The Popdose Guide to Patty Griffin

Written by Music, Popdose Guides

To celebrate Tuesday’s release of the new Patty Griffin album Downtown Church, Popdose looks back at the catalog of one of Americana’s brightest lights.

One Friday evening in March 1997, Patty Griffin strolled onto the stage of Washington, DC’s sold-out 9:30 Club … to practically no response whatsoever. A touring neophyte whose debut album had made little popular impact, she was at the bottom of a triple bill featuring Freedy Johnston and headlined by Shawn Colvin — whose sudden pop success with “Sunny Came Home” had drawn a crowd of newbies less inclined to welcome an unheard voice than Colvin’s traditional folk-based audience. Despite her clarion twang rising above the din of conversation, Griffin had trouble connecting with the crowd through most of her set – until she launched into her caustic ode to a one-night stand, “Every Little Bit.” Suddenly she was impossible to ignore, as she slashed out the chords on her acoustic guitar and tore through the lyric toward its emotional peak: “But there was never a moment, not a moment / Now you know, now you know, now you know, now you know / You ever got within a hundred million miles of my soul.”

And just at that moment, her B string shattered under her pick’s impassioned assault – followed, within a few seconds, by the E string below. Griffin extended the instrumental break between the second and third verses while deciding how to proceed … then waved off a stagehand and soldiered on even more forcefully than before, her fervor easily compensating for the lost high notes. By then the crowd was enraptured, and when she finished the song she received the sort of adulation usually reserved for a bloodied conquering hero. With a bashful grin she headed stage left to trade in her battered guitar – but by the time she returned to the spotlight the moment was gone, and she finished the gig once more struggling to rise above the low-pitched cacophony of a mostly disinterested public.

From such moments are metaphors too easily made, but it has been Griffin’s fate to attract far fewer acolytes than her extraordinary music demands. That doesn’t mean her songs have gone unheard; while none of her six albums has sold more than a couple hundred thousand copies, millions have heard her songs performed by high-profile acts from Kelly Clarkson and Jessica Simpson to Martina McBride and, particularly, the Dixie Chicks. In recent years Griffin has emerged as one of the leading lights in the Americana field, earning three Grammy nominations in the Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album category, and the Americana Music Association named her its Artist of the Year in 2007.

On last year’s nationwide “Three Girls and Their Buddy” tour, Griffin and Buddy Miller previewed a number of tracks from her Downtown Church album, which is out tomorrow. (She’s on Craig Ferguson’s show tonight; set your DVR.) Their tourmates Colvin and Emmylou Harris help out on vocals, and Griffin swiped her rhythm section (Dennis Crouch on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums) from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand project. The new CD marks Griffin’s first extended incursion into gospel music, but it’s hardly surprising she sounds completely at home in the genre; after all, she seemed to be singing straight to the heavens, in a more secular sense, from her first recorded moment.

Living with Ghosts (1996)
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“Diamonds / Roses / I need Moses / To cross this sea of loneliness, part this red river of pain.” With that introductory lyric to the opening track “Moses,” Griffin established the tone of exquisite anguish that haunts her remarkable calling-card of a debut album. She came by it honestly, having endured a painful divorce that served as her impetus to quit procrastinating and begin playing Boston-area folk clubs during the early ’90s. And that tone was so idiosyncratic that, at first, it couldn’t be bound by the strictures of rock-based instrumentation. Encouraged by a talent scout to ditch her over-produced demo tape, Griffin re-recorded her songs with just her own guitar as accompaniment – and after A&M Records signed her, they decided to release that new demo as-is. (Ah, the glory days of major-label A&R…) Living with Ghosts was not for the squeamish, thematically speaking, but its songs are as soaring as they are agonizing – from “Poor Man’s House” to “You Never Get What You Want” to the track that first caught the attention of Nashville’s commercial elite, “Let Him Fly.” The album also included the first of Griffin’s brilliantly drawn character portraits, “Sweet Lorraine,” about a girl struggling to escape her horrifically oppressive family. Amidst all that misery, it was disconcerting to encounter a tune as sweet and hopeful as “Mad Mission” – but its chorus, in retrospect, served as a call to arms for those stout enough to join her deeply emotional explorations: “It’s a mad mission, under difficult conditions / Not everybody makes it to the loving cup / It’s a mad mission, but I’ve got the ambition / Mad, mad mission … sign me up.”

