Sad songs say so much

“You know you’re coming to some kind of understanding/
When every dream you’ve dreamed has passed and you’re still standing”

— Patty Griffin, “Poor Man’s House,” Living With Ghosts

Patty Griffin

Outsider artist: Patty Griffin.

If you want living proof of the ameliorating effects of sad music, you need seek no further than Patty Griffin. Offered up in a bluesy alto marinated in wistful longing, Griffin’s material is peopled with ordinary characters battling ordinary issues in the extraordinary settings of her songs. Whether they emerge successful or not is almost beside the point; in the musical crucible, they are changed. And that goes for Griffin, too.

“It makes me feel better to sing a song,” Griffin told NPR in 2004 upon the release of her last record, Impossible Dream. “Especially if it’s a sad song. … It’s a huge part of loss and change and all of the tough stuff that’s a huge part of our existence, and it feels good to sing about it.”

From her decade-old debut of demos — Living With Ghosts — through the politically weighted Impossible Dream, Griffin’s work has been praised both for its lyricism and unflinching honesty. She’s twice been nominated for a Grammy (for Impossible Dream and 2003’s 1,000 Kisses), and had her songs recorded by Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Dixie Chicks and Bette Midler, among many. Her songs’ appeal often comes from the down-to-earth characters she sings about, or whose voices she seamlessly makes her own.

“I have been lucky enough to have lived a bit and met people from all walks of life,” Griffin writes during a brief e-mail exchange.

The last of seven children, Griffin was born in 1964 in a small town in Maine’s hinterlands, near the Great North Woods. Influenced by her parents’ amateur singing (they sing a brief fragment of the standard “The Impossible Dream” on that record), she purchased her first guitar at age 16 and began writing songs shortly after. Music was initially a hobby, however, and Griffin worked a series of service-industry jobs, including waiting tables and answering phones. She was eventually encouraged to play live, and though hardly famous, made a name for herself on the Boston/Cambridge music scene. She recorded an over-produced version of her debut at Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, but it was instead her demo tape that A&M decided to release — to almost universal acclaim — in 1996.

Griffin followed with a solo tour and then moved to Nashville in 1997 to record Flaming Red, released in 1998. By then, she was receiving praise throughout the Americana world, and wound up as the opening act for such notables as Harris and Lucinda Williams. Griffin turned in her follow-up, Silver Bell, to A&M in 2000, but the label sat on the record for months waiting for her to rewrite some of the material, something she found she couldn’t and didn’t want to do. Eventually they split ways, and A&M dropped Silver Bell.

“If someone wants Silver Bell, they should get some computer-savvy teenager to help them track it down online for free,” she writes.

Griffin then took up Doug Lancio’s offer: to record, in the studio basement of his Nashville home, an acoustic-based album more in the manner of her debut. The result was 1,000 Kisses, which featured Griffin’s clarion voice in a sparser setting and included covers of Bruce Springsteen (“Stolen Car”), Lonnie Johnson (“Tomorrow Night”) and Emma Elena Valdelamar’s Tejano standard “Mil Besos” (the Spanish version of a title cut).

“I think I’ve always been a little bit of an outsider from everything, which makes it easier for me to appreciate a lot of different things,” Griffin writes. “Anything that has soul is all right with me.”

The singer had proven that her voice was equally impressive in rich arrangements or the trellis-work of guitar-and-voice-only compositions, and Impossible Dream seemed a pitch-perfect distillation of both settings. Produced by fellow Austinite Craig Ross, the record featured guest slots from Harris, Lisa Germano, Buddy and Julie Miller, and J.D. Foster, and explored rich, gospel-tinged cuts (“Love Throw a Line,” “Standing”) and stark, piano-driven narratives (“Kite Song,” “Mother of God”) with equal aplomb. Impossible Dream was at once more personal and more political than Griffin’s previous work (“I feel a fear everywhere,” Griffin sings on “Standing”), but throughout the varied sounds and themes her voice remained center stage, an instrument capable of hushed delicacy and profound authority.

It’s a gift she doesn’t take for granted.

“Being a singer can be a little bit boring and athletic,” she writes. “I can’t go follow the guitar players around till the wee hours of the morning drinking and carousing. Sleep and all the good stuff are helpful.”

[John Schacht is a freelance music writer whose work includes the April cover story for Harp.]

Patty Griffin and Doug Lancio play the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Wednesday, April 19, with Michael Fracasso. 8:30 p.m. $22.50. 225-5851.

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