Nanci Griffith, Folk Singer Known for ‘Love at the Five and Dime,’ Dies at 68

Texas songwriter worked closely with artists such as Lyle Lovett and Emmylou Harris

Nanci Griffith
Photo credit: Getty Images

Nanci Griffith, a singer, songwriter and Grammy winner known for folk songs like “Love at the Five and Dime” and for the original version of “From a Distance,” which would later become a Bette Midler hit, has died. She was 68.

Griffith’s management company Gold Mountain Entertainment said that she died Friday morning, but did not provide a cause of death.

“It was Nanci’s wish that no further formal statement or press release happen for a week following her passing,” Gold Mountain Entertainment said in a statement via AP.

Griffith was born in Texas and sang in a distinctive high twang, mixing country and folk and a bit of rock — “folkabilly,” she called it. She came out of a 1970s Texas scene that idolized songwriters like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and produced Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Lyle Lovett, who appeared in the background of the cover photo on her 1986 album “The Last of the True Believers.” (She was also known for holding favorite books, often from Texas authors, in her album photos.)

Griffith was a regular on “Austin City Limits” and performed with artists such as John Prine, with Buddy Holly’s band, Iris DeMent, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett, among others. She also recorded duets with Willie Nelson, Don McLean, Jimmy Buffett, Darius Rucker and Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows.

Griffith won a Grammy in 1994 for Best Contemporary Folk Album for her record “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” which was a covers album of singer-songwriters who’d influenced her, including Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Woody Guthrie, Gordon Lightfoot and Kate Wolf. But it was specifically other voices that often found greater success for songs that she co-wrote or recorded. Her song “Love at the Five and Dime” hit No. 3 on the country charts when it was recorded by Kathy Mattea, and Suzy Bogguss also had a hit with her take on Griffith and Tom Russell’s “Outbound Plane.”

And while Griffith had the first recording of Julie Gold’s song “From a Distance,” in 1987, it was Midler’s 1990 version that went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts (though Griffith’s version was a hit in Ireland, where she was extremely popular.

Nanci Griffith’s first album came in 1978 with “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” After four albums on the folk-oriented Philo label, she made her major-label debut on MCA with 1987’s “Lone Star Stage of Mind,” which included “From a Distance” and topped out at No. 23 on the U.S. country charts. Between 1987 and 2001, she made five albums on MCA and six on Elektra, before returning to indie labels for her final four albums.

She referred to her longtime backing band as “The Blue Moon Orchestra”; it included members Pat McInerney, Maura Kennedy and Pete Kennedy, and at one point it even featured Harris, DeMent and Lovett on backup vocals. But Griffith also made albums that aimed for a poppier sound, recorded with Buddy Holly’s old backing band, the Crickets, and performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

She battled cancer twice in the 1990s, when she was living in Nashville. She also became disillusioned with what she felt was unfair treatment by the Texas press, sending several publications a scathing letter that concluded, “Texas … is the only place on earth that actually eats its young.”

Around that time, Griffith wrote a song called “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” a seemingly sunny composition that, she explained to Steve Pond at the time, also carried a bite. “There’s a typical Nanci Griffith cynical line in there, about how when I’m pushing up daisies, they’ll want roses,” she said with a laugh. “Which is kind of how I feel about life. I guess that’s why I’ve always been so blatantly running amok out there musically, doing whatever I wanted to. If I did a country album, they’d want me to do a folk album. If I played my Stratocaster, they’d want me to play acoustic guitar. So I do what’s in my heart.”

Steve Pond contributed to this story.

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