Patty Griffin was standing in a former South Austin church, now a private residence not far from her own home, and the rough-hewn roof beams, rope-hung chandelier and elk head overhead provided an apt setting for “Wild Old Dog,” a bluesy gospel number that compares God to a homeless dog. The occasion was a New West Records party during South by Southwest to unveil Griffin’s forthcoming album, American Kid, and this song pulls together many of the strands that make up the record.
“Here I am on the verge of my 49th birthday,” Griffin said on March 15. She was wearing knee-high boots and her dark-red hair fell over a white mini-dress with a blue flower print. “I wrote a lot of this album on the road, because I had work to do in Nashville and I didn’t want to leave my dog behind in Austin. One time there were tornado warnings as I was driving through Texarkana and I saw this dog that someone had dropped off on the highway, because that’s what people do; they dump their dogs when they get tired of them. I kept thinking about that dog.”
Patty Griffin has lived in South Austin for a long time, but between 2009 and 2012 she had plenty of reasons for driving to Nashville. Her manager is based there, and Griffin named her 2010 album Downtown Church after Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, where she recorded the set of ambivalent gospel songs with local producer Buddy Miller. After those sessions she joined Miller, Darrell Scott and a rhythm section in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, which toured the world between 2010 and 2012. During those tours she and Plant became partners off-stage as well as on. He moved in with her in South Austin in 2011.
“The Band of Joy made guitar playing more fun for me,” she says, carefully shielding her personal life. “It pushed me so hard on the guitar; I either had to come up with parts that one of the guitar masters of all time wrote or something that could stand in its place—and by guitar masters I mean both Buddy Miller and Jimmy Page. And often I had to do it in an hour when Robert decided to add a new song. It was a really exciting opportunity to work with some great players. What a band. It woke up some brain cells in me.”
Plant appears on just three tracks from American Kid. He co-wrote “Highway Song” with her after he heard her try out an early version at a Band of Joy soundcheck, and they sing the story of separated lovers as a whispery duet. Griffin had already written “Ohio,” the bluesy tale of a fugitive slave, but Plant’s arrangement gave it shape, and he joins her in a somber duet. He also sings harmony behind her on “Faithful Son.”
“I had always been influenced by Robert’s world of singing,” she adds. “In his band it was great for me to stand back and let my voice do the work—to be an instrument and just an instrument for a while and not be a storyteller. Being a shy person, I could never imagine auditioning for a band when I was young, so I became a folk singer who could accompany herself on guitar. But I originate from that world of R&B and soul that Robert did and still does.”
At the New West party, she stood on stage alone with her acoustic guitar, which she strummed stoically before singing, “God is a wild old dog someone left out on the highway. I’ve seen him running by me; He don’t belong to no one now.” There was a world-weariness in her lament that hinted at both Celtic keening and a slow Mississippi blues. The former quality comes naturally to Griffin, who grew up Irish-American in Maine; the latter quality was an inevitable influence of the Band of Joy. The blues flavor is emphasized on the album by the presence of Luther and Cody Dickinson, the two-man acoustic version of the North Mississippi Allstars that opened most of the Band of Joy shows.
“These songs were written with Nashville and Texas in mind,” Griffin says over the phone in April, “but I didn’t want a tidy record. I wanted to unsettle it a bit, and I thought Memphis would be a good solution.” She ended up recording most of the record at the Zebra Ranch, just south of Memphis in North Mississippi, where the brothers had grown up with their father Jim, who worked on records by Bob Dylan and The Replacements. “Luther and Cody have this Memphis thing they can do without thinking about it. When you put them on something, it’s gonna sound bluesy. Plus I loved the fact that they were brothers. Listening to them night after night; no one sounds like that but brothers.”
