There’s a million sad stories on the side of the road.
Strange how we all just got used to the blood.
Millions of stories that’ll never be told,
Silent and froze in the mud.
Silent and froze in the mud.
I was born in Nashville, but you couldn’t say Nashville country is in my blood. Living there (and elsewhere in the South), my parents took advantage of their closeness to the country scene, but they were less interested in glitzy, poppy Nashville country and more in the grittier, hand-made-ier subgenre that existed within its shadow and didn’t often travel beyond it. So I grew up on artists whose roots were deeper in folk and indie rock than pop: Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle — and Patty Griffin.
Even more than the others, she rarely seems to be discussed among people who don’t share my upbringing. But this isn’t for lack of trying by other, more successful artists. Emmylou Harris has dropped backup vocals on nearly all of Griffin’s albums and covered her on the previously discussed Red Dirt Girl. So have artists from Kelly Clarkson (backed by Jeff Beck!) to Linda Ronstadt to Solomon Burke to the (Dixie) Chicks, who won a Grammy for their version of Impossible Dream’s “Top of the World.” She had an affair with no less a name than Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant that led to his appearances on American Kid and last year’s Patty Griffin and a spot for her in the titular Band of Joy from Plant’s 2010 album. Even Queen Bey may have paid tribute to her on Lemonade with “Sandcastles,” (even if it seems at least as likely there’s some common ancestor I’m unaware of.)
In spite of all their efforts, Griffin remains unknown. That’s in spite, too, of the quality of the music itself, which she has built into an absolute steamroller of emotion. It was probably a mistake to listen to her entire discography back-to-back in preparation for this article, because it left me an absolute wreck for the whole day. If nothing else, I shouldn’t have started first thing in the morning. Who wants salty coffee?
Maybe Griffin’s obscurity is because she’s so hard to pin her down and market her as any one genre. Besides the aforementioned country, folk, and alt-rock notes, Griffin’s music also brings in elements of gospel and soul belting and torch-song jazz (her arch but breathy voice on her first two albums sounds like the deeply unlikely lovechild of Bob Dylan and Marilyn Monroe). Her first album, and still probably her best, was Living with Ghosts in 1996, released as a raw demo tape after every attempt to clean the songs up for mass consumption only dulled their power. Her pop-rock follow-up, Flaming Red, shows a road not taken. By the time she released her third album and second masterpiece, 1,000 Kisses, four years later, she had become someone completely different. The youthful rage and energy of those first two records seemed to have been replaced overnight by a middle-aged melancholy that’s no less powerful.
Maybe that tectonic shift happened because we’re missing a link: her 2000 collaboration with Joshua Tree coproducer Daniel Lanois on Silver Bells was lost for years to contract disputes. But, since she fine-tuned two middling tracks from that album into masterpieces on Impossible Dream, maybe it was for the best.
Griffin unites these two halves of her career on Impossible Dream’s “Florida.” After all, what lyrics could better sum up youth than “Singing their heads off…Driving with their eyes closed”? But she follows her characters as that feeling turns sour with age. She covered Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” on her previous album. It might be as over-obvious to compare her to him as any artist exploring existential angst in the working class, but her refrain to “Florida” is devastating in its simplicity as anything in the Boss’s catalogue:
Isn’t it hard sometimes,
Isn’t it lonely,
How I still hang around here?
There’s nothing to hold me.
And another lyric, “Summer comes marching in/With its heavy boots on” takes Carl Sandburg’s fog on little cat feet and kicks it to the curb.
“Love Throw a Line” is both an album opener and a thesis statement of intertwining hope and hopelessness — of impossible dreams, if you like. It’s more blues than gospel, but there’s still a note of religious faith in it. It describes being saved at the last moment, a literal deux ex machina. Love throws a line, and what is God but love? If Griffin’s vague on that point, she’s more than concrete about the horror she needs deliverance from — “Nothing but rain ahead and no chance for our survival” — and it’s all the more powerful for that.
That struggle between hope and hopelessness plays out over the rest of the album, and either one may be on top depending on where you drop the needle. The next track, “Cold As It Gets” is unflinchingly bleak, using the repetition of the last line to really let the horror sink in:
I know a cold as cold as it gets.
I know a darkness that’s darker than coal.
