It’s been six years since Patty Griffin released an album of original material under her own name – nonetheless that span was a highly productive and notable period of time in which she won a Grammy award for her gospel album Downtown Church, and collaborated with Robert Plant on his now-classic Band of Joy album. Patty possesses the most distinctive and heart-breaking voice in all of roots music, with the exception perhaps of Emmylou Harris. There have been many times over the years when listening to Emmylou when I have wondered how Patty might take on her material, and vice versa. We’re damned lucky to have them both, particularly since Patty is at the height of her singing and songwriting powers, as evidenced in her latest album American Kid.
This is her seventh album, and it’s steeped in the knowledge that her late father was facing the end of his life, which tinges the recording with recollection, heartbreak and loss. The songs wend their way from the thoughtful ‘Wherever You Want To Go’ through to the moving closer ‘Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone’, but it’s not a one-way street of despair. There’s a sense of profound celebration in many of these compositions, and an awareness that tribulation is often followed by triumph.
“It was very clear that my father was leaving the world, and I was very anxious about that. What I do in that situation is to write songs, because writing music makes me feel better, and singing makes me feel better, so I sat to write the way I felt and it ended up that a lot of the album was about him.”
Still, there is ample room on the album for some up-tempo stuff. The rousing rocker ‘Please Don’t Let Me Die In Florida’ is strongly supported by Luther and Cody Dickinson of the Mississippi Allstars as well as Doug Lanco. It’s a driving tour de force that combines Patty’s blues vocal with clever lyrics and some blistering guitar work from the boys behind her.
The track is followed by ‘Ohio’, a co-writing effort with Robert Plant who shares vocals with her. Mesmerizing in its haunting intensity, this track alone is worth the price of admission, using the wide Ohio river as a metaphor for crossing over to the other side. Deep and tasteful drumming, guitar backing that is soulful and eloquent, and singing of the highest order make this composition the highlight of the record.
A surprising cover on her new album is Patty’s version of the Lefty Frizell number ‘Mom and Dad’s Waltz’. She recently revealed how this recording came about:
I never really grew up around country music, even though Maine is small and as hillbilly and redneck as anywhere else. I grew up with Motown and rock ‘n’ roll but I have been around country for the past 15 years and I thought I should really study this music. Someone gave me a Lefty record just before I was going on a long drive through Texas after I had told them I needed to listen to some country music. Lefty, who died aged 47, was the first who really got me. He is special, and his songs are really vulnerable.”
Patty’s lyrical abilities, her aptitude for metaphor, and her ability to make poetic connections that transform the mundane into the sublime, are nowhere in greater evidence than on ‘Wild Old Dog’, in which she takes the sighting of an abandoned dog on the highway and delivers a paean on aging, spirituality and loneliness. This song alone proves her inestimable worth as a songwriter. In truth her only peers are such masters as John Hiatt, Joni Mitchell, Richard Thompson, Kris Kristofferson and the late Townes Van Zandt. And yes, Emmylou Harris’ all-too-occasional forays into forging her own material are this strong.
All that said, Patty is without equal when it comes to women creating their own roots compositions these days. And this is the crucial point: her material will last. Ten years from now, twenty years from now, young roots artists coming up will be learning and performing the catalogue of Patty Griffin.
American Kid is the leading candidate for Roots Album of the year, and it’s a recording that should be in your library, regardless of your musical leanings.
Brian Miller is the Publisher and co-Editor of Vivascene. A former record store owner and business writer, his interests range from vinyl records and high-end audio to design, photography, and succinct writing. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org