In one guise or another, Sid Griffin has been with us for decades. For many, he’s best known for his stints with the Lone Ryders and The Cole Porters. For others, his name is most familiar for his books on Bob Dylan and Gram Parsons and many an article on music in a host of periodicals. While Kentucky-born and bred, he’s been based in the U.K. for years, where he both hosts shows and performs on BBC radio.
It was in Europe where he produced his 2005 solo album, As Certain As Sunrise. For his first solo outing since then, Griffin took a different approach for The Trick Is to Breathe, coming September 16 on Prima Records. This time, he went to Nashville and the home studio of producer Thomm Jutz. For this album, recorded in four days, Griffin did not engineer, co-produce, or mix it. Instead, he relied on Jutz to hire Nashville players including Mark Fain (bass), Sierra Hull (mandolin), Paul Griffiths (drums), Jutz (guitar), Justin Moses (banjo, fiddle and dobro), and James T. Brown on backing vocals. Other than Jutz and Griffiths, none had met Griffin before the sessions began.
According to Griffin, he sent the musicians acoustic demo copies of the songs in advance and found out what they could offer after he flew into Nashville. On some tracks, Griffin only sang lead; on two he played mandolin, and on six he contributed guitar.
The result is a gentle, witty and almost casual program. Some of these songs have fun with the music business. “Ode to Bobbie Gentry” plays with the price of fame, and it helps if you know just who had the hit “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967 to catch all the references. “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show” imagines what The King told his mom in between his Sullivan TV debut and the party afterward. In “Punk Rock Club,” Griffin recites an unaccompanied poem asking why singers are so angry, why drummers hit the skins so hard, and why guitars have to be so distorted. What are such musicians missing in their lives to be so pissed off?
While “Blue Yodel No. 12 & 35” was intended to merge the styles of Bob Dylan and Jimmie Rodgers, it’s really “We’ve Run Out Of Road” where Dylan’s lyrical style is most emulated. Griffin also has fun with “Circle Bar” where he circles around the bar in question wondering about who’s inside.
Griffin’s light touch also touches on darker subjects, as in his exploration of the realm “Between The General & The Grave” and “Everywhere,” which tells stories of soldiers on the battlefield and how life versus country questions are asked by those about to die on both sides of the shooting. Then, he gives The Youngbloods’ 1967 “Get Together” an upbeat, bluegrass interpretation, does more of the same on the short instrumental “Front Porch Fandango,” and closes the set with “I’ll Forget You Very Well,” a jocular sing-along about, well, the title says it all.
The Trick Is to Breathe has strains of folk, country, and Americana throughout, but the main thing is the songs. While Griffin doesn’t have a voice to set the world on fire, he’s the natural deliverer of his stories, as his wry personality gets listeners to focus on the ironic lyrics and less so on the laid-back musical support. The singer ain’t angry, the drummer is very light, and the mandolins, banjos, and guitars add just enough flavor to make The Trick Is to Breathe appealing, even for those who dislike contemporary country. The trick is to listen, and more than once at that.
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