of own internal conflicts and dilemmas. While working with her during those early days, I paid it no heed: Nanci could be incredibly considerate and connected in her personal relationships, yet also removed and distanced when she chose. After her death last August at the age of 68, Jim Rooney remarked that ‘she was the loneliest person I’ve ever met’. But it wasn’t always that way. Or so it seemed.

Folk and country music invariably expresses the needs and concerns of working people. With this implicit understanding, and in the grand traditions of Woody Guthrie and Loretta Lynn, Nanci wrote and sang about the everyman with rare insight and solid conviction. Many of her songs reflect how people feel about their own place in the world and provide, perhaps, small comforts: they help folk get by. Ireland has been an agrarian society for centuries, so it came as no surprise that, from her first appearance on The Session, Irish audiences took to her finely crafted, wistful musings on rural concerns, romantic anxieties and the hardships and misfortunes of everyday living.

On one occasion, she accompanied me to a small social gathering in the home of the entrepreneur and developer, Harry Crosbie. Harry would later restore and develop an eighteenth-century train depot in Dublin’s docklands into Ireland’s premier music venue, now known as the 3 Arena. In the event that an opportunity might arise, I asked Nanci to bring her guitar along and, seated with Harry and his wife Rita, I asked her would she sing something. She performed one of her best-known songs, ‘Trouble in the Fields’, which is about the economic impact of a failed harvest on small farmers. Seated on a sofa in Dublin city, it was a composed, intimate, and deeply personal delivery, as if a fine raft of sunlight had suddenly transformed the room. The subject matter was as relevant to folks in Mullingar as it was to those in Minnesota.

By her own account, Nanci’s family life was ‘really dysfunctional’. ‘Bad Seed’, from her 2012 album, ‘Intersection’, was addressed to her father, and includes the lines: ‘Bad seed, there’s a darkness I can’t hide. Too much pain to keep inside’. I saw no obvious or outward signs of this turmoil during the late 1980s, though: just an artist that was eager to deliver on her incredible promise who was effortlessly taking the acclaim here in her stride. Or so it seemed.

Within a year of her first appearances on The Session, and still based in America, she began selling out theatre venues in Ireland, playing to packed audiences and enjoying the rewards that came from the increased sales of every new release. But it wasn’t one of her own songs that first made her name with Irish audiences.

A New York songwriter, Julie Gold, had written a song that presented a view of the world as observed from afar, positing the notion of a ‘voice of hope’ and ‘a song for every man’. It had been passed over by a slew of established singers and only eventually became a word-wide success after it was covered by Bette Midler. Nanci’s version of the song – ‘From a Distance’ – reflected a pop-based approach that was removed, certainly, from the folk or country styles she normally favoured. It quickly became a constant on Irish radio, cementing her status among an increasingly devout Irish fan base. Seemingly out of nowhere, Nanci Griffith was Number One on the Irish music chart.

Philip Donnelly was born in Clontarf on the north side of Dublin city. He considered his birth a miraculous event: born with a life- threatening illness, he was saved by a local priest who, Philip insisted, placed a scapula over his heart. Whatever about the medical veracity of this tale, Philip went on to carve out a successful career as an in-demand session musician in Nashville. His signature sound is best described as a blend of traditional country guitar picking with the plaintive longing of Irish sean-nós singing. And it was this sound that brought added layers to the songs of John Prine and Nanci Griffith, with whom he regularly recorded and toured. [A natural extrovert, he also enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only man to have succeeded in having The Everly Brothers – with whom he also performed – removed from the First-Class compartment on an international flight]. 

Philip Donnelly came alive when accompanying singer-songwriters. Without his commitment to her music, and her inclusion on the line-up for The Session, it’s unlikely that Nanci would have achieved what she did in Ireland. Alongside the affinity they shared through music, Philip, John and Nanci were close and loyal friends and remained so until their respective and untimely deaths: all three died within a year of each other.

John Prine’s ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’ was written about his second wife, the talented musician, Rachel Peer. After their relationship broke down, John was working with his close friend – and music maverick – Jack Clement, who suggested he write about his feelings. Despite its enigmatic title, the song is a tender reflection on love gone sadly awry: Philip Donnelly’s haunting guitar refrain exemplifies the sadness and acceptance at the heart of the song. Not unlike his more minimal guitar part on ‘From a Distance’, his playing helped realise the potential implicit in both songs. John and Nanci recorded the song as a duet and it was accompanied by a lavishly-produced pop promo. It also became a motif for the music programmes produced by Frontier Films as we went on to work with both artists over subsequent years.

Friendship is an integral part of this story. Although I stayed in touch – and worked regularly and socialised whenever possible – with John and Philip, Nanci became more elusive. During the mid-1990s, my then-wife, Tina, who had become friendly with Nanci, organised an apartment for her in an area off of Grafton Street in Dublin. Nanci had also agreed to take part in a series of programmes that Frontier Films was making for the UK broadcaster, Channel 4, that John Prine was hosting. That series – ‘Town and Country’ – included stellar performances from the likes of Clint Black, George Strait, kd lang, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash among other notable country and bluegrass luminaries.

