Patty Griffin "Downtown Church"
This is about songs and soaring voices, about faith and fate. About family, yes, and loss, and jubilation. But mostly Downtown Church, the seventh album from Patty Griffin, is an opportunity to engage her special voice with the myriad traditions of gospel music.
Yes, gospel music. You can't get to rock 'n' roll or any other form of American popular music worth listening to without taking a long, deep drink from the pure waters of gospel's golden age (roughly the decades bracketing World War II). Without savoring the drive and the anguish and the joy, the sheer undiluted joy, the certainty and the power sung out by dozens of highly competitive vocal groups. Without listening.
"I still feel like black gospel music, what's come out of the United States from slavery, is really the foundation for almost everything that I love," Patty says. "I'm talkin' Beatles and everything. That, to me, is just basic. The foundation."
Indeed, it is difficult, once one has heard them sing, to reckon with a universe in which the works of the Swan Silvertones, the Golden Gate Quartet, and Dorothy Love Coates are not as revered and honored as are the songs of Hank Williams, Lieber & Stoller, and Bob Dylan. (All of whom factor into Downtown Church, one way or another.)
Patty Griffin is, of course, a better than fair songwriter in her own right. Beyond her own gorgeous, complicated (ahem: that's a good thing), and beautiful albums her songs have been covered by the Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Emmylou Harris. Bette Middler. Miranda Lambert. Solomon Burke.
And so when EMI's Peter York suggested Patty should consider an album of gospel songs, it was not a small thing. Her answer, she says with a raspy chuckle, was simple: "That would be great, as long as Buddy Miller is producing it."
"I love Patty and her voice," Buddy says. "It's always been one of those things that really moves me. And she seemed to feel this would be good for her heart, too. It wasn't just something to do, it was something she really wanted to do."
Buddy is one of Nashville's irreplaceable men, a gifted and supremely modest singer, guitarist, songwriter, producer. He sometimes tours with Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Patty Griffin billed as Three Girls and Their Buddy. And he knows as much about American popular (and unpopular) music as any living soul.
"I'm a Staples Singers fan. I had them in almost constant rotation for going on ten years," Patty says. "And I have some Dixie Hummingbirds stuff. I'm pretty basic when it comes to gospel music. I grew up Catholic, so I guess that gives me some license in that world." She chuckles again, which she does a lot, but she brought roughly half the songs to the album, regardless her modesty.
York's suggestion grew out of a version of "Waiting For My Child" Patty had recorded with Mavis Staples for the Oh Happy Day compilation. "I almost said no," she says, "because I'm such a huge fans of hers and I feel like she's such a master that it seemed a little silly for someone like me to be singing next to her. But then I knew if I didn't do it, they'd give it to [name redacted] and piss me off, so." and she laughs some more.
"Buddy dumped so many songs onto my iTunes that it crashed," she adds with another chuckle. "That was a year before we even started making the record. And then he sent me a couple of CDs. There were like 100 songs to start. It was pretty fun going through all that stuff; I got through the first 50 and had everything I needed."
Well, almost everything, but we'll come back to that.
Mostly Buddy records in his living room, some blocks removed from Music Row in Nashville. Not this time. "One of the first things she said was she wanted a room where she could kind of feel her voice coming back to her," he says. "And my place doesn't necessarily fall in that category. So I thought of this downtown Presbyterian church. I'd just done a couple songs as part of a benefit there."
It's not just any Presbyterian church, as it turns out. The Downtown Presbyterian Church on 5th Ave. N. in Nashville was built in 1849 (the third home for a congregation whose members included President Andrew Jackson). It is a spectacular building, designed in the Egyptian Revival style by the architect William Strickland, and during the Civil War, was used as a hospital for Union soldiers. The sanctuary has history, everywhere one turns.
"It's the wildest looking thing, and it sounded beautiful," Buddy says. "So I thought it couldn't hurt to ask. The pastor said, 'We're Presbyterians, we're very efficient, we only need it once a week.'" Buddy, too, is efficient; Downtown Church was cut live over the first week of January, 2009, with Patty Griffin singing from the pulpit.
