Maura & Nanci

As I remember it, I had the tv on one afternoon while I was doing some chores around the house. When the chores were done, I picked up the remote and did some quick channel surfing… until I came upon someone singing and my channel surfing stopped.

Whoa.

“Who is this amazing singer and what’s this incredible song she and that guy are singing?”

I eventually somehow figured out that I was watching and listening to Maura O’Connell and Michael Johnson and the song they were singing was a Nanci Griffith song called “Trouble In The Fields.”

(Only recently have I learned that the show I had stumbled upon was in fact called American Music Shop and it ran on The Nashville Network from 1990-1994. Maura O’Connell and Michael Johnson were the featured guests in an episode that first aired on May 1, 1990.)

Here (and I still can’t believe I actually found it) is a YouTube video with an edited version of that actual show. Maura starts her spoken intro to “Trouble In The Fields” at the .53 mark.

I immediately set about trying to find Maura’s recording of “Trouble In The Fields.” I did, and it was on Helpless Heart, her 1989 release for Warner Brother’s RecordsMy cassette copy of this outstanding album got quite a bit of airplay around the house as well as in the family station wagon over the following months. My daughter came to especially like the anthemic lead track, “Can’t Stop The Girl” (written by Linda Thompson & Betsy Cook).

(Another interesting fact that I recently learned is that Helpless Heart was originally released  in 1987 on Raglan Records in Ireland under the title Western Highway.)

While I was introduced to Maura O’Connell and Michael Johnson that lucky afternoon, I had heard of Nanci Griffith before. 

My June 1988 issue of Frets Magazine contained a detailed guitar TAB transcription of Nanci’s wonderful song “Love at the Five & Dime.” Her lovely fingerpicked guitar accompaniment – in open-G tuning and with several effectively-placed harmonics – was (and still is) a joy to play.

(Recently learned interesting fact #3: Nanci Griffith released “Love at the Five & Dime” on her 1986 album The Last of the True Believers. Also on that album was Nanci’s song “Banks of the Pontchartrain” to which Maura O’Connell contributed harmony vocals.)

Here is a really fine live performance of “Love at the Five & Dime” from one of Nanci Griffiths’ many appearances on Austin City Limits.

Though I never got to hear Nanci Griffith in concert, I had the very good fortune to hear Maura O’Connell perform in person once. She played at the Unitarian Universalist Church in downtown Portsmouth, NH, on Friday, October 14, 1994. My then-12-year-old daughter and I went and somehow managed to get seated in the front row. Maura and her band – the brilliantly talented acoustic guitarists Zane Baxter and Richard McLaurin – were very much on their game that night and gifted us with an incredible and well-remembered evening of music and song.

Because of the way these two artists are intertwined in my musical past, all of these memories came flooding back when I heard the very sad news four days ago that Nanci Griffith had died. 

Nanci Caroline Griffith was 68 years old, having been born on July 6, 1953, in Seguin, Texas.

Her first album – There’s A Light Beyond These Woods – came out in 1978. Her twentieth and last album – Intersection – came out in 2012 and she officially retired from making music in 2013.

On August 14, the day after Nanci passed, Fiona Whelan Prine shared in a Tweet that her late husband John “had reached out to Nanci in January 2020. He missed her. He tried to persuade her that there were young women who needed her – her experience, friendship, humor and the gift of her singular craft. She was amazed to hear him say those things and said she’d think about it. They spoke one more time before John passed in April.”

I have Nanci Griffith’s two Other Voices albums in my collection and today I listened to the second, Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back To Bountiful), from 1998. Her rendition of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Times Goes” resonated especially deeply with me from among the many stunning performances that fill this disc.

Give a listen.

Many thanks, Nanci Griffith, for all the ways that your music touched and enriched my life. 

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