Sometimes it takes a while to find your true purpose in life. Patty Griffin had just been through a divorce when she decided to try singing professionally in 1994 at the age of 30. She’d been playing guitar and writing songs since she was 16, but it hadn’t seemed like a career option until the upheaval in her personal life. Since then, she’s become a two-time Grammy-winner whose songs have been performed by the likes of Emmylou Harris and Kelly Clarkson.
Once Griffin signed with A&M Records, she got to work on her first album, Living with Ghosts (1996), a simple, folky affair with just voice and guitar. All the songs were original – in the best sense of the word. They weren’t quite like anything else out there.
The debut opens with “Moses,” unusual enough for its aching meditation on the importance of self-care to heal a wounded heart. And then there’s Griffin’s voice: piercing, slightly pinched, not soothing and easy but demanding of the listener’s emotional engagement. The melody is also odd, repeating upward motions against the guitar’s chords like a desperate prayer. This is the work of somebody defying conventions for the sake of her art.
Griffin got more attention for her second album, Flaming Red (1998), which hit the No. 12 spot on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart for emerging artists. For these sessions, Griffin brought in a backing band to support her, and the results are satisfyingly rich.
Several of the songs were composed by Jay Joyce, who was also debuting as a record producer. Joyce’s tune “Big Daddy” starts in a weird, dissonant sound world that could reasonably be mistaken for Radiohead. Griffin digs into the melancholy with the breathy low end of her voice.
Although Griffin recorded one more album for A&M, Silver Bell, the company dropped her before the record could be released. She quickly signed with the ATO label, founded by Dave Matthews, and by 2002 had put out the album 1,000 Kisses.
“Nobody’s Crying” is by Griffin and demonstrates the stripped-down sound of this album. There are plenty of session musicians on hand, but you don’t get the sense that they’re all playing all the time. Griffin and her guitar are the feature, and her piercing voice goes right to the heart.
Her next album, Impossible Dream (2004) may be no less melancholy, but it does have a lusher sound. The rich orchestrations include several brass instruments and two types of organ. No arranger is credited on the otherwise detailed personnel list. Craig Ross, who specializes in working with country songwriters with an indie bent, produced the album.
Impossible Dream does, in fact, include Griffin singing the famous song from the musical Man of La Mancha. But its most remarkable song has to be “Mother of God,” originally recorded for Silver Bell. This seems to be a song about living with a loved one’s mental illness. What starts as a spare piano accompaniment thickens and grows verse by verse, both through the addition of other instruments and the use of reverb and other engineering tricks.
Griffin’s final album for ATO was Children Running Through (2007). As was also true of the past several albums, Emmylou Harris joined in on some vocals for a couple of tracks. This album seems to have been a particular inspiration to country superstar Kelly Clarkson, who performed both “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” – accompanied by Jeff Beck – and “No Bad News” on prime-time television shows.
Here’s Griffin’s album version of “No Bad News” in a bluegrass-influenced arrangement. Nashville session guitarist Doug Lancio provided the almost frantic autoharp strumming pattern. That bright, metallic sound is intriguingly contrasted by the mellow brass section before the last verse.
In 2009 Griffin was invited to join gospel legend Mavis Staples on a track for a compilation album. An executive for EMI’s Christian music branch heard the song and contacted Griffin about doing a gospel album. She agreed, bringing along bandmember Buddy Miller to produce. Downtown Church (2010), named after the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville where it was recorded for the Credential label, won Griffin her first Grammy Award.
But it wasn’t any kind of conventional gospel album. Nestled among traditional spirituals are songs by Hank Williams and Big Mama Thornton. And then there’s “I Smell a Rat,” Leiber and Stoller’s bluesy rock and roll number. It might not be about religion, but Griffin applies her best gospel vocal chops to sell this snide warning to an unfaithful mate.
During this period, Griffin was in both a musical and personal relationship with British rock star Robert Plant. They lived together, toured together, and even cut a few tracks together. Meanwhile, Griffin continued her solo career. She released American Kid in 2013 on the label New West. This album was dedicated to her father, who had recently died.
Rather than record only new works about her father, Griffin blended in some interesting old material. One venerable choice is “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” a bittersweet classic by Lefty Frizzell (1928 – 1975). Griffin doesn’t try to turn it into anything but what it is: a wonderful trip back in time to the formative days of country music.
In the past five years, Griffin has self-released two albums, marketed by a distribution service called Thirty Tigers. Her lack of an industry label has not lessened either her writing or the sonic integrity of her studio output, although her voice is coarser than it used to be. The first of these efforts was Servant of Love (2015), which includes the thunderous, chugging “Gunpowder.” Ephraim Owens tears it up on the trumpet.
Sidelined for a few years by breast cancer, Griffin not only survived but seems to be flourishing. Maybe the title of her 2019 release, Patty Griffin, is a sign of her sense of renewal. She’s digging into her folk influences here, channeling Appalachia in this beautiful new ballad called “Bluebeard.” The illness took her voice away completely, but she’s built it back, now rough-edged with experience.
Before COVID-19 shut everything down, Patty Griffin was out touring. She told an interviewer last year that she’d been looking back at her career, listening to her old recordings, and was not at all displeased with what she heard. It was “something kind of magical,” she admitted. Her fans could have told her that.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/d&e, cropped to fit format.