Patty Griffin’s Family Affair

Written by July 25th, 2013 at 6:00 am

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“I went up to the mountain, because you asked me to,” a single voice quietly began. On the morning of April 18th, a memorial service for victims of the Boston Marathon bombings was being held at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. Midway through the service, the speeches and eulogies gave way to a performance from the Boston Children’s Chorus.

The song that then filled up the mourning church, that entered living rooms throughout the country tuning in to the nationally televised memorial, was “Up To The Mountain (MLK Song),” a contemporary gospel number that evokes and re-imagines Dr. Martin Luther King’s culminating vision in his final speech “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” The children pushed through the performance with wet eyes, the song swelling to its climax as they cried out lines of hope and hardship. “The peaceful valley few come to know, I may never get there in this lifetime,” they sang, before a final note of reassurance, “But sooner or later, it’s there I will go.”  At a time of tragedy and grief, a city and a nation sought solace in a song from an unlikely source.

 *****

Patty Griffin, a soft-voiced, storytelling singer from Old Town, Maine, was forty years old when she wrote “Up To The Mountain.” Though she almost certainly did not envision the song being sung six years later by a children’s chorus in front of the President of the United States, Griffin, who has a lifelong love for gospel music and considers Aretha Franklin and The Staples Singers among her most important influences, did write the song with someone else’s voice in mind. Speaking in the midst of a promo tour for her new album American Kid, Patty Griffin is calm and pensive, happy, after spending a few years touring as a backup singer with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, to be talking again about her own songs. “That was Pops Staples’ voice, clearly,” she says when discussing the recent unexpected performance of “Up To The Mountain.” “He was long gone when I wrote it, but that was his voice.”

American Kid is Griffin’s first album of original material in six years. Recorded with Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars along with long-standing guitarist Doug Lancio, the album was produced by Craig Ross and features guest vocals from Robert Plant on three tracks. Griffin has dedicated her latest work to her father Lawrence Joseph Griffin, a quiet Irish-American immigrant who worked as a schoolteacher while raising seven children. At a glance, American Kid is a tribute to her father, a collection of songs written during his final years that serve as a moving portrait of grief and remembrance.

Writing about her own family is nothing new for Griffin. “I probably do more of that than I should,” she jokes. “Anything that mystifies is a good subject matter, and family always mystifies, so you can go on and on forever.” While the tribute song to a deceased parent or loved one is a well established, sometimes hollow trope in folk and country music, on American Kid, to pay tribute, as Griffin does in the opening track “You Can Go Wherever You Wannna Go,” is merely the starting point. Patty Griffin’s latest record elevates and complicates the typical familial ode. Often, the album plays out as a conversation, with dialogues – between father and daughter, child and parent, husband and wife – taking the premise of family, tradition, and tribute as a means to a deeper end, an entry point to more difficult discussions. “Then a whole other story opened up – my father’s story started telling me a bigger story,” Griffin explains in the album’s press release. As she began to write about her father, as she re-imagined his life and thought about what the United States of America may have looked like to an aging WWII veteran in the 21st century, Patty Griffin started to access thoughts, ideas and feelings of her own – about her country’s past, its violence, its ability to forget history – that had been brewing for some time.

While on tour in Memphis in October of 2011, Taylor Swift, who is known to decorate her arms with lyrics from her favorite songs for her live performances, appeared onstage with a single line running down her left arm: “But darling I wish you well, on your way to the wishing well,” it read. It was the chorus to “Nobody’s Crying,” a song from Patty Griffin’s breakthrough 2002 album 1000 Kisses. The song’s musical and emotional climax comes during the bridge, when Griffin cries, in a moment of self-revelation, that “you never gave a damn for me, for anything, for anyone.” One year after her Memphis concert, Swift’s latest #1 single, “I Knew You Were Trouble,” was blaring in car radios and supermarkets all over the country. “And the saddest fear comes creeping in,” Swift sings softly, before releasing her voice, channeling Griffin, “that you never loved me, or her, or anyone, or anything.”

For nearly two decades, Patty Griffin’s music has been a rich source of material for an abundance of artists. Since the release of Living With Ghosts, a naked, cathartic collection of demos that served as her 1996 debut, Griffin’s music has been covered and performed by pop stars and singer-songwriters, talent-show contestants and local choirs, consistently throughout her seventeen year career.

At 49, Griffin is young enough to consider Emmylou Harris a mentor and old enough to serve as an exemplar of artistry for Kelly Clarkson. Her songs have been embraced by an old-guard of singers like Mary Chapin Carpenter and Linda Ronstadt while simultaneously being made famous by younger acts like Miranda Lambert and The Dixie Chicks. When faced with a choice of which Austin musician to pay tribute to at an April 2012 taping of Austin City Limits, Bon Iver decided to perform “Nobody’s Crying,” delivering a heartfelt take on the song that would be referenced by Swift six months later. “I Knew You Were Trouble” was the latest and unlikely the last moment of Griffin’s invisible omnipresence, of her voice and words finding their anonymous path into the American pop-country present.

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