“Sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
—“Spin” by Tim O’Brien
One of the themes of O’Brien’s Vietnam “memoir”/short story collection The Things They Carried is that the book’s events might not have actually happened, or happened exactly as they’re written, but that this didn’t violate the “truth” of the stories. A far cry from the self-deluding “truthiness” popularized by satirist Stephen Colbert, O’Brien’s aim is to shine a light on the true essence of an experience, a life, or a death.
To some extent, this is what Patty Griffin accomplishes on American Kid. Griffin began writing the album shortly before her father’s impending death in 2009. She then put the songs away while she toured with Robert Plant and released 2010’s cover-dominated Downtown Church album. As she told Rolling Stone, “I didn’t feel like singing anything about my life, at all, after he died.”
Griffin’s an extremely gifted songwriter, and it’s yet another testament to her skill that American Kid blends true stories, imagined stories, and Griffin’s own ruminations on God and loss without relying on the crutches of easy comforts or curses against the heavens. The album starts off with the gentle release of “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, in which Griffin imagines a world of ease and happiness, where “the time’s wound all the way down”. After that, though, there’s the story of a man’s life to tell, and “Please Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” kicks that mission off in raucous fashion. Propelled by Luther and Cody Dickinson, the song goes from a birth where “dirty streets cried out for rain”, on to war in the Pacific, through a job laying down blacktop where “those hills gave way just like a wedding gown”, and ending up in old age. The ethereal “Ohio” (co-written with Plant, and one of three songs on which he offers understated support) imagines a meeting which death might prevent. The plaintive “Faithful Son” is a plea to God not to forget “Your quiet, dull and faithful son / Who’s seen the loneliest of days / And fought the dirtiest of ways / With the man inside who would have run away / From the promises I made.”
From the left-behind waiting of “Highway Song” to the young man’s piss and vinegar of “Irish Boy” to the groom itching for his wedding night on “Get Ready Marie”, Griffin reveals facet after facet of a complicated and conflicted man. Fittingly, American Kid is an unadorned record, focused on its purpose. Despite the presence of two North Mississippi Allstars in the Dickinson brothers, “Please Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” is the only track that threatens to kick the doors off the hinges. American Kid successfully recaptures Griffin’s acoustic roots in haunting and moving fashion.
In the end—even though only Griffin knows what’s real, what’s made up, what’s some combination of the two—the listener comes away feeling like they have some measure of the man. Ironically, the album may best be summed up in her exceptional reading of Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”. In its sense of longing for something that’s gone, the song anchors this album that acts as a goodbye, a eulogy, and a reconnection.