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Queen of the Road


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WAITING ON THE MUSE: For Nanci Griffith, who performed at Jannus Landing this Friday, inspiration could come at any time.


Friday night, when Nanci Griffith summons her pale skies, chunks of moon and mountains of sorrow to the stage at Jannus Landing and breathes her special whiskey bent into the hidden angels, endless highways and echoing memories that haunt her music, something about downtown St. Petersburg may well end up immortalized in future song. Jeff the downtown fiddler; that cranky guy who sells smoothies; suave Emmanuel at the Garden; Shanna, the world's most beautiful homeless girl -- somebody somehow may call down Griffith's muse.

"I never know when it's gonna hit me. ... but I am always ready. It might happen Friday. It could happen anytime," admits the prolific Texas singer/songwriter. "It's called inspiration. That's the only thing that works for me. I don't ever just sit down to just write a song. I have to be inspired first. Then the melody and lyrics will flow."

Her natural ability to generate poignant images -- the wings of a blackbird, a field of summer, drive-in movies, a clock with no hands, the Mekong Delta -- into songs that actually played on the radio has driven Nanci Griffith's life since childhood. Twenty-six albums since her discovery at age 14 (around a campfire in her hometown of Austin, Texas), Griffith has a catalog of more than 200 recorded original songs, seven Grammy nominations (one win: 1994, Best Contemporary Folk Album) and has penned Billboard hit songs for a dozen artists, including Willie Nelson and Emmy Lou Harris ("Gulf Coast Highway"), Kathy Mattea ("Love At The Five and Dime") and Suzy Bogguss ("Outbound Plane").

"Soon as I was old enough, I hit the road and drove myself all across America to play my songs wherever they would let me," she says forcefully, proud of her status as a true American musical road warrior. "Back then [in the early 1980s] it wasn't fashionable to be on an indie label. It wasn't fashionable to sing the kinds of songs I was singing. I had to bring my music directly to the people. I drove, with my guitar, all over this land. I didn't go back home for years."

Out on the road, she met up with others like herself -- new-generation country troubadours Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, John Prine and the like -- and rolled into Nashville with Rolling Stone describing her unique musical form as "folkabilly."

Two decades later, she remains a bright star on the Music City's eclectic independent acoustic scene. Admirers among her fellow artists are legion, including Bob Dylan, who was so impressed by Griffith's wonderful finger-picking arrangement of his "Boots of Spanish Leather," he invited her to perform the classic at his Madison Square Garden tribute concert in 1992. (You can find Nancy's version on YouTube.)

"I'm looking forward to St. Pete and getting warm. I'll have my band with me," Griffith promises, referring to the Blue Moon Orchestra she has had since 1986: guitarist Tom Miles, bassist Alana Rocklin and percussionist Pat McInerney. Local fans will remember McInerney as the drummer in the popular Tom Gribbin and the Saltwater Cowboys country-rock band of the early '80s. Gribbin, the show's promoter, is a longtime friend of Griffith, who has not appeared in Florida since 2001.

Griffith's lilting voice and acoustic guitar work set the tone for a ride through her disappearing dream world, her lyrical portraits teetering on the edge of leaves turning, lovers breaking up, last train rides and women climbing into Ford Econolines to get the hell out of town in the middle of the night. Her performances are sprinkled with strong political symbols against war. A longtime advocate of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Griffith is an active supporter of their Justice Project and the Journey of Hope -- both initiatives to end the death penalty.

This summer, Griffith plans a return to the Belfast Songwriter's festival in Ireland, where she has toured often and is very well known for her performances on Chieftain albums.

"The songwriter is very respected in Europe, especially Ireland. It's that same way in Austin and Nashville," she says. "It's important who wrote the song just as who performs it. That makes it a lot of fun for me."

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