Flaming Red (1998)
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The title track of Griffin’s second album announced right away, with Kenny Aronoff’s drumstick count-off and a burst of punk guitar, that the sparseness of the debut album was a thing of the past. “Flaming Red” remains the hardest-rocking track Griffin has recorded, and much of the album maintains its spirit (if not quite its tempo). A couplet like “Everybody do like a monkey / If you wanna, go on and be funky” could have found no place on her first record, but here, on the rousing cut “One Big Love,” it exemplifies her new interest in cutting loose – an attitude that pervades songs both raucous (“Wiggley Fingers,” “Blue Sky”) and introspective (“Change,” “Goodbye”). As revelatory as her bluesy twang had been on Living with Ghosts, it rides the full-band groove just as brilliantly here – though the wide disparity between the two albums understandably left A&M’s marketing staff with an unenviable challenge. Besides “One Big Love,” which Harris covered on her album Red Dirt Girl, the tracks that have resonated through the decade-plus since Flaming Red’s release are the intimate ones with common first names attached to them: “Tony,” about a gay teen who commits suicide; “Christina,” which Griffin has said she wrote about Christina Onassis; and “Mary,” a wistful, feminist ode to the mother who stood thanklessly behind the Greatest Man Ever. As the “Three Girls” closed their sets on last year’s tour singing “Mary” in glorious three-part harmony, Harris would introduce the song simply: “This is our benediction.”

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Silver Bell (2000, unreleased)

The turn of the millennium was a tumultuous time in Griffin’s career, by turns heady and disappointing. The Dixie Chicks made “Let Him Fly” the (sorta) title track of their 10-million-selling sophomore album in 1999, then brought Griffin on tour with them the next year. But even as her name recognition (and bank account) swelled, she ran into a roadblock in her effort to follow these successes with a new album she had recorded in March 2000 at Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio. A&M had been swallowed up by the Universal Music Group, and while Griffin wasn’t a victim of UMG’s initial artist dump, the new management responded to her album with a version of the phrase every major-label artist dreads: “We don’t hear any hits.” Griffin tried to give them one, but rebelled against the contrivance of writing a song primarily for its commercial potential — and eventually the label cut her loose.

Thus, Silver Bell never saw the light of day … officially … though bootlegs have been circulating ever since. In case you’ve missed its previous appearances on Jefitoblog and Popdose, it can circulate your way right now. The album features the original recordings of four songs that appeared on her later CDs, and a few gems (such as the rocking “Boston”) that never received an official release. Most important, historically speaking, Silver Bell served as the point of origin for two tracks that the Dixie Chicks made famous (and, in too many quarters, infamous) by including them on their 2002 album Home. The Chicks named their fateful 2003 world tour after “Top of the World” – which is decidedly not similar to the Carpenters hit of the same name – and “Truth No. 2” had been earmarked as the group’s next single when “the incident” destroyed their relationship with country radio. Instead, the song took on new meaning as a defiant stab at the Chicks’ critics and the Bush administration, and became the centerpiece of their live shows that year, with a film running behind the group that surveyed a variety of protest movements and free-speech battles.

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1000 Kisses (2002)
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By the time any of that happened, Griffin herself had found a new musical home with Dave Matthews’ ATO label and had released 1,000 Kisses to considerable acclaim. After the Silver Bell fiasco, Griffin had decided to pursue a new label deal by making a record that was more acoustic-based than her recent efforts; soon after that, guitarist Doug Lancio invited her to help him break in the recording studio he had recently installed in his Nashville basement. Perhaps inspired by the close quarters in which she and Lancio were working, and freed from the pressure to impress major-label suits with “commercial” tunes, she instead turned inward and created a set of intimate, compelling musical portraits. “Chief” is the story of a Native American veteran who doesn’t know what to do with himself after his discharge, set to a driving acoustic-guitar attack; “Making Pies,” a holdover from the Silver Bell sessions that was based on a newspaper article about a pie shop’s 75th anniversary, is sung from the perspective of a woman who has watched life pass her by from behind the counter. The plaintive “Be Careful,” covered previously in Scott Malchus’ “Basement Songs” column on Popdose, is one of her most moving efforts. 1000 Kisses also features the first covers Griffin had committed to disc, including a near-definitive take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car,” a pensive rendering of Lonnie Johnson’s R&B classic “Tomorrow Night,” and a gorgeous (and authentic!) version of the Tejano standard “Mil Besos.” Such versatility is a welcome surprise from any artist, but by this point Griffin had already taught us to expect the unexpected.

A Kiss in Time (2003)
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Few live albums do a terrific job of capturing a moment in time, much less a kiss – yet somehow Griffin came up with something truly luminous here, without obvious post-concert embellishment. Perhaps it’s her surroundings – a tour-ending performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, whose glowing acoustics haven’t worn with time (or the departure of the “Grand Ole Opry” broadcast) and remain an acoustic guitar’s best friend on a track like “Goodbye.” Maybe it’s her accompaniment – Buddy and Julie Miller, or the always-welcome Emmylou applying her fragile soprano once again to the choruses of “Mary.” Or it could just be that the old hall’s warmth offers an ideal launching pad for Griffin’s voice, and that she and her audience seem profoundly happy to be where they are. And why not? The Ryman is to an Americana artist what Carnegie Hall is to a classical musician – a tabernacle, a goal for millions, and a sign of arrival for the lucky few. A Kiss in Time documents Griffin’s arrival at the peak of her powers.

