Nanci Griffith: Carving unique niche as singer and songwriter
"Lyrics are a companion. It's 3 minutes of someplace else to be and someone else to be with."

Nanci Griffith slipped through the cracks of commercial country stardom, but there are plenty of fans waiting below to enjoy her music.

Folk singer/songwriter Griffith is close to selling out the 2,200-seat Madison Civic Center for her show Monday. But it speaks well about Griffith’s following, which she earned during more than a decade of recording and touring without radio support.

Griffith, 43, merely waves off suggestions that she may be bitter about never having a hit.

“For me as an artist, it’s been a blessing to be on the outskirts,” she says during a phone interview. “It’s given me an enormous amount of creative freedom.”

A native of Austin, Texas, Griffith made her debut as a folk singer in the ’70s; flirted with country; dabbled in pop; returned to her folk roots by covering tunes from her idols; and played with everyone from the Chieftains to members of U2.

In hindsight, she’s pleased that her two stabs at country success in the mid-’80s failed.

“If I had been given airplay on country radio, I think it would have been the end of my career because I don’t really fit in,” she says. “I’m glad I’m not there.”

Still, covers of her songs — “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Outbound Plane” — propelled the careers of country acts Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss, respectively.

Griffith is touring now even though her new album, “Blue Roses for the Moon,” won’t be released until April.

Unlike recent Griffith efforts, “Blue Roses” isn’t filled with guest stars, aside from a duet with Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker. For several years before Hootie’s success, the unknown Blowfish band members were avid Griffith fans. They repaid Griffith by having her join them on an “MTV Unplugged” appearance last year.

Although some folk purists might bristle at comparisons between Griffith’s precious songs and Hootie’s sugary pop, she describes Hootie & the Blowfish as “enormously talented.”

Griffith also is savvy about music’s business side. She was the first person to record Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” and owns the song’s publishing rights.

The latter turned out to a hugely profitable venture when Bette Midler’s version of the song became a major hit in 1990.

“She was the voice I really wanted to sing that song and it took years to get her to do it,” Griffith says. “The song took a while to grow on her.”

Monday’s show will be Griffith’s first appearance at the Civic Center after several previous stops at the Barrymore Theatre.

She remembers well her 1991 concert at the Barrymore.

Though her audiences are among contemporary music’s most docile, a fight broke out during the show.

“And we were playing `It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go,’ ” she says laughing.

She says she remains as committed to songwriting as ever. Lyrics, she adds, drew her attention to folk music as a teenager.

“I’m so lyric-oriented,” Griffith says. “To me, it’s like reading a book. The lyrics are a companion. It’s 3 minutes of someplace else to be and someone else to be with.”

Leave a Reply