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June 4, 2009

Santa Cruz: Folk heroine Nanci Griffith searches for inspiration

Santa Cruz: Good Times Weekly: Folk heroine Nanci Griffith searches for inspiration

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In the period preceding the creation of Grammy-winning “folkabilly” artist Nanci Griffith’s new album, The Loving Kind, the 55-year-old singer-songwriter found herself faced with a dilemma she’d never encountered before: She’d lost her passion for songwriting.

“I was basically just into escapism, because the Bush administration and the direction of my country just seemed so poor to me,” the Texan musician states. “I just couldn’t get inspired to write anything. I stayed on the road a lot, stayed over in Europe a lot, and it was kind of a miserable time, because writing is great therapy for me.”

Trying as this time was for Griffith, it did help her discover a sure-fire cure for writer’s block. “If you’re not inspired by what’s going on in your own life, whether you’re too happy to write or too sad to write, read the paper every day, and that’ll do it for you,” she advises.

The title track from The Loving Kind was written in just such a way. The song tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a married white man and black woman whose 1967 court case, Loving v. Virginia, finally put an end to the national ban on interracial marriage. During her final interview just before her death, Mildred had stated that she hoped her case would pave the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Though Griffith claims her timing for the release of this song wasn’t prompted by the present relevance of the gay marriage issue, she expresses deep disappointment over California’s recent Prop 8 ruling.

Another of Griffith’s favorite songs from the new album is “Not Innocent Enough,” which addresses the case of Philip Workman, a man executed in 2007 for killing a Memphis police officer in spite of evidence proving his innocence. Griffith, a staunch death penalty abolitionist, declares, “I think sometimes the court needs to rule against the majority of the people, because sometimes the people just don’t have their heads right.”

Clearly, Griffith is back in the swing of songwriting. This isn’t the first time an outside stimulus has helped kick-start the songwriting process for her: In the ’00s, it’s newspapers, but in the ’60s, it was hallucinogens. At age 14, Griffith composed the first song she can actively recall: “I was an LSD kid in Austin, Texas, and when Timothy Leary just kind of dropped off the face of the earth, I wrote this song called ‘Where Have You Gone, Dr. Timothy Leary,’” she explains. The fact that the song was clearly inspired by psychedelics slid right past Griffith’s mom, who enjoyed the little ditty, unaware that it was a clue to the fact that her daughter was taking LSD and mushrooms. “If I wasn’t doing [psychedelics], she thought I was on something!” the songwriter laughs.

Griffith says her psychedelic phase lasted “from about age 12 to 30.” One of the highlights of that period of her life was a high school typing class that she frequently attended on acid. “I loved it,” she says. “Typing class became my favorite class. I’m still, to this day, a great typist.” Another class at which she excelled with the aid of chemical enhancement was business math. “I loved having columns and columns of numbers to add, divide and subtract,” she notes. “So there’s a good side to psychedelics—I got a good education because of it!”

These days, Griffith is getting her education from the experiences of daily life. Paramount among these has been her recovery from both thyroid cancer and breast cancer. Just as her period of disenchantment with songwriting has left her with some newfound skills, her victory over illness has left her with a new perspective.

“I live for today,” the musician states. “If I’m at a party, I don’t think about the next party I’m going to go to—I’m gonna enjoy that party right now.”

Nanci Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra play at 8 p.m. Friday, June 5, at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $28 in advance, available at or Streetlight Records. For more information, call 423-8209.

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