Patty Griffin experiences love and loss on her new album, American Kid.
Last december, a small club in Austin, Texas, hosted a show billed mysteriously as “Patty Griffin and Her Driver.” A few songs into the folk singer’s set, she was joined onstage by a man in a chauffeur’s cap: Robert Plant. Griffin has been a member of Plant’s band since 2010. They’re now a couple. “I followed him on the road for 18 months,” Griffin told the audience. “After it all, he said he’d be my driver.”
Griffin, however, is firmly behind the wheel for her new record, American Kid (New West Records, $16), though Plant rides along in the passenger seat for two duets. But most of the album — her seventh since her 1996 debut Living with Ghosts — is a solo journey through loss. “A lot of this record is inspired by me preparing to let my father go,” says Griffin, whose father has since passed away.
The 49-year-old singer-songwriter crafts her works like a master carpenter. American Kid’s unplugged guitars, mandolins and bowed bass slot together in a tongue-and-groove parquet of acoustic textures. But the songs aren’t varnished. On “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” Griffin sings a tribute to her father clearly from the heart. “That was my way of telling him, ‘I, for one, think you’re wonderful,’ ” she says.
The lead single, “Ohio,” is a poem about slavery inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. It was arranged by Plant, who also sings on it. Griffin’s profile certainly has been raised by her collaborations with the singer, whom she describes as “genuinely joyful and in love with music — a lot of people you meet don’t have that shine.” But Griffin’s reputation has been on the upswing for a while; her previous two albums charted in the Top 40, and her songs have been covered by the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Miranda Lambert and Kelly Clarkson.
“I always feel like I start from scratch with every single record,” Griffin laughs. “I did a small tour in the fall. If that was any indication, things have been building steadily.”
Griffin is planning more live dates with a band (and — who knows? — perhaps a famous driver, too). But her ambitions for American Kid are quite modest: “I hope that it falls into the hands of people who will be moved by it.”