Music on Living

Patty Griffin explores the challenges of being human with her music

About eight years ago, while we waited for headliner Shawn Colvin to perform in a downtown Phoenix concert hall, a diminutive beauty with porcelain skin and flaming red hair quietly walked onto the stage, her only companion a large acoustic guitar.

Patty Griffin proceeded to awe the sold-out crowd, wrapping her powerful and unafraid soprano around vulnerable songs about humans like us, clearly scarred though resilient, struggling to make their way through this world.

Griffin was born and raised in Maine, and she paid her musical dues on the Boston/Cambridge folk coffeehouse circuit. But her vibrant and melancholic country vocal style--a pure, almost holy instrument devoid of American Idol-style dependence on artifice and "showmanship"--sounded as if it were seasoned for years in a misty hollow in the American South.

"Diamonds, roses, I need Moses," Griffin sang, her voice open to full throttle. "To cross this sea of loneliness, part this red river of pain."

That tune, "Moses," was the first track from Griffin's 1996 debut CD, Living With Ghosts, which served as her impressive introduction to national-scale audiences.

Griffin, who will visit Tucson for a gig Tuesday, June 15, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, has released four stirring albums since then, the most recent being the amazing Impossible Dream, on which Griffin melds her yearning folk approach with a rollicking gospel/R&B style.

Speaking during a recent phone interview from her home in Austin, Texas, Griffin said she still remembers that '96 tour with Colvin very well, not as much for the rabid word-of-mouth fandom and publicity it inspired, but because she made a new friend.

"Shawn and I are really good friends because of that tour, and we've had the opportunity to play together a lot since then."

Griffin's career steadily has built since that debut CD, and surely the world looks a lot different to her, but the 40-year-old singer-songwriter is modest about the changes in her life.

"Well, they weren't at all what I could have expected they would have been, but it has been very satisfying. Yes, there has been lots of room for movement, and there still is."

For one thing, she is no longer just a gal with a guitar. Impossible Dream features a full band, as well as guest musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, violinist Lisa Germano and Texas songwriting couple Buddy and Julie Miller.

And since Living With Ghosts, Griffin's songs have been in demand by other recording artists, including Harris, Bette Midler, Martina McBride and her pals, the Dixie Chicks.

No wonder other artists are drawn to her tunes. Griffin's songs explore the raw edges, the challenges and contradictions, the hazy subtleties of living a full human life. No "ooh, baby, baby" or "rock me all night long" for her.

When asked why she can't write some insubstantial fluff, Griffin is a little embarrassed. "I can't help it. I wish I could write the boogie songs, too, you know, but they just don't seem to come."

An odd statement, considering that on Impossible Dream, there are several songs--such as "Love Throw a Line," which recall the pre-pop Staples Singers, and the spirited "Standing"--that, well, boogie with the righteous rhythms of Southern gospel music.

"Well, there's a way to get that in there--you know, dance your tears away--and it's through the gospel music," Griffin says.

In case you're wondering, Griffin did not grow up listening to gospel music. It's not a return to her childhood roots, as other artists might claim.

"I didn't discover gospel until when I was an adult through my appreciation for the music," she said. "I grew up listening to my mom singing hymns. You know, we were Catholic and in the state of Maine."

As an adult, Griffin heard "the great soul singers, such as Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Al Green. You put music like that in front of you, and you are bound to hear the gospel. Then somebody gave me a Staples Singers record, from the late '50s or '60s, real traditional stuff, and I fell in love with the way they felt and expressed the spirit in the music."

Griffin's parents also contribute a little spirit to the record, singing a rough, homemade-sounding excerpt of the song "Impossible Dream" from the musical Man of La Mancha, which was based on the Cervantes novel Don Quixote.

While making the new album, Griffin instinctively felt the pull of that show's music. "I realized out of the blue one day, walking around in Austin, that I wanted to buy that soundtrack at the record store, and so I did. I learned 'Impossible Dream' on piano, and I realized it was perfect and a beautiful way to express what was going on in the album."

She wanted to include the song on the record, but she couldn't settle on a way to pull it off. "I had to figure out some way where it wasn't ... I mean, it's almost become a cliché when a singer does that song. How many times do we have to hear someone do their new version of that song?

"So, finally, my parents agreed to do a recording of it last summer. My dad is 80, and my mom is 73. Neither is a professional singer, although my mom could've been. Anyway, it was she who was really going to do it. My dad, he was just there and piped in when it felt right."

Griffin said the Don Quixote story and "Impossible Dream" in particular helped define the theme of the record she eventually gave the same name.

"I think it is about his quest expressing a desire to do more, to address the sleepiness that goes on. In his own delusional state, he sees injustices and addresses them. We all feel we don't really know how to act, but that sometimes, we want to dig a little deeper."

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