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Remembering Grammy-Winning Folk Singer-Songwriter Nanci Griffith


Nanci Griffith died yesterday in Nashville at the age of 68. She was known for her crystalline voice and songs that told stories.


NANCI GRIFFITH: (Singing) Rita was 16 years, hazel eyes and chestnut hair. She made the Woolworth counter shine.

SIMON: This song, "Love At The Five And Dime," provided a huge top five country hit for Kathy Mattea, who, of course is one of the most celebrated names in country music and bluegrass. She's also, we're glad to say, a frequent guest host of the NPR music program Mountain Stage, produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Kathy Mattea joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

KATHY MATTEA: Oh, it's my pleasure. Although I have to say, just hearing that come through the radio at me right now just caught me off guard a little bit.

SIMON: Yeah, me too. You released your version of "Love At The Five And Dime" in 1986. How did the song get to you? What reached into you about it? Why did you want to sing it?

MATTEA: You know, that's - I was thinking as it hit me I had this old friend named Richard Dobson, who was a Texas songwriter, a little less known than Townes Van Zandt and all of them, Steve Earle, more of the prominent Texas crowd. And he had - I kind of ran with him in a circle of friends, and he kept saying to me, you need to meet my friend Nanci Griffith. I'm calling you when she comes to town. And so one day, I was hanging at Alan Reynolds' studio. I just started working with him, and someone was making a record that day, and the studio door was closed. And I said, who's working today? He said, oh, Rooney's producing a record on Nanci Griffith. And I was like, oh, my God, Nanci Griffith's in the building. And I waited till they had finished kind of - you know, they were doing a playback. And I crashed the session. And they were recording "Love At The Five And Dime."

SIMON: Oh, what a story. Oh, that's amazing. So you heard it and what?

MATTEA: And then I don't know. I don't know if it was weeks or months later, we were looking for songs, and Alan said, look. This is an unusual song, but I think you should listen to it. And he put it on. And before the first line was done, I said, oh, I know this song, and I love it. I love it.

SIMON: What do you take from Nanci Griffith? What did you learn from her? What did you absorb? What do we hold close now?

MATTEA: Well, you know, I have this longtime guitar player named Bill Cooley, who's very astute listener of music. And we would sit on the bus at night after playing her songs. And he said, you know, Kathy, the thing that strikes me about her is like this whole Texas songwriter scene with Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, these guys - they wrote fiercely. They partied hard. And she was a woman and held her own with all of them...

SIMON: Yeah.

MATTEA: ...And was respected by them. And her songs hold up next to theirs. And he said, you know, there's a lot of women songwriters from Texas now, but there weren't then. And she was kind of a pioneer.

SIMON: Yeah. She shined a light out for you in a funny way that enabled your rise, too.

MATTEA: Oh, you know, I'd been - I was the kid who everybody liked but couldn't get a hit. And I recorded that song. It was so unusual. None of us thought - you know, I mean, it's not an obvious radio hit. And, you know, it just came out and floated up the charts like it had a balloon on it. And she got nominated for the album "Last Of The True Believers" that had her recording on it. And we had a little drink in LA in the hotel we were both staying at before we left to go to each of our first Grammys.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh, what a memory.

MATTEA: It was just great.

SIMON: How do you think she's going to go down in the Hall of Fame of great singer-songwriters?

MATTEA: You know, I am hopeful that people go back and dig through her catalog and are reminded of how literary her songs were, how simple a lot of them were, how quirky her melodies are, how rhythmic her singing is.

SIMON: Yeah.

MATTEA: You know, I think in the larger scheme of things, I'm hopeful that she will become more appreciated now that her music's coming to light again.

SIMON: Kathy Mattea speaking with us about her friend, in many ways, her inspiration, Nanci Griffith. Thank you so much for being with us.

MATTEA: Thank you, Scott.


GRIFFITH: (Singing) I am just learning how to fly away again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.