Musical Map Of The USA: New Mexico—Nanci Griffith



My maternal grandmother never fully adapted to life in New Mexico. The minks gave her away. She moved to Albuquerque with three young children in the mid-1950s, following her husband all the way from Manhattan (with a brief detour in Nebraska) in pursuit of cleaner air and a noble call to defend tax legislation in the Wild West.
Albuquerque is the kind of place where lawyers can wear bolo ties and gallon hats to court, though my grandfather never did. Still, he took to his new surroundings: he ate bowls of carne adovada in the linoleum cafeteria of a pharmacy downtown, inviting the flavors of his new home to burn the corners of his mouth. My grandmother was less eager. She kept all of the fur coats she had acquired in New York; they were satin lined, monogrammed, fully impractical for the desert heat. She also never learned to drive, an act of defiance in a desert city, where everything is always twenty minutes away, no matter where you’re headed.
A few aspects of Albuquerque living did suit her: the freedom from humidity, the plentiful tennis courts, the fact that there was just one Reform synagogue in town and they were quick to welcome a new member with a great rugelach recipe. But my grandmother always had one foot back in Manhattan; you could taste longing in her brisket.

My mother is different. She was dragged into New Mexico as a toddler and she remains a true creature of the place. She loves sagebrush and storyteller pottery. She wears turquoise and owns an eighty-pound geode and goes on long hikes through chamisa bushes and tumbleweeds that leave burrs on her socks. She is a doctor, but to me has always seemed as tied to the foothills as she is to the hospital. My early memories of her all involve working with the land; she planted poppies and petunias and marigolds in big wooden barrels every year, she cultivated fragrant herbs. She still talks about giving everything up to open a flower shop on the edge of town where her only concern would be moving stargazer lilies around. She likes everything she eats to be a little spicier than it should be. I have seen her bite into jalepenos like they are pickles. She decorates with Hopi pottery, Navajo rugs slung artfully on a rustic ladder, plush leather furniture with Western studding and the cow’s brand still visible in the hide. She is bilingual, she owns a broom skirt, she gets a lot out of visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe museum.
I notice all these little New Mexican affinities more and more with distance, now that I live far away in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, where minks make more sense. I realize that somehow, my grandmother’s yearning for the cosmopolitan east and my mother’s love of the desert have formed two poles of my life, and I am always vacillating between them. I traipse through midtown and I think of my grandmother there, in her twenties, drinking Chock Full O’Nuts and studying law books at night, and part of me feels like she keeps living through me here, like she’s thrilled to be back. But I’m torn—I never feel more New Mexican than when I am in New York, because I miss it desperately, and what I mean by that is that I miss my mother.
We still talk by phone all the time, but I miss the feeling of being in New Mexico with my mother. Because this is what it is like: she adds chopped green chile to every food item, even frozen pizza. She encourages adventurous walks through the arroyo (that’s what we call ditches there, by the way, which are usually more like gorgeous arid valleys cut by rivers that rarely run) outside our house, which leads up to the base of a mountain. She still comments on the beauty of the sunsets, which in Albuquerque are so overwhelming nearly every night that they can turn a person numb to the sublime (have you ever seen an entire sky the color of watermelon flesh? I have. Hundreds of times). What I miss in New York most about New Mexico is not so much the place but the way my mother loves the place. I miss looking at yucca trees through the eyes of someone who thinks they are glorious.
When I want to reconnect, if only for a moment, with the feeling I have when I am home and in the company of my mother, I turn on Nanci Griffith. Griffith is not a New Mexican singer, she is a country crooner from Austin, Texas—old-school country, warbling country, the country they now call “Americana”—but there is no singer I associate more with my memories of the state. Because Griffith made, in 1988, the perfect record for long drives through desert landscapes.
When she was 35, Griffith recorded two live sets at Anderson Fair, a small club in Houston, during the dog days of August when the dancefloor must have been slicked in sweat and bootprints. The resulting album, One Fair Summer Evening, captures the playful spirit of a woman at the height of her creative powers better than almost any album I’ve heard. Griffith’s music is country gold (just enough hoedown, just enough slow down), but it is her childlike voice speaking between them that really shows her gifts. She tells dense and kooky stories, whispered right up close to the microphone in a breathy twang, like Maria Bamford doing a riff on Loretta Lynn. The juxtaposition of these silly tales with her songs—which range from a barn-raising anthem sung by a prostitute who has had enough for the night, to a poignant ballad about the lonesome life on the road (“I’ve been working in corners/all alone at night/Pullin’ down whiskey/Keepin’ my eyes away from the lights”)—creates a kind of intoxicating one-woman variety show that is ideal for keeping the mind entertained but comforted on a road trip.
Nanci seems always to be talking directly to whoever put the record on (it still sounds this way to me, 1000 listens in). There is an intimacy to her vamping that is almost disarming, but the songs always kick up again right as you start to feel vulnerable. It is not an overstatement to say that you feel, listening to the album, like Griffith is taking care of you, like she wants you to know that you are not alone on the highway, that there is a force greater than you pulling you along, and that force lives in the American West.
Nanci Griffith also happens to be my mother’s favorite. And because she always drives whenever anyone else is in the car (no really, there is no getting around this. I have driven my mother exactly one time in 19 years), my mother’s chosen music was the main soundtrack of my youth, at least in the backseat. And I spent a lot of time in the backseat. My family was big on in-state exploring missions. We drove to caves, ruins, folk markets, pueblos, ghost mining towns. Nanci was always with us.
More than anything, I remember the song “Love at the Five and Dime,” a fable about two crazy kids who fell in love at a Woolworth’s and continued to dance together through the store’s metaphorical aisles for the rest of their lives. Griffith begins the song with a story about her childhood love of Woolworth’s and the “unnecessary plastic objects” they sell. She also reveals that she plucks one note during the song to replicate the chime of the department store elevator. I have this speech, which falls somewhere between a comedy act and a storytelling slam at The Moth, memorized, still. Whenever I hear it, I zoom immediately back to I-25, my legs sticking to a hot eighties car upholstery, teetering between a nap and a tantrum. And I remember always, always, the delight my mom finds in that monologue, in that song. She sings it with her whole throat. She still chuckles at the story Griffith tells about demanding to visit the Woolworth’s in London to buy souvenirs to bring home. The story is daffy, and the song that comes after is romantic and poignant and warm. In other words: the song is just like my mother. My mother who loves New Mexico.
There are artifacts that make us miss people who are very much alive with such a pang of sadness that for a moment, it can feel like mourning. This is how I feel about “Love at the Five and Dime”; it makes me ache for my mother, for Albuquerque and watermelon skies, all things that are still accessible to me, that I can still return to. I feel a different ache for my grandmother, the loss of a person that dreamed big dreams for you and can no longer see if their predictions were right. That ache feels like wearing mink in the desert; it never quite makes sense.

This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state. 

Around Brooklyn

See More