AMERICAN KID (NEW WEST)
It is six years since Patty Griffin’s previous album of original material, Children Running Through, and a lot has happened in her life since then. In 2010, she released the Grammy-winning gospel album, Downtown Church, and then joined Robert Plant’s Band of Joy to tour and record. (The two singers are now also together in Austin, Texas).
Griffin also lost her father, Lawrence, who passed away in 2009 and was the inspiration for the lyrics on the latest album. Griffin says that she started writing the songs for the album after she found out that her father was going to die. “It was terrifying thing for me to face,” she explains in the video that accompanies the album, “so I started writing these songs about him and his life to face losing him. It was a way for me to deal with that.”
Griffin, along with producer Craig Ross (who worked on her 2004 album Impossible Dream) and sound engineer Roy Taylor used some vintage equipment at Jim Dickinson’s Zebra Ranch Studio in Mississippi. The studio is now run by Jim’s sons Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars (who both play on the album). The resultant sound is beautifully clear, highlighting Griffin’s gorgeous voice against a relatively sparse backdrop. This is a fabulous album to listen to loud, when the full effect of the recording process can be heard.
Griffin says that she didn’t want to ‘overthink’ the recordings, preferring whole takes to overdubbing and that shows out clearly. If there is a similarity with Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album produced by Daniel Lanois it could be because Griffin was working with Lanois and Malcolm Burn at the same time they were recording Harris. (The subsequent album has never been released).
The studio ensemble includes the Dickinson brothers on drums and guitars, as well as guitarist Doug Lancio (John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams). Ross also adds guitar, bass, organ and omnichord (an electronic autoharp).
Plant appears as backing vocalist on three songs, most notably on ‘Ohio’ which has echoes of his work with Alison Krauss on Raising Sand. Recently Plant confessed that it was a challenge for him not to have to sing lead but he found the experience a valuable lesson. It is remarkable that even this late in his career Plant is singing not only as well as ever but also – and just as importantly – more sensitively (as also evidenced by his recent Australian tour). Listen to him on ‘Faithful Son’ and the stunning ‘Highway Song’ (which he co-writes) and you can just hear him gently in the mix.
The album opens with ‘Go Wherever You Wanna Go’ and closes with ‘Not A Bad Man’ followed by ‘Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone.’ But the mood is anything but maudlin. Contemplative might be a better way of interpreting the atmosphere that Griffin attempts to create.
While the mood is understandably restrained for much of the album, ‘Don’t Let Me Die in Florida’ raises the tempo briefly. Later, the humorous ‘Get Ready Marie’ raises the mood again. (The one cover is a lovely sparse rendition of Lefty Frizzell’s ‘Mom & Dad’s Waltz’).
Perhaps the outstanding song, certainly the one you might return to again and again, is ‘Wild Old Dog,’ not only one of the most affecting songs Griffin has penned but also one of the best she has sung. It is also amongst her very best compositions and just might become a classic ‘road’ song. ‘God is a wild old dog someone left out on the highway,” she sings over Lancio’s mandolin and Ross’s baritone guitar. ‘It’s lonely on the highway, sometimes a heart can turn to dust.’