It’s hard to think of an artist in a more enviable position than Patty Griffin. Fifteen years ago, she had a guitar, a sweet voice, and a crush on Bruce Springsteen, but no recording contract. Today she’s perched among the elite singer-songwriters of her generation. She has released five critically acclaimed records, each more accomplished than the last, won over a legion of ardent followers, and sold many millions of records as a songwriter for everyone from the Dixie Chicks and Bette Midler to Solomon Burke and Jessica Simpson. At age 45, Griffin has mountains of talent, artistic freedom, and money to do whatever she wants, and this year, she’s exercising those freedoms to make her sixth studio album, Downtown Church, both her first collection of gospel songs and her first album to rely almost exclusively on other songwriters.
The idea sprang from EMI Christian Music Group honcho Peter York, who pitched the idea to Griffin. It was an inspired concept, given Griffin’s way with her own gospel-influenced originals, most notably “Love Throw a Line” and “Standing” from 2004’s Impossible Dream and especially “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” from 2007’s Children Running Through, a song blown up huge with covers by Kelly Clarkson and Susan Boyle. Those particular albums furthered Griffin’s reputation as one her generation’s finest songwriters, transcending the teeming girl-with-a-guitar genre, and defined her signature style of toggling between uptempo hard strummers like “Getting Ready” and achingly gorgeous gentle folk like “Burgundy Shoes”.
The other variable in play is the fact that Griffin has emerged as a simply amazing singer. On her debut, 1996’s Living With Ghosts, her power and control as a vocalist was well apparent. On her latest efforts, she has found even greater range, subtlety, and taste as a singer, certainly essential to holding down a set of gospel songs. Last year, Griffin shared the stage with Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin (along with Buddy Miller) for a collaborative tour, and it was clear that Griffin had not only joined their ranks, but had commanded the evenings, as each show ended with Griffin’s “Mary”. Shed from the big bloppy production from 1998’s Flaming Red on which it’s found, “Mary” and Griffin’s vocal, stunned crowds at those shows.
All of this, then, set the stage for Downtown Church, and Griffin, upon hearing the idea, agreed to do it as long as Buddy Miller came on board to produce. Miller, in turn, fed Griffin hundreds of ideas for inclusion and secured a 19th century Nashville church in which to record the album. Miller, a beacon of impeccable taste as a producer, artist, and songwriter, not only picked the right tunes for this project, but he gives the album a resonant yet intimate sound, as you can feel the swirling acoustics of the setting in the textures of these live recordings. Miller and his occassional collaborator T. Bone Burnett clearly share a circle of influence, as the record shares plenty of sonic ground with the Burnett-produced Krauss/Plant album Raising Sand, the tour for which Miller joined on guitar.
At first listen — and this is another, um, blessing — the record sounds gospel-influenced, but not necessarily an overt gospel album. There are no handclapping choirs, string-laden hymns, or canonical shouts to glory, exactly. There’s no “Amazing Grace”, “How Great Thou Art”, or “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”. Instead, Griffin and Miller chose several obscure tunes, a few of which are only vaguely religious, focusing less on orthodoxy than on spiritual and redemptive seeking of various kinds.
The record opens quietly, as Griffin lets her voice set the album’s intimate tone, backed by quiet acoustic guitar and haunting organ accents. The song is Hank Williams’ “House of Gold”, and Griffin does wonders with the three-chord melody; one of the charming aspects of this album, and with Griffin’s singing, is the tendency of her voice to break every once in a while, and those cracked edges are juxtapositions to the piercing sweetness at the top of her range and lend real emotional weight to Hank’s devotional questions.
The album moves back and forth between the tranquil and the lively, and the album’s second track, “Move Up”, is classic call-and-response gospel-billy, with instrumentation and backing vocals (Jim Lauderdale, Ann and Regina McCrary) that suggest that the Tennessee Three and the Jordanaires have shown up. In fact, when Patty improvs at the end, she echoes the Raising Sand aesthetic, imitating Robert Plant imitating Elvis.
Things go big on songs like “Death’s Got a Warrant”, a slice of angry-god Puritanism accompanied only by a body-slamming chain-gang crunch. The traditional “If I Had My Way” is a driving, on-your-feet thumper with a thick wash of Miller’s guitar and the McCrarys’ backing shouts. “Wade in the Water” features another impassioned vocal, this time given a spooky Tom Waits-style ghostyard burnish along with backing vocals from Mike Farris, a guy who knows a little about bringing the gospel fever. The sublime “Virgen de Guadalupe” provides another religious angle, Hispanic gospel traditions, this one featuring Spanish guitar, a harmonium solo, a harmonies by Raul Malo.
If there’s any room to quibble here, it’s the fact that, by recording essentially a covers album, Griffin has sidestepped what makes her records so ardently anticipated. Sure enough, two of the standout songs here are the two that Patty wrote herself. “Little Fire” is sung as a duet with Emmylou Harris about the need for companionship, and the two singers turn in an all-timer, as the song builds and waves of pedal steel and guitars cascade around them. However, there’s no way to prepare for the blisteringly beautiful “Coming Home to Me”, the other Griffin original here, featuring backing vocals by Julie Miller. This song, soon to be covered en masse, will buckle your knees.
Shawn Colvin shows up, you’ll be glad to know, although she’s easy to miss, blending in with Emmylou on “We Shall All Be Reunited” one of two hopeful prayers that end the record, this one embroidered by Stuart Duncan’s fiddle. The final number is “All Creatures of Our God and King”, a traditional hymn sung with piano only, and it showcases Griffin’s voice at its most pure, a fitting and mesmerizing end to an album that, regardless of one’s belief, is an uplifting, moving, and exquisite listening experience.