On the Edge: Patty Griffin
“I would write about what was going on in my life, and that’s what was going on.”
Losing a loved one is traumatic, devastating and frequently unbearable. And if you’re like beloved singer/songwriter Patty Griffin, it is all those things plus inspiration, a way to celebrate and examine the fleeting nature of existence. For Patty’s seventh studio album, American Kid, which appeared in May, she wrote much of the material while dealing with her father’s illness and eventual passing.
“It’s how I process my world, you know,” Patty explains of her ability to continue writing through such sad circumstances. “I would write about what was going on in my life, and that’s what was going on. So in that way it wasn’t really hard, just I think what was going on is life. And it’s as hard as life is [or] can be at times.”
Delivering emotionally resonant compositions is a Patty hallmark, and she’s had her songs cut by everyone from the Dixie Chicks (“Let Him Fly”) to Solomon Burke (“Up to the Mountain [MLK Song]”). And her own recordings—sung in that unforgettably soulful and powerful voice—are just as strong and have placed her among the elite performers in Americana and folk music. American Kid, which was recorded near Memphis with the North Mississippi All Stars’ Cody and Luther Dickinson, has a distinctly stripped-down folk-blues sound, with recurring threads of family and mortality that should delight her longtime fans as well as lovers of traditional country.
Her father’s death wasn’t unexpected, so Patty had time to ponder the idea of a life without her dad. She poured that struggle into songs like the angelic album opener “Go Wherever You Want to Go” and the closing number “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” both of which directly address the impending loss. “It was just one of those moments you think about when you think you have some time from it and you don’t know exactly how the hell you’re gonna get through that,” she muses. “So I just wrote about it, while I was going through it, while he was getting ready to go, so I was getting ready to let him go.” And in “Irish Kid,” she also tells about a specific event in her dad’s life as a young man returning from war.
Then on the haunting “Wild Old Dog,” Patty explores the concept of what is sacred about our animal companions and wonders why anyone would discard a pet. God is a wild old dog someone left out on the highway, she sings in the opening lines. Patty wrote the song some time after seeing a dog running loose by the interstate as she returned home to Texas from Nashville. “I looked out onto the median strip and there was this big, big brown pit bull, just darting down the middle,” she recalls. “It just took my breath away because it was so beautiful. I just kept driving for a second, then I thought to myself, ‘Wow, that dog’s done for.’”
Rock icon Robert Plant, with whom Patty recorded in the Band of Joy (and who is her rumored romantic partner), lends his voice to the hypnotic “Ohio” and “Faithful Son.” She’s quick with her praise for his talent and deep love of music. “He’s one of those rare voices,” she says. “What I’ve gotten out of singing with him is even more immense than I can perceive.” Patty also adds a beautiful cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” which fits perfectly with the album’s themes. And on “That Kind of Lonely,” she says she was trying to channel Lee Ann Womack’s voice.
While Patty has always looked to her influences for ways to craft a melody and structure a song, she points out the long-term importance of just writing from the gut, no matter how tough it may be. “You listen to these amazing songwriters that have a certain thing they put into a melody and you go, ‘How would you do that?’” she says. “Actually ‘Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone’ is one of those. It’s like [I was] trying to craft a song and [it] ended up being about something that was in my heart. So sometimes they’re like that.” She ponders this for a moment, then continues. “I think if you really don’t want to get sick of singing them, being honest about what they are with yourself from the get-go is a good way to go.”
Judging by Patty’s numerous incredible songs—including the ones on American Kid—it sounds like she’s figured out the right approach.