Nanci Griffith Songs Come Alive at the Cactus Cafe (2024)

Photo by Spring Lee

Songwriters, long-time listeners, newcomers, and possibly a gang of neighborly ghosts pack Austin’s iconic Cactus Cafe. While members of this eclectic group gather as strangers, they all share one mutual friend: Nanci Griffith.

This midsummer night marks the fifth annual show tributing the late self-described “Folkabilly” poet and internationally recognized flame-keeper of music tradition. The past two hours have featured a diverse tribe of artists, each authentically covering one of her songs. Now, all 17 of them cluster on the modest corner stage for the final ballad.

“It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go”

The crowd joins in.

“If we poison our children with hatred
Then a hard life is all that they’ll know.”

Respected not only for penning 18 studio albums worth of heart-string-tuggers like this one, Griffith also earned credit for spotlighting other folk makers. The songstress topped Ireland charts with a rendition of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance'' and won a Grammy for Other Voices, Other Rooms – an entire album dedicated to covering folk greats. Onlookers also applauded her for helping fresh artists like Lyle Lovett climb a couple rungs.

After a career stretching five decades, Griffith quietly retired and slipped just beyond the fingertips of loyal fans – many of whom woke shocked and heartbroken when she died of natural causes in 2021.

It was before Griffith passed, however, when local songwriter Nichole Wagner got the idea for a tribute show.

“Why do we wait ’til someone dies to celebrate them?” Wagner said of her early intent.

The vision took shape in 2018 when she found herself talking with a friend about their shared appreciation of Griffith’s work. The female troubadour trailblazer had stopped touring years ago, and now her music was hard to come by.

“That's such a shame that these songs aren't being heard,” Wagner said to her friend. “Somebody should do something about that.”

Realizing that she was “somebody,” Wagner emailed all the songwriters she knew and booked a date with the Cactus – where young Austin-raised Griffith cut her teeth. Before pushing much further, the host paused to check with Griffith herself. Blessing in hand, Wagner and 20-something artists packed the tribute and laid blueprints to do it again. As the show matures every year, it must follow a set of rules to keep with the Griffith-honoring spirit.

Rule one: Griffith originals only. While it is tempting to lump covers of Cactus legends like Townes Van Zandt into the set, doing so would miss the point. “This is about her writing,” explained Wagner.

Rule two: Ticket sales go to a local organization Griffith would have supported. Wagner looks to Griffith’s history of political activism as a guide. This year she picked The Other Ones Foundation – a group helping individuals without jobs and housing.

Rule three: If you come back for a second year, learn a new Griffith tune. “You don’t get to own a song,” Wagner said.

The host also aims to fill the lineup with 50% new performers each year. She purposefully pools from genres outside of the folk realm. If someone is not familiar with Griffith, that’s a good thing.

“This show is more fun when you bring people in. You get people who don't know her songs to learn one,” Wagner announced to the crowd. “That's how the music continues to spread and grow.”

The featured artists this year brought their own style and unique connection to their chosen Griffith songs. High school teacher and lifetime poet Sarah Walker recounted a purposeful trudge through a Texas downpour before strumming “I Wish It Would Rain.” Nashville-recorded Samuel Current picked “Wheels” because it reminded him of coming back home to Austin. Cross-genre renaissance musician Wilson Marks told a dad joke on stage. Then he locked in on an ethereal electric loop version of “Outbound Plane.”

At the core of the tribute lies an honest attempt to preserve and revive folk songs – a mission Griffith wholeheartedly embraced. Years before Wagner fell into the conversation that spurred the show, Griffith was having a similar chat with close friend Emmylou Harris while spinning Kate Wolf’s “Across the Great Divide.” Leukemia had taken Wolf at the age of 44, and now her records were disappearing too. Harris thoughtfully analyzed the problem:

“If songs do not enjoy new voices to sing them,” Griffith later paraphrased, “they die.”

It was this sentiment that powered Griffith through Other Voices, Other Rooms. Teaming up with Americana veteran producer and trusted friend Jim Rooney, she spent months, and a sprinkle of tears, whittling down a mountain of songs to something she could squeeze onto a record. She collaborated with a dozen pioneers like Bob Dylan, John Prine, Arlo Guthrie, and Carolyn Hester. Guided by Odetta, she invited a whole crew into the studio for a true-to-the-African-roots take of “Wimoweh.” Pairing with Harris, Griffith listened out-of-body as the friends harmonized “Across the Great Divide.”

“I could hear Kate’s voice as I sang instead of my own,” Griffith wrote in her biography. “As though she took over for a while.”

Five years later, the folk conservationist queen did it all over again with Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful).

“The root of it was her generosity to other artists,” Rooney said over the phone. “Now people are making her songs, and I think it's just a wonderful circle. My only regret about the whole thing is that she isn't here to really enjoy it.”

Yet for some, the opposite is true.

“Nanci’s here,” said Will Godwin, front-row tribute show attendee.

Although the 70-something only discovered the sweet-voiced storyteller last fall, he connected with her music deeply enough to wipe a tear as banjoist Beth Chrisman joyfully rekindled “Banks of the Pontchartrain.” Her vibrato hung in the darkness with the same crowd-silencing clarity Griffith gifted her listeners from that café stage years ago.

The spiritual connection continued when Wagner revealed a royal-blue guitar previously owned by Griffith. Quiet gasps rose from the crowd as the host explained how the instrument traveled from Griffith’s nephew to the back office of a local music store, and finally to the Cactus that night.

“What an incredible story,” said Jaimee Harris, next up to play.

“I hear your guitar has one too,” Wagner replied.

“Yeah,” Harris picked a couple chords across the honey-colored body. “This guitar also belonged to Nanci Griffith. It was given to my partner, Mary Gauthier, right when she moved to Nashville.”

Country songwriter king Harlan Howard had originally given the Taylor to Griffith thinking there might be a few unwritten tunes left in it for her. True to her nature, Griffith decided to continue the cycle when she invited Gauthier to play the guitar in a circle and gently refused to take it back.

“It was like a literal passing of the torch,” Harris reflected off stage.

As the show wrapped, it became clear that the tribute belonged not only to Griffith, but to the sacred campground where such torch-passing has occurred for over four decades.

“I do want to put a big, big, huge thank you to the Cactus,” Wagner began before a thunder of claps and “whoos” swallowed her nod.

Since opening in 1979, the music-centered bar has acquired a reputation for being the place where young Zandts, Lovetts, and Griffiths could find their voice. Recent changes in management, however, following a complex past that almost saw the venue close in 2010, have heightened the patriotism visitors share for the historical haven today. One look around reveals dozens of songwriting trekkers who have shaped Austin’s music landscape and now hang out in picture frames on the café walls.

“We have to preserve that room, because I think there are ghosts in there – good ghosts.” Harris smiles. “Keeping these songs alive is important.”

Nanci Griffith Songs Come Alive at the Cactus Cafe (2024)
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