For someone who let her Catholicism lapse during adulthood despite being raised in the faith as a child, it might seem strange for Patty Griffin to make her latest project an album of nearly all gospel songs. But that’s exactly what she did with Downtown Church, thanks to the suggestion of EMI executive Peter York and the help of good friend and session musician Buddy Miller. In fact, the only way Griffin deigned to go down this route was if Miller was involved. “[Buddy] is one of the best people that I’ve ever met — a lovely person and talented beyond where most people will ever get, and humble, so being around him is a joy,” said Griffin. “On top of all of that, he also has more knowledge of traditional American music of all kinds than anybody I know.”
Even though the red-haired singer-songwriter had some ideas about material she wanted to possibly include on what would become Downtown Church, Miller eagerly aided in Griffin’s continued education about the genre she was tentatively approaching. He suggested three hundred songs, which led to a technological meltdown. “I didn’t have any more room on my laptop’s memory, so it crashed,” she laughingly recalled.
Miller also set the tone for the project by securing recording space in Nashville’s historic Downtown Presbyterian Church, (a 161-year-old building once used as hospital space for injured Union soldiers) and assembling a backup band consisting of Griffin’s longtime musician friends. Having spent the past two decades crafting a career for herself as an award-winning artist whose songs have been covered by the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Bette Midler, and Linda Ronstadt, Griffin was able to recruit other famous names from her black book including Emmylou Harris and Raul Malo.
The results are an uplifting journey into the world of religious music that comes off as neither sanctimonious nor judgmental. There’s the crisp patter of the traditional “Move Up,” where the snappy cadences and generous reverb make it sound like a vintage Sun Records single. There’s also an ethereal walk through the gospel standard “Wade in the Water,” which reverberates with nourish guitar twang and Jordanaires-flavored harmonies. Elsewhere, the Dorothy Love Coates gem “The Strange Man” finds Griffin passionately testifying amid quite a bit of call-and-response and John Deaderick’s rich organ runs. Most impressive are two self-penned contributions — “Little Fire” and “Coming Home to Me” — both built around personal views of faith with the former being framed as a straightforward folk song and the latter buoyed by strings, piano, and Julie Miller’s vocal accompaniment.
The only odd duck in the bunch is a reading of the Lieber & Stoller nugget “I Smell a Rat.” The inspiration came from Miller’s decision to play Big Mama Thornton’s reading of it in the church as a means of inspiring the assembled musicians. It became such a part of the week-long recording session that the decision was made to commit it to tape, much to the delight of the rhythm section. Smiling back on the notion to plug something so secular into these sacred proceedings, Griffin said, “If you really try to tie it in thematically, it’s like tipping your hat to skepticism. And it’s real life if your boyfriend or husband is a drunken bum. It’s life and I feel like [the song] fits in surprisingly well.”
As for Griffin’s love affair with gospel music, it all began with the Staple Singers, the royal family of crossover religious music who the Maine native was introduced to by friend and producer Craig Ross about eleven years ago. “I was visiting Craig in his studio here in Austin and he had some music playing when I walked in,” she recalled. “I loved it and when I asked him who it was, he said it was the Staple Singers from back in the 1950s when Mavis was a baby. He ended up giving me my first Staples Singers record. I ended up listening to them and it never got off my CD player for years and years. I found myself getting influenced by the music in the way I wrote and I also found that in times of trouble, you put on the Staple Singers and everything is going to be okay. That was the music for me for many years. I feel like they’re in the same world as the Beatles — a very strong presence in my life.”
Of course, the question that remains to be asked is if this self-professed “lapsed Catholic” ended up gleaning anything from this creative walk down such an overtly spiritual path.
“I think it did really get me over the hump of having prejudices against other people’s religious choices,” she admitted. “I left Catholicism and I have my reasons for that and I think I walked around with a protective shield over me. Anything that smelled like something [religious] I pooh-poohed. I don’t anymore. I think I have a more open mind about people’s choices and I grew up a little bit that way.”