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 Miller, 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 place.”
The most affecting song on American Kid is the antiwar anthem “Not a Bad Man,” which was inspired by her father’s postwar experience and that of a young soldier she says she heard about in an Austin TV news report who signed up for service after 9/11, returned from the war with mental health issues, and ended his life. “Bet you see a stranger when you look at me,” Griffin sings. “When I look in the mirror, I know that’s what I see.”
“My father was from that generation where you don’t talk about war,” Griffin says. “But he carried a lot of grief around that came out later in his life. A lot of people I know had fathers that did the exact same thing. Maybe they’d get Alzheimer’s, and the kids would hear a story about something that kind of just bubbled up, that they’d never told. The people they saw die. The horrors they witnessed. It was a lot to carry around, and it definitely colored our world whether we were aware of it or not.”
Surveying her father’s life and contemplating his death seem to have changed the way Griffin regards her own career. The prospect of spending the next few years touring on a record that’s largely about mortality has her thinking about her legacy (as does, doubtless, sharing her life with someone who’s left an indelible mark on popular music). “I guess when I’m done with this I want to have some music that people keep in their lives for years to come,” she says. “I think that’s really what you hope for. You hope to have done some work that’s strong enough to connect with people after you’re gone. I just listened to Bo Diddley last night while I was washing my floors, and man, he’s hilarious. I’m doing housework, worried about my dog’s cancer, and he’s making me laugh. And he’s long gone. That’s pretty powerful. I’m so grateful for Bo Diddley. It’d be nice to leave some small part of that, just even an eighth of an inch of that, behind.”