Nanci Caroline Griffith

Nanci Griffith: Country music loses a legend

On Aug. 13, 2021, Nanci Griffith, the American singer/songwriter, died at the age of 68 in Nashville, Tennessee. You may not recognize her name, but you might remember her songs if you heard them. She had a distinctive crystalline voice and a unique storytelling skill.

            If you are so inclined, do a search of Nanci Griffith on YouTube. It’s refreshing to watch a performer focused on the music. No fireworks, no revealing costume, no choreography. Just a clear voice and a rare insight into the lives of everyday people.

            Nanci often remarked that if you took Woody Guthrie and Loretta Lynn and mixed them together, you would get Nanci Griffith. She was inspired by Guthrie’s enduring folk music and impressed that Loretta Lynn was the first woman to play her own rhythm guitar when she performed the songs she wrote. Nanci described her music as “folkabilly.”

            She was a frequent performer on Austin City Limits and made many appearances as musical guest for the David Letterman Show. She was popular in Ireland and performed there many times. In 1986, Kathy Mattea had a country hit with her song, “Love at the Five and Dime.” This work hearkens back to a simpler time in America and manages to tell a novel’s worth of life in several minutes.

            Nanci won the 1994 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album for Other Voices, Other Rooms. The record was a tribute to songwriters who influenced her own songwriting and included appearances by Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and John Prine. She created 27 albums in the course of her career. She released a single, “From a Distance” which later became a huge hit for Bette Midler who explained she listened very closely to Nanci’s recording before her own performance. 

            Many music critics consider her to be the best songwriter ever from Austin, Texas. This is high praise as that town is known for its rich live and original music scene. My favorite Nanci Griffith song (and perhaps my favorite song period) is Trouble in the Fields. Written about the farm crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s been said that she did more to explain the situation in agriculture at the time than Hollywood did in three films (Country, The River and Places in the Heart). Nanci had five great uncles that farmed through the Great Depression. She wrote Trouble in the Fields in honor of her great aunt and uncle, Nettie Mae and Tootie, farmers for over 80 years near Lockney, Texas, near Lubbock.

            When introducing this song at her 1988 Anderson Fair performance, Nanci recalled her great aunt spoke about how strong the wind blew during the Dust Bowl. She was afraid to go to sleep at night because she was fearful she would wake up in Oklahoma, and she didn’t want to live in Oklahoma.

Here are the lyrics for Trouble in the Fields. Even without a melody, the words are pure poetry.

Baby I know that we’ve got trouble in the fields

When the bankers swarm like locust out there turning away our yield

The trains roll by our silos, silver in the rain

They leave our pockets full of nothing

But our dreams and the golden grain

Have you seen the folks in line downtown at the station

They’re all buying their ticket out and talking the great depression
Our parents had their hard times fifty years ago
When they stood out in these empty fields in dust as deep as snow

And all this trouble in our fields
If this rain can fall, these wounds can heal
They’ll never take our native soil
But if we sell that new John Deere
And then we’ll work these crops with sweat and tears
You’ll be the mule I’ll be the plow
Come harvest time we’ll work it out
There’s still a lot of love, here in these troubled fields

There’s a book up on the shelf about the dust bowl days
And there’s a little bit of you and a little bit of me
In the photos on every page
Now our children live in the city and they rest upon our shoulders
They never want the rain to fall or the weather to get colder

And all this trouble in our fields
If this rain can fall, these wounds can heal
They’ll never take our native soil
But if we sell that new John Deere
And then we’ll work these crops with sweat and tears
You’ll be the mule I’ll be the plow
Come harvest time we’ll work it out
There’s still a lot of love, here in these troubled fields

You’ll be the mule I’ll be the plow
Come harvest time we’ll work it out
There’s still a lot of love, here in these troubled fields

Rest in peace, Nanci Caroline Griffith.

Leisa Boley Hellwarth is a dairy farmer and an attorney. She represents farmers throughout Ohio from her office near Celina. Her office number is 419-586-1072. 

2 comments

  1. It’s a shame to lose such a legendary musician in such an old musical style. I grew up with a country song growing up with my grandparents in a village near Texas. It was an amazing time, it was music that was part of the culture of immigrants from all over America. People in droves listened to her and showed how significant she is in their lives. If you want to listen to this kind of music, then refer to article https://themusicessentials.com/editorials/best-songs-about-immigration/ where there are many songs about migration. This is part of a great culture.

  2. Kek hi guys, thank you!

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