Impossible Dream (2004)
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1000 Kisses, and the general astonishment that greeted the Dixie Chicks’ ’02 version of her as-yet unreleased “Top of the World,” had secured Griffin’s reputation as one of our greatest contemporary songwriters – one who now had a multitude of interpretive singers sniffing around her catalog for un-mined gems. Impossible Dream consolidated that standing, and represented her grandest statement to date. She reclaims “Top of the World,” for one thing, with a version even more stark and dramatic than the Chicks’; its message, of missed opportunities and mismanaged affection between a couple that’s been parted by death, is simply shattering. Griffin also exhumes “Standing” and “Mother of God” from their Silver Bell oblivion, and the latter song in particular is an essential addition to her collection of haunting miniatures. However, the album’s centerpieces are a pair of expansive new compositions, the comforting, yet anthemic “When It Don’t Come Easy” and the elegiac “Useless Desires.” The latter song builds beautifully over a couple of vocal octaves, a dozen or so decibels, and a mélange of instruments added to the mix, as Griffin bids farewell to a not-so-beloved hometown with an blend of nostalgia and antipathy that recalls (and this is a high compliment) Iris DeMent’s “Our Town” from a decade earlier. Griffin’s laments for times, places and relationships that are receding into the past … not to mention Lisa Germano’s typically riveting fiddle work, and the inclusion of a (terrific) song called “Florida” … give Impossible Dream a distinctly Southern flavor that suits Griffin’s voice, which has always harbored a twang rather surprising for a girl from central Maine.

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Children Running Through (2007)
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Once an artist achieves the level of consistently high quality that Griffin has, it becomes more difficult for an individual album, or even song, to stand out from the rest. (My favorite-ever quote from a positive music review: “Ho-hum, another first-rate Richard Thompson album.”) For a couple tracks, beginning with a jazzy track called “You’ll Remember” that veers a bit too close to Norah Jones territory, Children Running Through coasts out of the starting gate in a manner that’s somewhat less revelatory than we’ve come to expect. But then, with the double-barreled punch of the gospel-tinged “Heavenly Day” (subject of another obscenely wonderful “Basement Songs” column) and the propulsive “No Bad News” – a track that makes you want to hit the “replay” button all night long — Griffin shakes us out of our complacency and reminds us that, with her, another bedazzlement is always just around the corner. And then she unleashes a song that someday might come to define her career: “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song).” It’s at once a promise to fulfill Dr. King’s legacy and, in its concurrent intimacy and grandeur, one more potential component of that legacy – a natural heir to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and even Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” All that’s missing is a contemporary soul voice with the authority to match its power and the popularity to make it a standard. In the meantime, Solomon Burke covered it for his Nashville album, and in 2007 Kelly Clarkson and Jeff Beck performed “Up to the Mountain” on the “Idol Gives Back” episode of American Idol – and the subsequent release of that performance on iTunes brought Griffin, at long last, her first pop-chart placement as a songwriter.

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Live from the Artist’s Den (2007)
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The CD companion to the DVD of a broadcast that appeared on some PBS stations as well as cable’s Ovation channel … it’s all about the revenue streams, baby … this album is a pleasant diversion, but it creates nothing like the impact of A Kiss in Time. Like most other concerts recorded for television, this one — taped at the Angel Orensanz Foundation For the Arts on New York’s Lower East Side, soon after the release of Children Running Through — feels a bit stilted. The performances track the album versions a bit too closely, and the between-songs patter is perfunctory (though it features the occasional amusing tidbit, like the fact that Griffin wrote “Heavenly Day” for her dog). The atmospherics can’t compare to those at the Ryman for her earlier live album, either. This is probably the least necessary item in Griffin’s catalog, but then it’s really just an afterthought. About the best thing to be said for it is that it sure is nice to hear “Sweet Lorraine” again.

Downtown Church (2010)
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She had frequently invoked spiritual imagery (and name-checked religious heroes) in her work, but Children Running Through had brought Griffin closer to singing outright gospel than she had come before. Gospel legend Mavis Staples nudged her one more step in that direction by inviting her to duet on the Consolers classic “Waiting for My Child” for last year’s compilation Oh Happy Day!: An All-Star Music Celebration. And then Griffin’s label suggested she consider recording a full album of gospel; Griffin agreed – on the condition that it be supervised by Buddy Miller, who had already himself released one of the decade’s finest folk-gospel CDs, Universal United House of Prayer. When Griffin told him she wanted to record in a space where she could “feel her voice come back to her,” Miller quickly thought of Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church.