"I wanted to do it in a church," Patty says, the wonder still in her voice nearly a year later. "I didn't expect Buddy to find such a church. I was thinking, nice little church out in the country, one of those buildings they rent out for music videos. And Buddy got this place. Wow! What a church."
The supporting musicians Buddy assembled were well acquainted both with the repertoire and with each other. The rhythm section - bassist Dennis Crouch, drummer Jay Bellerose - as well as fiddler Stuart Duncan played play with Buddy in the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant touring band. Doug Lancio added guitars, augmented by John Deaderick's piano, John Catchings' cello, Bryan Owings' percussion flourishes, and Russ Pahl's steel guitar.
They are flawless musicians who understand the music with their skin and their souls. And yet throughout Downtown Church they are incautiously supportive of Patty Griffin's voice. Careful listeners will have noticed a transition in Griffin's work, a shift made clear on 2007's Children Running Through. She has become not simply a gifted songwriter who sings well, but a singer. A singer of startling power and emotion.
And the voices surrounding her! Emmylou Harris, Raul Malo, Jim Lauderdale, Shawn Colvin, Mike Farris, Buddy and Julie Miller. And Regina and Ann McCrary, whose father was one of the founding members of the Fairfield Four, gospel royalty.
"Having Regina there was pretty heavy for me," Patty says. "She knew that, and immediately took my hand and said, 'it's going to be all right, you're going to be great.' Said a little prayer for me. And I was really, really touched by that, to be taken into that world. The same thing happened on the Mavis session. I mean, I'm a lapsed Catholic and the producer and Mavis and I all held hands and said a prayer. I felt like they were letting me into their world. And it becomes your world."
One of the elements being worked out through the singing and learning of gospel music, and through the events of this record (which include Buddy Miller's heart attack - he's fine - and the death of Patty's father) is the matter of Patty's own faith. No few ghosts have haunted her albums, and one can hear a gathering interest in gospel throughout much of Children Running Through.
"Both of my parents were very religious," she says. "My father spent time living as a Trappist monk. It was a very Catholic life that I lived as a child. Spiritually I'm a mutt, at this point. All the imagery of those teaching is in me, it's in my blood, and it continues to show up and inspire different things. A lot of people think this is too basic to think, too bleeding heart liberal to think, but we're all looking for the same stuff."
That said, Downtown Church isn't all the same stuff. Like Patty's previous six albums, it is stylistically diverse, focusing not only on the black gospel tradition but on the white Southern gospel songs of Hank Williams and Alfred G. Karnes (one of the dozens of artists not named Carter or Rodgers who were recorded by Ralph Peer in Bristol, TN during the late 1920s), and one beautiful nod to Hispanic gospel traditions. Alongside, happily, two Patty Griffin originals (she wrote more), and a closing hymn attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
Her own contributions came after listening to a goodly handful of Bob Dylan's religious work. "Buddy sent me a lot of that stuff," she says. "It's just not my point of view. The songs I'm singing, I'm just interpreting someone else's ideas, and I'm not tied to those ideas. Listening to Dylan, who's contemporary, and who's in my genre, if I may be so bold as to say that, I felt like I really had to write my own. And put a couple in there that feel like me."
Which leaves one last wildcard in the mix, an homage to Big Mama Thornton, best known for cutting Lieber & Stoller's "Hound Dog" before Elvis. Lieber & Stoller apparently liked animal metaphors, but "I Smell A Rat" never quite achieved iconic status. (Nor, alas, did Ms. Thornton.) But it was the song Buddy played through the PA regularly so as to center his musical friends. And so.
"The band was so greasy by the end of that week," Patty chuckles. "I wanted to do it, just to have it. I didn't really think we would get it on the record, and Buddy said, 'Oh, I'll figure out a way.' And he did. I think he also had in mind tipping the hat to skepticism. Not a bad thing to include."