Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 16 March 1964, Old Town ME) Country singer-songwriter, guitarist, pianist. She was the youngest of seven children, attending high school in the Maine mill town where her father taught physics; her mother looked after her family in a house that was too small: the vegetable garden was a necessity and the days were filled with housework. But her mother sang as she worked, hymns, Patsy Cline, 'Ol' Man River', 'Man of La Mancha', made-up songs. Griffin understood from early childhood how important music was, but the family didn't know anybody who's ever made a living at it. She didn't own a guitar until she was 16, didn't learn how to play it for years, and the piano didn't come along until after she'd made two albums.

She escaped the Maine weather in 1984, fleeing to Florida, where she waited on tables (the memory of the hairnet still rankles), then to Cambridge, Massachusetts where she worked in a pizza restaurant until the mid-1990s, when a guitar teacher cajoled her onstage. But on the dreary jobs, the last as a switchboard operator at Harvard, she met women who talked of hard lives, and the poems Griffin had started writing in high school and the music she played in her head were coming together: 'I was getting glimpses of what it felt like to write something I wanted to sing.'

Griffin got a record contract based on a self-made demo that was intended only for getting little gigs in Cambridge. In a New Orleans recording studio, Emmylou Harris eavesdropped as she finished 'Wrecking Ball'. Ten songs turned into an over-produced CD that everybody hated, so instead, using intelligence rare in the record industry, they issued the demos, as Living With Ghosts on A&M in 1996. Harris hired Griffin for backup harmony, and introduced others to her music. Griffin spent a miserable year in Nashville making an album that never got released, but it included several songs that became title tracks for the Dixie Chicks. Radio play time and residuals from Chicks album sales brought in welcome income.

Longtime Griffin fans know that the Dixie Chicks rode to gold and glory singing songs that Griffin wrote: 'Top of the World,' 'Truth No. 2' and 'Let Him Fly.'  They know that Bette Midler's pounding version of 'Moses' is borrowed and that any Emmylou Harris CD is likely to include one of Griffin's songs. But more and more have learned that they prefer their Griffin straight. They want her voice, sometimes regretful, sometimes rollicking, accompanied by a tentative piano or an acoustic guitar that she mastered only 10 years ago, one chord a week, while slinging pizza in Harvard Square.

Flaming Red in 1998, still on A&M, was probably over-produced, with a rockier feel, though the songs were still strong. Then she was taken on by ATO Records ('According To Our Records'), a label started by Dave Matthews and others to feature talented new songwriters, and to treat them properly. 1000 Kisses in 2002 was a return to form, and nominated for a Grammy. A Kiss In Time (2003) was made live at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and accompanied by a bonus DVD on videos and backstage scenes. A new studio CD, Impossible Dream, in 2004, seemed to be doubling the sale of 1000 Kisses. A solo tour in the spring of 2004 filled auditoriums from Town Hall in Manhattan to the Fillmore in San Francisco; and in August she was scheduled to appear in Central Park, midway through a national tour, along with Harris, Gillian Welch and others, who alternated sets, swapped instruments and sang backup for one another.
Griffin went home to Maine while recording Impossible Dream, and recorded her parents, now in their 70s, at the kitchen table, singing several bars of 'The Impossible Dream'. Their voices, private as a lullaby, are at the midpoint of one of the tracks on the CD. 'I understood when I was really little, making up songs with my mother and hearing her voice in the house, that music was wonderful and singing was something I loved more than anything else,' said Griffin. 'Sometimes [music] comes right out of your chest and reminds you that you're in there. you're not empty.'
Every song has a story, whether a season of unrelenting storms in her adopted hometown ('Rain') or the deathbed regrets of a relative ('Top of the World'), the bitter cold of a Maine winter, a brief marriage (leading to forgiveness), or the need to comfort a friend whose brother was going away to the war in Iraq. Sometimes a melody just pops into her head; sometimes a few bars feel like a bridge and she worries about the rest later. She never writes down the notes. 'If it wants to be around, it sticks with you pretty fast,' she said. She is more at ease on the guitar but alternates with the piano because it brings out different parts of her voice. 'I sit down to play and see what happens,' she said. 'Usually sounds come out and they make themselves into shapes. It's like finding the sculpture in the rocks.'

She had settled in Austin, Texas, buying a house in one of that town's delightfully funky neighbourhoods; a new album, Children Running Through (2007), was recorded in a small new studio in a house across the street. Also in 2007, Looking Back, Moving Forward was an EP with three songs, and Patty Griffin: Live From The Artists Den was a DVD. She could still walk around in Austin unrecognized, and was happy to be making a living, still a word-of-mouth sort of artist.