These days, when a well-known folk artist immerses herself in gospel, there’s usually something else afoot – and Downtown Church is no exception. Praising the Lord is (hopefully) at the top of the agenda, of course, but gospel often also functions as a vessel for exploring folklore, for making political statements, even for winking in irony. Singing gospel also can serve to ground a performer in age-old tradition, or, conversely, to advance her own aesthetic. And wouldn’t you know it – Griffin accomplishes all of those things here, creating a survey of gospel styles that deserves a place in the life of anyone who’s come to Jesus (or at least his music) via albums like Sam Phillips’ The Turning, Alison Krauss and the Cox Family’s I Know Who Holds Tomorrow, or the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.

It doesn’t require a musicologist to remember that two of those three projects were produced by T Bone Burnett; he’s not involved with Downtown Church, but his influence is unmistakable, not only in the breadth of the song selections (representing both the black and white church traditions) but also in the physical presence of bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Jay Bellerose, who made such profound contributions to Krauss and Robert Plant’s Burnett-helmed Raising Sand album. In a couple places that influence becomes particularly apparent – the chain-rattling on “Death’s Got a Warrant” closely resembles the rock-breaking on “Po Lazarus” from O Brother, and the swamp-rocking accompaniment on Lieber & Stoller’s R&B obscurity “I Smell a Rat” sounds like a Raising Sand outtake.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Indeed, the resurrection of what was, until now, the thoroughly secular “I Smell a Rat” – which concerns a cuckolded man letting his woman know he’s aware of her cheating, but quickly takes on a “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” quality here – exemplifies Griffin and Miller’s brilliance in taking advantage of their opportunity to place gospel in the context of contemporary secular genres, and vice versa. They bookend Downtown Church with two glorious examples of white country-gospel, Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” and Bristol Sessions pioneer Alfred G. Karnes’ “We Shall All Be Reunited” – the latter sung in three-part harmony with Harris and Colvin. In between, she covers the Swan Silvertones’ “Move Up,” Dorothy Love Coates’ “The Strange Man,” and the traditional spirituals “If I Had My Way” and “Wade in the Water,” all songs with roots in the African-American tradition. The exquisite “Waiting for My Child” is here, too (sans Staples).

Griffin herself penned only two songs for the album: the countrified “Little Fire,” which turns the spotlight over to Emmylou (never an unfortunate event), and a song that is Nanci Griffith-like in its earnest sentimentality, “Coming Home to Me.” Her compositions are nice, if not necessarily up to her usual standard — but that’s beside the point; a gospel album by a secular artist is almost always a vocal showcase first and foremost, and it’s here that Griffin shines. Her virtuosity is such that one can easily imagine her stepping from the Church of Christ at one end of Main Street to the A.M.E. church at the other end, and tearing up both congregations. In fact, she closes the album with a sweet and sincere rendition of the ancient hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” – a song that may date back as far as St. Francis of Assisi. As she brings it home, one easily imagines her an 11-year-old in a crisp white dress, standing in the well of a clapboard church and worrying not about tradition, about folklore, about irony … just about singing, as beautifully as she can. That sincerity may be the most ironic thing about Downtown Church. It may also be the best thing.

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A couple more quick points. First, in addition to Silver Bell Griffin has left in her wake a treasure trove of unreleased and rare material, much of which is available on the Love from My Lips bootleg. Much of it is inessential, but most of it is nonetheless intriguing – and there are things a hell of a lot worse than being a Griffin completist. You can get Love from My Lips in Popdose’sBootleg City,” but in order to do so you’ll have to put up with Mayor Cass’ unusual sense of the funny. (At least he won’t impose a visitor’s tax – this time.) Most recently, she has contributed a relatively subdued cover of the title song for last year’s tribute compilation The Best Is Yet to Come: The Songs of Cy Coleman, and duetted with country star Dierks Bentley on the track “Beautiful World,” from his album Feel That Fire.

Second, I’ve written this mash note to Griffin’s career with full knowledge that I have nary a discouraging word to say about her – but also with an awareness that Griffin’s unique voice, as a singer and songwriter, is decidedly not for everybody. Therefore, I’ll close with a quote from Leslie S. that appears on the review page for Children Running Through on Metacritic.com (I’ve cleaned up the grammar a bit): “She is dreadful … Saw her w/ John Prine last night … She screeched and was so horribly ill-prepared [for her] one duet with Prine … [suggestion of Griffin drug use deleted] … Real downer … What is he thinking? CD fair, with superior production to compensate for a grating, nails-on-chalkboard voice … Ugh.”

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