A wind that blows as cold as it gets
Blew out the light of my soul
Blew out the light of my soul.
But the next song, “Kites,” returns to the light/dark metaphor to make hope, however irrational it might be, not just a state of passive, oblivious optimism, but of active defiance:
In the middle of the night,
We try and try with all our mights
To light a little light down here.
“When It Don’t Come Easy” is a reminder that, as the name says, that defiance is more difficult than we’d like to think. One line in particular is more relevant than ever now that our country’s engulfed in battles for social justice that seem to be refighting the same fights from five, ten, or even fifty years ago:
I don’t know nothing except change will come.
Year after year, what we do is undone.
In the face of this hostile world, Griffin finds strength in community, backed in the final chorus by a gospel choir.
But if you break down,
I’ll drive out and find you.
If you forget my love.
I’ll try to remind you.
And stay by you
When it don’t come easy.
But she saves the definitive statement for almost the end with a recycled Silver Bells track, “Mother of God,” a song, like so many in the Griffin catalogue, of despair over a wasted life. But the earlier version is missing the final, crucial moments, when Griffin delivers a message of tentative, battered optimism that’s as powerful in its way as Springsteen’s “Everything dies, baby, that’s a facet/But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back” or David Bowie’s defiant scream of “Oh no, love!/You’re not alone!” at the climax of Ziggy Stardust. First her voice drops out, leaving only the piano and the ethereal whine the reverberations of her guitar and violins leave behind them. Then she returns to whisper:
We won’t fight anymore.
Is waiting at the end
Of every room.
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
The other salvaged Silver Bells track, “Top of the World,” doesn’t even let that much daylight in. I said in my other 2004 album review that Arcade Fire’s “In the Backseat” was the saddest song ever recorded. Until I discovered that song, I was sure this one held the title.
My dad used to have a theory that there were only three country songs: “Lovin’,” “Losin’,” and “Longin’” (after some argument, he allowed a fourth one: “Livin’ (like a redneck)”). “Top of the World” is the ultimate Sad Country Song, but it’s about a loss and longing far more existential and universal than any romantic relationship. Griffin never explicitly identifies who she’s addressing here; it could be, as the PopMatters review suggests, someone who can no longer hear her. It doesn’t matter. You can feel what the song’s about, even if it’s not something that can be put into words. The best would be Thoreau’s, that “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” But even that doesn’t cover the crushing despair of missed opportunities, missed connections, and the fear of dying unknown and unloved. And even that doesn’t capture what Griffin does in her own words, using metaphor to capture something that slips through your fingers when you try to describe it literally:
There’s a whole lot of singing
That’s never gonna be heard
Disappearing every day
Without so much as a word,
I’m afraid I broke the wings
Off that little songbird.
She’s never gonna fly
To the top of the world
When she sings,
But I’d pretend to be sleeping
When you’d come in in the morning
To whisper goodbye
And go to work in the rain.
I don’t know why
Don’t know why
I start crying and I, too, don’t know why.
Griffin’s delivery of these words show how essential her voice is to her greatness. The Dixie Chicks may have received more recognition for their take, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the power of Griffin’s voice. In their defense, the cover was recorded in 2002, when there was no other version but the one recorded for Silver Bells to draw from.
On Impossible Dream, Griffin radically reworked it, slowing the easygoing country swing down to a crawl. She replaces the distractingly gimmicky touch of dropping out the instrumentals at the end of the chorus with a more minimalist orchestration all the way through. And she refines her vocal technique down to a hard, piercing diamond. She works the loud-quiet-loud dynamic better than any Pixies-worshipping alt-rockers ever did. She delivers this intimate confession the best way any singer any could, in a whisper. Sometimes, Griffin’s voice goes even softer than that, as if the words are so hard to say it gives out. Her voice cracks and chokes as if holding back tears. And then, on a dime, she lets it out, belting like Aretha Franklin, finally culminating in a wordless wail, a biblical “spirit interceding with groanings too deep for words.”
If there is some hope in “Top of the World,” it’s after the song ends and Griffin inserts a scratchy recording of her parents singing the show tune where the album got its title. It’s a reminder that there may be a whole lot of singing that’s never gonna be heard — but Griffin has saved at least some of it, like that faded old tape and the silent pain of her nameless narrator, and held it up in front of the world.
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