It's not unusual for country songs to sport characters that could come from a novel. It is pretty unusual for a country singer-songwriter to actually write novels.
But as Nanci Griffith awaits the January release of her first major-label album, "Lone Star State of Mind" (MCA), she is also concluding a deal with a major publisher for her first novel, "Two of a Kind Heart," and is halfway through writing her second.
"I consider most of my songs to be little short stories," said Griffith, who opens for the Everly Brothers tonight and Thursday at the Universal Amphitheatre, and headlines at McCabe's on Sunday.
"I spend a lot of time studying normal people, Middle America," she said by phone from her Nashville home. "I try to give some positive aspects of relationships and lives that aren't really so simple when you sit down and look at them."
Griffith's five small-label albums are full of colorful character studies and first-person narratives depicting the people she's gotten to know through her Austin, Tex., upbringing and during her life on the road, which she said fills 75% of her time.
Putting down those observations in a three-minute song is one thing, but sustaining them over the course of a novel is quite another. For Griffith, though, the two go hand in hand.
"All writing is therapy," she said. "You can write yourself out of anything. You can write yourself someplace else, too. Music is a wonderful thing to write because in a half hour it's all there. I find it inspirational because I can get that story out and go back to my novel."
Griffith, 33, uses the term folkabilly to describe her music.
"It's kind of a combination of old Woody Guthrie-style folk and hillbilly music--real hillbilly, Carter Family-type music," she said. "I started singing in honky-tonks when I was 14. I never really wanted to do anything else."
The focus of her music is on her voice, which resembles a gutsier Emmylou Harris, and her songwriting, which shows influences from the likes of John Prine, John Stewart and Jerry Jeff Walker. Hers are the kind of songs that fans tend to take personally.
"From the letters I get, people really do," she said, noting that between opening for the Everlys and having her song "Love at the Five and Dime" become a country hit in July for singer Kathy Mattea, she is reaching more people than ever. "It's very rewarding to me when I find characters and write about them and have people say, 'That's me.' I feel I've really done something."
Not surprisingly, Griffith lists a number of authors as well as musicians among her influences. In fact, the pictures on the covers of her last two albums show her holding books by such fellow Southern writers as Eudora Welty and, most prominently, Larry McMurtry, the author of "Terms of Endearment."
"Larry McMurtry's my all-time literary hero," Griffith said, "because he brought Texas out of the dark ages for the rest of the country."
With the new major-label support it would seem a perfect time for Griffith to put her story-songs on video. But that idea does not appeal to her.
"I think I will always do videos that involve concert concepts," she said. "I want my characters to remain whatever they are in the imagination. I don't want to tamper with my audience's images."
Griffith's attitude is a bit different when it comes to her prose, though.
"I'd love it if someone wanted to make a film of my novel, mainly because there are so many people that don't read," she said. "Making a film is one way to get the story out there."
If that were to happen, though, Griffith would not want to have an active role in the book-to-film translation. She wouldn't even want to provide music.
"I agree with something McMurtry said when they were making a film of one of his books: 'I don't want to know about it.' He said he'd already written the story once."