[11 June 2010]
Patty Griffin never wanted to do a gospel album.
After all, the singer-songwriter is as known for the gritty reality and the personal details she brings to her folk and country songs as she is for her gorgeous voice.
“I’ve definitely been influenced by the genre, but I’d never really thought about it,” says Griffin, calling from her home in Austin, Texas. “I’ve been so moved by this music for years, moved to tears, moved from sadness to happiness. I knew there was so much power in these songs.”
Tapping into that power has worked well for Griffin. The resulting album, “Downtown Church” (Credential), has landed her two nominations in the Americana Music Association Awards, including album of the year and artist of the year. But, more important to her, it has opened her up to gospel music and spirituality.
As a wordsmith and a Catholic, Griffin said she was wary of the “patriarchal terminology” in some of its music. “I couldn’t really find a home place for myself in Catholicism — like God is always referred to as a ‘He,’ like it’s definitely a guy — I had a problem with those things and I still do,” she explains. “But the album has changed me. I’m a lot less picky with the way people express themselves now. ... It did loosen up my mind and opened up my heart to everybody’s paths in this life and how they get through it.”
Griffin says the idea for “Downtown Church,” which was recorded in one week in an actual church in downtown Nashville, came from EMI Christian Music Group president Peter York, who had heard her sing with gospel singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mavis Staples.
“One of the reasons I decided to do it was because when I was approached by Peter York, I did have a prejudice and I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’” Griffin says, laughing. “That’s when I thought, ‘That’s the very reason I should do it.’ I was so afraid of it, I thought, ‘I should walk right towards it. It would be a good idea, and I’d probably learn something from it.’ And I did.”
She enlisted her friend Buddy Miller to produce the album because he knew a lot about traditional gospel music that she didn’t. “He immediately set out to inform me,” Griffin says. “I think he sent me about 500 songs to learn and choose from.”
Hank Williams’ “House of Gold” and Dorothy Love Coates’ “The Strange Man,” as well as traditional hymns, including “Wade in the Water” and “All Creatures of Our God and King” grabbed Griffin right away. She also wrote two originals — “Little Fire,” which includes Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, and “Coming Home to Me.”
Griffin says those originals were inspired by some of Bob Dylan’s more spiritual albums. “Maybe there’s something about him being contemporary and more in my world that made it harder for me to sing,” she says. “I think some of these songs I approached singing them in the spirit of them. But Dylan somehow felt more literal to me, and I thought I should probably see if I could come up with some things that would work with this record and feel more genuine to me.”
All the songs on “Downtown Church” now feel genuine to Griffin, and she’s enjoyed getting them ready for her current tour.
And then, once she’s gotten comfortable with that material, Griffin is set for a whole different kind of adventure. She will be part of Robert Plant’s new version of The Band of Joy, which was originally the group he and drummer John Bonham were in before Led Zeppelin. Griffin and Miller have already recorded their parts for the album, which is due out in the early fall, and will hit the road to promote it with Plant starting in July.
“It’s a really fun project, and I love backup singing,” Griffin says.
“I’ve always wanted to be a backup singer,” she continues. “I just hope I don’t screw it up.”
OTHER SINGERS & BANDS
When “American Idol” runner-up Crystal Bowersox picked Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” as her first single, she joined a growing list of artists who look to Griffin’s catalog for inspiration.
Here are some others singing from the Griffin songbook:
THE DIXIE CHICKS
SONG(S): “Let Him Fly” (from “Fly,” 1999) and “Truth No. 2” and “Top of the World” (from “Home,” 2002)
SUCCESS: Both “Fly” and “Home” hit No. 1 and won best country album Grammys
SONG: “Up to the Mountain” (from “I Dreamed a Dream,” 2009)
SUCCESS: “I Dreamed a Dream” hit No. 1
SONG: “Getting Ready” (from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” 2007)
SUCCESS: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” hit No. 6 on the pop charts and No. 1 on country charts
SONG: “Up and Flying” (from “If You See Him,” 1998)
SUCCESS: “If You See Him” hit No. 8 on the pop charts and No. 2 on country charts.