“It’s lonely on the highway,” Griffin sings on “Wild Old Dog,” and you can hear that solitude in her embattled but undefeated soprano. “We dropped him out on 93,” she adds; “tall grass was waving there just like the sea. He tore off running like we’d set him free and just disappeared right in front of me.” As this canine deity trots off into the brush, something in Griffin’s moody vocal suggests that she’s glad for the dog and sad for the humans left godless in their car. These opposing feelings are reinforced by the contrast between Doug Lancio’s eagerly chiming mandolin and Luther Dickinson’s reluctantly moaning guitar.
Bridging the gaps between the album’s resilient hope and crushing defeats, between the Celtic/Appalachian folk music and the Mississippi River blues, is producer Craig Ross. “Craig has a lot to do with the sound of this record,” Griffin confirms. “He took Memphis and put it up on a misty mountain somewhere—no, not Led Zeppelin,” she laughs. “More like Ireland and the British Isles. He grew up in Houston, so he has a feel for the blues, but he’s also obsessed with This Mortal Coil. He and I have known each other for 17 years, since he played guitar on the original version of my first album. These new songs come from such a traditional place with such a classic, linear style, and Luther and Cody also come from such a classical tradition that I wanted someone who could pull the music out of the past and give it its own sound.”
The new album takes its title from a line in “Not a Bad Man.” The song’s narrator is a 24-year-old back from fighting in Iraq. “There’re ghosts that follow me around, things I’ve seen and did,” he says, “but I am not a bad man, just an American kid.” The slow, elegiac number begins with just Griffin’s voice and guitar; eventually Lancio’s baritone guitar and Ross’s piano add subtle reinforcement. As she sings, Griffin seems to be pondering just what it means to be an American kid in this new century—not exactly guilty, but not quite innocent either.
“On the surface that phrase evokes a Norman Rockwell painting,” she says, “but American kids were also in Japanese internment camps; American kids are on Indian reservations; American kids are growing up in the inner city listening to rap music. That phrase is confusing, and that makes it deep. One of the great things about living here and something that drives the rest of the world crazy is that there is no clear definition of what it means to be American. The guy in the song got over there and had a job to do—and you can’t not do the job once you’re a soldier. But people are confused by doing that job. This guy’s traumatized by it.”
Another American kid who served in a war, Griffin’s father Lawrence, died in 2009, and she wrote many of the album’s songs right before and soon after that death. “Irish Boy” is another slow elegy, a wistful remembrance of her father’s rowdy youth in Boston before he moved to Bangor, Maine, to teach high school physics and raise a family. She sings it accompanied only by her own piano,
“I was thinking about his personality and what was uniquely his when I wrote that song,” she says. “He grew up in Boston with ‘No Irish Allowed’ signs and a big chip on his shoulder. His parents were servants and there was a big class system in Boston. That’s a real common story of coming up in a culture that he felt made it harder to succeed. The G.I. Bill changed the whole game plan for those guys.”
Another wistful farewell, “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” closes out the record with ghostly echo and a Judy Garland-like big-ballad vocal. The album begins with “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” a lovely string-band benediction that offers this blessing for the dead: “You don’t have to go to war no more…, you can get up on some sunny day and run, run a hundred miles just for fun now.” You can hear that sense of sprinting freely across a field in the interplay of Luther Dickinson’s slide guitar and Ross’s guitar.
“I’m proud of this next song,” Griffin announced at her Austin showcase in March. “It’s a sexy song about my grandparents, and that’s a hard song to write.” “Get Ready, Marie,” a lilting Celtic waltz, is sung in the voice of Griffin’s grandfather. “I sang that just in case you’re thinking folk music is getting way too classy.” The shy, short, skinny American girl in the former Mexican church is surprisingly convincing as a drunken Irish lad who’s lustily anticipating his wedding night.
“I’ve always used male narrators,” she says over the phone in April; “I stick with the gender of whoever the narrator is when the story comes out. With everything you do, don’t you want to learn something about it for yourself? I keep learning for myself when I get into male characters, maybe because men are more mystifying to me than women. My hope is I have a little more patience and a little more understanding from sharing someone else’s world for a little while.”