Patty Griffin’s musical career has been a slow and steady climb. Now widely acclaimed as a songwriter, she’s risen from humble beginnings as a singing waitress to win the Americana Music Association’s Album of the Year award for her 2007 release, Children Running Through. That year she also won Artist of the Year. Downtown Church, her 2010 collection of gospel and spirituals, garnered a Grammy (Best Traditional Gospel Album), and she subsequently joined Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy. There’s absolutely no question she deserves every accolade. American Kid is an out-and-out masterpiece, a masterful work of mature insight and exquisite songcraft.
It’s not a “concept album,” but there’s an underlying, constant theme throughout. The songs were all inspired by the impending death of Griffin’s father, but as with most of her compositions, the personal becomes the universal, and every detail resonates with quietly breathtaking (and often heartbreaking) truths.
They’re deceptively simple songs, tinged with a sepia sadness. The disc is bookended by “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” Griffin’s heartfelt way of saying goodbye, and the ethereally lovely “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” an equally affecting way of holding on to memory and love. Both “Ohio” and “The Highway Song” (the latter a co-write with Plant, one of two tunes he sings on) are moody ruminations on time and the ties that endure.
Few songwriters can inhabit a character as well as Griffin. “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida,” “Faithful Son,” and “Not a Bad Man” are all pitch-perfect evocations of the hopes and fears of a young man seeking his place in the world, as are the one-two punch of the poignantly proud “Irish Boy” and the utterly irresistible “Get Ready Marie,” the latter complete with drunken choir. The collection’s only cover is an achingly wistful take on Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom & Dad’s Waltz.”
Producer Craig Ross wields a deft touch, with the sound primarily acoustic but enhanced here and there with atmospheric touches that keep things from being too dry and dusty. Ross also contributes guitar, baritone guitar, bass, piano, organ, and omnichord. Also on hand are Cody and Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), with additional guitar and mandolin courtesy of Doug Lancio and exquisite bowed bass from Byron House on a pair of tunes.
In the end, though, it all comes down to the songs, and Griffin is an absolutely first-rate writer. Every line seems to shimmer with something larger, with meaning beyond mere words—the truths of the heart, of family and love, and a deep and desperate longing to remember and be remembered. Wonderful stuff!