OK, Sylvia, time to get your head out of the oven." B-Sides' dad, as we drove through New Jersey listening to Patty Griffin's fourth studio album, Impossible Dream.
Sure, Patty Griffin's fan-favorite song, "Cold As It Gets," is a homage to Holocaust victims. And true, she loaned her music to the soundtrack of Niagara, Niagara, a movie where a young woman with Tourette's syndrome is shot in the head. And OK, of all the Bruce Springsteen songs to cover, she chose the divorce chronicle "Stolen Car."
So maybe Patty Griffin's music isn't exactly the best way to get the party started. But her delicately morose alt-folk is the musical equivalent of running fingers over flames it hurts, it hurts, but oh, that exquisite pain. The sparseness of her music allows every trickled note to shiver with tortuous ecstasy, as close as musically possible to a literal heartrending. All the more compelling is her voice, which is perpetually on the cusp of a world-weary cry. It's so doleful that she doesn't deserve a Grammy; she deserves an Oscar. In fact, although B-Sides isn't usually prone to quoting Dave Matthews, he was on point when he praised Griffin in a Boston Globe article by saying, "I can't think of a more beautiful singer and a better songwriter alive today."
Yet for all of her musical emotional honesty, Griffin calling via phone from her tour bus is surprisingly reserved. And introspection guides her Southern-tinged syntax. "I do bring a few elements of my own experiences into things," she says. "But for the most part, I piece outside things together feeling things, seeing things, living life."
Despite possessing a body of work that expertly lends itself to commiseration with homesickness and crippling estrangement, Patty Griffin is feeling optimistic. Of her fifth studio effort, Children Running Through, she says, "I was looking for things that connected to the audience a little more closely not just sad songs. But I am a Pisces," she giggles.
Though Children has a few songs reminiscent of her past repertoire, overall it's a deviation from her norm. The album is atypically upbeat and layered with instruments, allowing Griffin to vocally leapfrog and sound younger than ever. (Only with an artist as mature as Griffin does nodding to youth signal growth.) She cites her latest influences as "a lot of Sigur Rós, a lot of Cuban music it has a strong emotional pull for me. I also listened to Marvin Gaye, which isn't new, but...." She pauses, as if debating whether to continue, and then says with a cryptic laugh, "Yeah....I got influences."
But perhaps more important is her influence on others. Though Patty Griffin isn't necessarily a household name, many of her masterpieces are. The Dixie Chicks' "Top of the World" and "Let Him Fly" are both Griffin covers, as are Bette Midler's "Moses" and Emmylou Harris' "One Big Love." When asked if it's difficult to be a seemingly silent partner in hit-making, she is characteristically modest.
"As I get older," she says, "getting credit gets a lot less important to me. There's a lot of amazing musicians out there that no one knows about. I walk into a Baptist church in Memphis and there are these amazing singers, amazing songwriters, and no one knows their names. There are more people out there not getting credit than those that do."
That's not to say Griffin is unknown. Her fan base is fiercely loyal and helped Children Running Through debut at No. 34 on the Billboard charts. But as much as she cherishes her public, she knows her formula and she's stickin' to it. "I won't let what the audience thinks they want direct me. I have to trust my own instincts, always. Hey, that's what got me where I am." And though she speaks humbly of her success ("I have nothing to complain about. I make a good living."), her success-o-meter gauges her audience's response.
"I see them smiling and dancing and, well," she laughs, "you really can't ask for more than that, can you?" Kristyn Pomranz
8 p.m. Friday, March 30. Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $22.50. 314-726-6161.
Charlie Louvin lost his singing partner and brother, Ira, in 1965. His post-Louvin Brothers career has never been the same, but he hasn't faded away. Lambchop's Mark Nevers produced Louvin's new, self-titled release on the New York label Tompkins Square and seeing as it's jammed with guests such as George Jones, Will Oldham, Tift Merritt, Elvis Costello and Jeff Tweedy, the 79-year-old is clearly making a run for college-radio listeners, young rock fans who know the Louvin Brothers, but may not know Country Soul Brother No. 1. Now's their chance.
B-sides: You'll be eighty years old this July. I guess you're not ready for retirement?
Charlie Louvin: I'll retire when I can't sing on key. I hope that's not soon!
Did you know who or what Lambchop was before this album?
No sir. I'd never met Mark Nevers until Josh Rosenthal [of Tompkins Square] introduced us. I knew the boy from Wilco, and I knew Uncle Tupelo, because they recorded "The Great Atomic Power." I was very familiar with Elvis Costello; he's an avid Louvin Brother fan, and I hope I made him a Charlie Louvin fan before this is over.
Were you surprised by what Mark wanted to do in the studio?
Actually, Roy, I went in and did my parts. I was responsible for getting the Possum in there, and Tom T. Hall and Bobby Bare. I assume they were going fishing afterward. But I live 75 miles outside of Nashville, so I suppose I wouldn't have had time to be there for all of it. Eventually I'll get to meet everyone, I hope.
Sometimes when country stars invite in a lot of guests, the result can be a disaster. Were you worried about that?
I don't suppose Mark chose anybody that at least wasn't a Louvin Brothers fan. Nobody had to twist their arm. There were no twelve-page contracts, nothing about points on royalties.
With these songs, you pay some debts to your own influences: Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers.
Absolutely. We were huge fans of the Carters and the Delmore Brothers. I've said it before, but the Delmores were the hottest duet to ever perform on the Grand Ol' Opry. But they were lucky that they performed in the '30s, when there wasn't nothing but radio. Now there's so much media, and so competitive, more so than it was when my brother and I got into it.
You've been singing without your brother Ira for four decades now.
41 years to be exact.
On that beautiful song you wrote, "Ira," you say that you still hear him singing.
It's scary. Somewhere down the road, someone will invent something that you can hook to your head, and whatever you hear, it will be recorded on the tape you're singing on. I suppose the Japanese will invent that. They invented the harmony singer machine. A lot of people, you just mash a button, but whatever part you want, tenor, baritone or bass, that machine can do it. I know Ray Price uses one. It's a different world out there.
Three years ago, I went on a tour with Cake, Cheap Trick and the Detroit Cobras. Ain't nobody louder than Cheap Trick. Before the tour was half over, I was on the stage singing "I'm a California Man" with Cheap Trick! Roy Kasten
Performing at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 1. Vintage Vinyl, 6610 Delmar Boulevard, University City. Free. 314-721-4096.