With an exquisite voice many consider as engaging, evocative and emotive as Joni Mitchell’s, Patty Griffin has been singing her own masterfully crafted songs for over 25 years about poverty, racism and inequality in the great tradition of folk singers like Joan Baez, Tom Rush and Eric von Schmidt while embracing overtly spiritual themes in the great tradition of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.
One of contemporary folk’s most highly respected artists, Griffin has showcased her characteristic combination of poignant storytelling and stirring melodies on 10 studio albums, three live records and soulful live performances across the globe, singing with palpable passion and emotional intimacy in an irresistibly Nashville-suffused style that’s never melodramatic and always gripping. A host of singers have recorded her songs including Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris and Solomon Burke, and her sizeable fan bases in New England, greater North America, the UK, Europe and Australia have established Griffin as a truly global presence, “one of America’s foremost voices of the human condition,” according to Rolling Stone magazine.
Born Patricia Jean Griffin on March 16, 1964, in Old Town, Maine (15 miles from Bangor), Griffin says she, her mother and her sisters sang around the house often. At age 16 she bought her first guitar – a used Hohner for $50 – and started writing songs, initially inspired by John Lennon and Aretha Franklin, and by age 17 she’d formed her first band, Patty & the Executives, which played country, gospel and folk standards. “The truth is, I know very little about songwriting, or music,” she said in a 2020 interview. “It’s the mystery that keeps mystifying and that’s a good thing. My mum was a beautiful singer, and definitely my first music love.”
In the mid-1980s, Griffin moved to Boston and took guitar lessons from Pousette-Dart Band guitarist John Curtis, with whom she started performing in local coffee houses and clubs while recording solo demos and playing gigs on her own. In April 1993, over two years before landing a recording contract, she appeared with folk singer-songwriter and Maine native Ellis Paul at the Wang Theatre for the Boston Music Awards, where Paul won the award for Outstanding New Folk/Acoustic Act.
In late 1995, Griffin signed with A&M Records, whose A&R executives were so impressed with her 10-song demo tape – which featured Griffin playing her songs exactly as she did live, with only her guitar and voice – that they decided producer Nile Rogers’ reworked version of the tracks was overproduced and released the songs completely unaltered from Griffin’s original demo as Living with Ghosts in January 1996. For the following two years, Griffin toured across North America including an appearance at Riverfest 1997 at City Hall Plaza in Boston.
In 1998, Griffin recorded her sophomore effort for A&M, Flaming Red, a full-band, heavily produced album in polar opposite to her pared-down debut. The singles “One Big Love” and “Blue Sky” reached #5 and #7 respectively in the Billboard Adult Alternative Airplay (AAA) chart and Griffin toured across the US opening for Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.
In 2000, Griffin recorded the LP Silver Bell with producer Daniel Lanois for A&M, which included her song “Top of the World,” the Dixie Chicks’ rendition of which won them a Grammy in 2005. Before the album was released, however, Universal Music Group (UMe) acquired A&M and the album was shelved until UMe released it in 2013, when it peaked at #5 in the Billboard Folk chart.
In 2002, when Griffin made her first of many future appearances in the UK, A&M released Griffin from her contract and she signed with Dave Matthews’ famously artist-friendly ATO Records, which in 2003 released her first live album, A Kiss in Time, which debuted at #21 in the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart. In 2004, after ATO released her fifth album, Impossible Dream, Griffin joined Emmylou Harris in the Sweet Harmony Traveling Revue, returning to Boston in May to headline at the Berklee Performance Center.
In 2007, after taking three years off from recording and debuting at the Newport Folk Festival in 2005, ATO released Griffin’s most commercially successful record to date, Children Running Through. Peaking at #34 in the Billboard 200, the album won her the Album of the Year and Artist of the Year awards from the Americana Music Association, and the single “Heavenly Day” reached #17 in the Billboard AAA chart. After playing across North America yet again, in early 2008 Griffin did her first two-week tour of Australia, where she developed an enormous following.
In 2008, the Artist’s Den label released Griffin’s first DVD, Patty Griffin: Live From the Artists Den, and she toured as a solo act through 2009 including one show at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston while recording with Mavis Staples and others. In 2010, Griffin collaborated with Nashville-based singer-songwriter Buddy Miller to record a 14-song collection of spiritually themed tracks in Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church and the resulting album, Downtown Church on Credential Records, soared to #1 in both the Billboard Christian and Folk charts and won a Grammy for Best Traditional Gospel Album.
In 2011, after singing on Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant’s 2010 release Band of Joy, Griffin toured with Plant as part of his band while the pair’s openly romantic relationship became tabloid gossip fodder across the US and the UK. After a solo tour in 2012 that included her second appearance at the Newport Folk Festival and a show at Club Passim in Cambridge, Griffin’s 2013 album American Kid, jointly released by Columbia and New West Records, reached #4 in the Billboard Folk chart, and the supporting US tour included gigs at the House of Blues in Boston and the Waterville Opera House in Maine.
In 2015, Griffin launched her own label, PGM and released the album Servant of Love, which sailed to #3 in the Billboard Folk chart. In 2019, Griffin’s second PGM release, a no-frills, mostly acoustic album called simply Patty Griffin, hit #5 in the Billboard Indie chart and featured Plant as a guest vocalist on two songs. She toured the US, UK and Europe again, including gigs at the Shubert Theatre in Boston and the State Theatre in Portland, Maine. In 2020, after Lo-Light Records released her third live album, Before Sunrise (Live 1992), Griffin did another two-week tour of Australia before touring North America through 2021 including a show at The Cabot in Beverly, Massachusetts.
Asked in 2020 about why poverty, gender equality and racism have been some of her most consistent lyrical themes, Griffin compared all three topics to her song “River” in that throughout human history they’ve never stopped flowing. “I do keep plugging away at those things: the poor, racism. I was surrounded by racism as a child and this issue is one that we as humans are up against,” she said. “And I think these things are all connected. The image of the female and how they’re degraded and have been for a long time, is part of climate change and wars.”
(by D.S. Monahan – July 2022)