While making the series, I asked Nanci if she’d consider becoming godmother to our youngest son, Aaron. She agreed and went on to become a much-loved figure and mentor to him and, whenever possible, he’d visit her in her home in Franklin. When performing in Dublin, Nanci would invite Aaron and his brother, Jesse – at the age of 6 and 7 respectively – onto stage to sing. They still play the custom-built, engraved Taylor guitar – a replica of Phil Everly’s favourite instrument – that was a Christmas gift from Aaron’s much-loved ‘fairy godmother’.

Inscription on a Taylor guitar, gifted by Nanci to her god-son, Aaron. [Photograph courtesy of the author].

Nanci’s standing in Ireland was at its peak in the early 1990’s. But watching her shows it was increasingly apparent that she was using the stage as a platform for the various causes she supported. Although this was already implicit in many of her songs, she took to proselytising more and more during her live performances: with long declarations, what were once concerts often became more like Town Hall meetings. She also became increasingly withdrawn, the music- making becoming almost like a secondary feature for her. 

As she became more reclusive, Nanci’s drinking became more acute, which certainly came as a surprise to me. In an industry where the consumption of alcohol is more or less the norm, Nanci always seemed like an exception. But I was wrong again. By the late 1990s, during the recording of her ‘Other Voices Too’ album, she’d become especially difficult to work with. One collaborator on that project described her as a ‘total Diva’. Her drinking had also escalated, and this period marks the beginning of an unravelling.

Nanci Griffth, photographed at her home in Franklin with her godson, Aaron, and her god-daughter, Julie.[Photograph courtesy of the author]

Years later, in 2002, I was producing a series of shows, again for RTÉ, in Killarney, County Kerry. I called Nanci and asked if she’s like to come and appear. She agreed quickly and even refused to accept a fee: a Business Class air fare would suffice. In performance she was as professional as ever and enchanted the audience with her songs and stories. But on a personal level she was remote and, I thought, quite angry with, and dismissive of the world in general. While talking with her back-stage after the show, I was called away by a member of the production team. It was the last time I saw her.

So, whatever happened to the idealistic, fresh-faced singer with boundless potential and ambition I’d come to know in 1987? The gifted songwriter whose poetic verse and acute literalism is still sadly under-acknowledged? The godmother to my youngest son. Somewhere during her life, and perhaps from a much younger age and for whatever number of reasons, she may have fallen in love with the idea of loneliness, choosing to live life from a distance. Did she decide to abide by the ideals of unwavering independence, unflinching fortitude and doomed romanticism espoused by two of her favourite American writers, Larry Mc Murtry and Cormac McCarthy? If so, it proved to be a damned pact.

Philip Donnelly died of numerous medical complications in December, 2019. It wasn’t possible for either John or Nanci to travel to his funeral, although both were mentioned by the presiding priest in his eulogy. So too was the story about the scapula and the allusions to divine intervention. When John Prine died of a Covid-related illness in April, 2020, his death was greeted in Nashville, as Jim Rooney observed, ‘as if Elvis had just died’. When Nanci passed away in August, 2021 – the cause of her death still has to be announced – there was no fanfare. It was as if, as far as Nashville was concerned, she had vanished years previously.

It was also what she had chosen. In the end, she may well have had to live with the consequences of her oft-stated and, as it turned out, prophetic credo, a universal truth that took her in the end: be careful of what you wish for.

Aaron Heffernan and his godmother, Nanci Griffith. [Photograph courtesy of the author]

5 thoughts on “NANCI GRIFFITH: FROM A DISTANCE

Add yours

  1. When first hearing of Nanci’s death my thought was simply that she had died from a broken heart. I know she had serious physical challenges, yet her sensitive heart simply ‘having enough’ seemed likely to me. Her work has blessed so many of us and I am deeply grateful for that. Thank you very, very much for this article.
    May Nanci’s soul happily ‘fly’ and feel thoroughly adored.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great piece of writing . I watched all the Session programmes on RTE and thanks to this ground breaking TV was introduced to so many new artists . I was lucky enough to attend the 2 nights s live at The Point depot , certainly up there with my best live gigs . Saw Nanci live many times over her career from early days to later days and still play the records . It was indeed sad to see that she had lost her way somewhat in recent years but we arevlucky to still have her body of work

    It’s also a real loss to all music fans to have lost John , Philip and Nanci in such short succession – let’s hope they are now playing in the great Session in the sky

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights in this article. I found it helpful because even as just a listener and fan, I sensed her sadness. I wondered about her personal life. Her loves. Her family. On occasion I would feel a sense of all you’ve written about here.
    Listening to interviews or studying her facial expressions as she sang, I could sense “something”.
    I say this as a compliment to both you and Nanci, sharing a genuine part of her life, her truth, only makes me love and appreciate her that much more.

    Like

  4. Reading this article really brought Nanci closer to me. Her work was so important to me and so personal it resonated deeply in me. I played her songs on my radio shows any chance I could and often wrote about her albums from the Philo days on. I miss her terribly and deeply regret I fell out of touch with her along the way. Now I am singing her brilliant “A Hard Road” every gig I play, and it invariably gets ther strongest response of any song we do, more relevant and urgent now than 30 years ago when she wrote it. She remains one of my most profound influences personally and musically.

    Like

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