The Patty Griffin Effect

Forget all those stories about her personal life. Right now, the Austin songwriter is making some of the most powerful music of her career.

Sometimes there are butterflies, she says, but there weren’t this time. At Austin’s pocket-size Continental Club in December, 200 people had crowded in to witness the first of two charity gigs billed as “Patty Griffin & Her Driver.” They had a fairly good idea of who the “driver” was: Griffin’s boyfriend, Robert Plant. With some of Austin’s best sidemen in tow, the pair sang old Led Zeppelin songs: “Black Dog.” “Going to California.” “What Is and What Should Never Be.” A handful of others. It was historic, because any way you slice it, Plant is the biggest rock star ever to live within Austin’s city limits. And this was his first hometown gig.

Since Plant moved here, in 2011, to live with Griffin, there’s been no shortage of people trying to guess the precise location of their South Austin home, of I-saw-him-at-the-H-E-B Facebook posts, of passersby scrutinizing Griffin’s left hand, attempting to figure out whether they’re married (they’re not). Before showtime on this particular night, many patrons kept an eye on the pool room tucked just behind the stage, where you could see an unmistakable blond mane poking out from a chauffeur’s cap. But despite all the paparazzi-like behavior on display, perhaps the most extraordinary part of the evening was the solo set Griffin opened with, which compelled every one of those 200 people to stand rapt, in pin-drop silence. 

This is the Patty Griffin Effect: when she sings, people listen. Really listen. She could sing on a sidewalk during Mardi Gras and transform Bourbon Street into Carnegie Hall. But what made her Continental Club performance especially impressive was that she commanded that silence with a set of mostly new material, much of it deadly serious. Several songs touched on her father’s death. Another drew a metaphor between an abandoned dog and God. And then there was the song about a soldier’s suicide. It was some of the most complex work of Griffin’s career, and she made it sound instantly familiar on the first pass. 

Those songs can be found on Griffin’s seventh album, American Kid (New West Records), due out May 7. Sparsely arranged and emotionally raw, it immediately evokes her first album, 1996’s Living With Ghosts . That intimate-sounding collection of what were essentially bedroom tapes intended to be demos connected with people just in time for the Lilith Fair tours and the female singer-songwriter boom that the tours ushered in. Living With Ghosts is still Griffin’s best-selling album, but her career and her influence can’t be measured in SoundScan numbers. As a live act, she draws thousands in major markets, hundreds in smaller ones. And in spite of her singular voice, other singer-songwriters have taken on her compositions as well, including the Dixie Chicks (who recorded three of them), Emmylou Harris, and Kelly Clarkson. “Songs are meant to be sung,” she says. “When you write a song, you hope people are going to sing with the record, at home, in their cars. If somebody professional sings it, that’s great too.”

Griffin’s voice—which can swing from authoritative to vulnerable mid-song, or even mid-lyric—unifies her catalog, but she’s done a lot of things with it. She has leaned rock (1998’s Flaming Red ), indulged in lush Americana (2002’s 1,000 Kisses ), and delved into gospel (2010’s Downtown Church ). “I’ve heard every record of mine described as my only good record,” she laughs. But by design, American Kid takes Griffin back to where she started. “I wanted it to sound simple and maybe a little gritty, because if you dress a song up too much, it can distance it from the source,” she says. That “source”—the grief driving much of the album—was the 2009 death of her father, Lawrence Griffin. It hit her hard, she says. So hard that, even a year later, “it still didn’t feel like I’d be up for going out and playing emotional material.” Then, one day, the phone rang. 

It was producer and guitarist Buddy Mill er, who had toured with Griffin in the past. Miller was working with Plant on an album and had suggested that they bring Griffin on board as a vocalist. Plant was amenable, and after Miller presented the idea to Griffin, she quickly said yes. When the sessions went well, she just as quickly agreed to tour behind the album, which was released under the name Band of Joy. She’d effectively be a backup singer, but she says that was okay because it would give her more time to grieve and let her do the kind of singing she grew up on, singing that could help her shed the folksinger tag she had so often been saddled with. She would get to rock.

“What inspired me to sing in the first place was rock stuff, showy stuff,” she says. “I’m not going to lie, Robert was one of my vocal inspirations early on. I got to sing in so many styles singing with him [on tour]. I used all my paint.” And over the course of the tour, the two became a couple.

On three of the tunes on American Kid, it’s Plant who plays the role of backup singer. The album’s star is her father , a World War II veteran, high school science teacher, and father of seven. Griffin describes him as a “rough-and-tumble” Boston Irish Catholic, although he also spent time in a Trappist monastery in Virginia. Songs like “Go Wherever You Want to Go” (written while her father was dying), “Irish Boy,” and the album-closing “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone” are obviously direct tributes. But Griffin says his death led her toward a song cycle about something bigger still.

“My father was a veteran, disappointed at the end of his life with the way things were going in this country, embittered by it,” she says. “And it made me notice things, watching him pass away, about how, from the time he was born to the time he died, America became an absolutely unrecognizable

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