Patty Griffin is on a mission. It is not personal—in fact, it’s public. Actually, she has been on a mission since she first arrived on the music scene in 1996. But, today, she is reaching out beyond her folk, country, and gospel roots into civic and political action. But, it’s not a call to be a Republican or Democrat. It’s not a call to vote for Sanders or Trump. It is a call to find one’s own voice in this unique experimental democracy we call the United States of America. Griffin calls on us to work from our own conscience to make a positive difference during this time of angry division. This month she will be joined by Sara Watkins and Anaïs Mitchell, with the support of the League of Women Voters, for a series of shows simply titled the Use Your Voice Tour.
Political activism is not new for folk singers but dates back to Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Billy Bragg to name just a few. However, there has been a lack of involvement among many of today’s most popular folk singers and songwriters. It seems like something that’s been lost. Griffin, along with Watkins and Mitchell, are intent on turning this around. Accordingly, she states on a recent posting on her website:
This starts with me looking for a way to participate in the world as I’ve grown older, complain a little less, do a little more. I kept getting stuck on where to start—the world is filled with emergencies of poverty, of environmental and social disasters, with one exacerbating the next.
The solution Griffin found to making a difference by using her talents was right in front her. “I didn’t realize this before, but the largest voting group in the U.S. is single women, and too many are not turning out to vote. This is troubling on a lot of levels. But the most troubling one to me is the thought that so many in this group, of which I am a member, find so little to connect with in the workings of government.”
So, as the tour begins, the plan is to visit 38 U.S. cities through April to raise awareness of the need to take action and get out to vote. It’s that singular vision, the desire to make a difference, that has always driven Griffin’s career, which has taken some artistically original, innovative, and unique turns without regard for commercial success. Following her own inner instincts has paid off in a career that has been growing stronger over the last 20 years. It has certainly benefited the public good and made the world a better place.
Patty Griffin is known for her rootsy, stripped-down style, which focuses on the soul of the song. She is a writer who draws her truth from the core of her life with an inner-eye that gazes on the downtrodden and those who have found themselves broken by life. This is a good reason why her involvement with the League of Women Voters is something to pay attention to. Her songs have been recorded by the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Bette Miller, and Solomon Burke.
The last decade has been especially kind to her, winning Artist of the Year with Americana Music Association in 2007 and taking a Grammy Award in 2010. Along the way she has managed to make an impact through her collaboration with a rock icon. It’s all in the life and times of a truly fine singer-songwriter.
Patty Griffin was born in Old Town, Maine, very near to a Native American reservation. She bought her first guitar when she was 16 years old and grew up listening to her mother’s voice as she sang. It connected her to hearing other voices as well. When she heard Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers, she began to find her own voice. After a short marriage she began playing around Boston in small venues. She was soon picked up by A&M records, which released a demo-like album in 1996, Living with Ghosts. This was followed by the dynamic Flaming Red, which mixed soft folk songs with passionate rock ‘n’ roll music.
After the recording her third album, Silver Bells, she was dropped by A&M. The label would release Silver Bells 13 years after her departure—the shelving and long-overdue release of Silver Bells is a story in itself. However, she was quickly picked up by Dave Matthews’ ATO label where she recorded four albums between 2002 and 2007. It was her fourth album for ATO that led to her commercial breakthrough: Children Running Through.
After a collaboration with Mavis Staples in 2009, Griffin made yet another breakthrough album—Downtown Church—a collection of vintage gospel songs, which moved from traditional spirituals and blues-drenched gospel yearnings to the lyrical work of St. Frances of Assisi. It was a choice that fit comfortably into the folk-blues strains of her past work while allowing her to stretch to musical heights. Notably, her duet with Raul Malo on “Virgen De Guadalupe” beautifully illustrates her ease reaching across musical and cultural boundaries. It was produced by her friend Buddy Miller and recorded at the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville. The album was so well received it won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Gospel Album in 2011.
In 2010, Robert Plant enlisted the roots-friendly world of Americana Nashville to form his labor-of-love project, Band of Joy—reprised from the name of his pre-Led Zeppelin band of the 1960s—enlisting Patty Griffin along with Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott, and Marco Giovino to record an eponymous award-winning album followed by a tour. It was during this time that Plant and Griffin would become romantically involved until parting ways in 2014.
Patty Griffin’s latest release, 2015’s Servant of Love, finds her in fine form with an album much like her earlier Flaming Red, dancing seamlessly between stripped-down folk to New Orleans gospel-infused jazz, country-blues, Celtic-mystic music, rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B. It’s an engaging work, a songwriter’s album—if you are a songwriter, this album will either inspire you or cause you to give up the craft altogether. The album revels in her stories of haunted souls driven by the need and desire for redemption. She displays a writing style that echoes Blind Willie Johnson, a vocal quality that could easily rest in a country feel, but instead takes her to Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thorton more than any other modern singer today. All of this pulls us under as her lyrics reflect the spiritual leanings of Rilke. When these ingredients are driven by country-blues at the core, you feel so down to earth that you can touch the mud beneath your feet; the result is a powerful and emotionally authentic work. Servant of Love is one of the best albums of 2015.
With such a great new album, it would be simple for Griffin to rest on her laurels and tour behind this haunting and beautiful recording. However, she is a restless soul looking for something to drive her forward and help touch the earth. The Use Your Voice Tour for the League of Women Voters has given her the mission at just the right time. According to Griffin, “Women of this country are seriously underrepresented. We are not being heard. Some of us are single moms. We’re self-employed people; we’re working multiple jobs and going to school. We’re busy. That’s real. In my own county in Texas there was a less than 10% voter turnout in this November’s election. It’s frightening that the connection to government on a local level is so weak.”
Patty Griffin, Sara Watkins, and Anaïs Mitchell are looking to connect the reality between the music they produce and how it expresses engagement in the here and now within the local community. The tour will go a long way toward solidifying that connection. Griffin says, “I am hoping with this tour to bang the drum about our democracy, about our communities, and even about our neighbors down the street. What can we do to make things better?”
In her search for an organization that represents a way to make a difference, the path seemed clear. “The League of Women Voters is a great resource for getting involved. They aren’t partisan and they aren’t even sexist… you can even be a guy and use their resources for figuring out this democracy, how it works, what the bills are, and what the contenders are all about. So, guys, you are in this too. First and foremost this tour will be about music! Everyone is welcome!”
As Patty Griffin’s musical career continues toward a road that will reach far into the future with a legacy of Americana-roots music that is already unique, her connection to the current political climate is helping to shine a more positive light than we’re seeing in today’s election cycle. She doesn’t point to a partisan point-of-view, but rather to action that will help to unify and empower the public. Rather than shielding herself in her music, she stands in the light of day pointing to the way of hope. While many of us sit at home in front of out televisions, computers, and telephones, Griffin and the Use Your Voice Tour encourages us all to get out, take action, and make a positive difference. She certainly has done just that through her music over the last two decades. It’s the authenticity of her songs, her lyrics, the risks she takes in her career, that gives power to her stand today, calling us all to get out, be informed, and vote in the way our conscience directs. That is after all, the American way. It’s also the Americana music way. Be different as you make a difference.
Patty Griffin, Anais Mitchell, and Sara Watkins will perform on Friday, April 1, 8pm, at California Center for the Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd. in Escondido.