By Eleni P. Austin

You know that expression, “You could sing a phone book and it would sound good”? As corny, and shopworn as it sounds, it’s a perfect description of the majesty and power of Patty Griffin. There’s an ache and a purity that characterizes her songs. There’s a catch in her voice that signifies heartbreak or happiness that always manages to blow me away, even when I halfway know it’s coming.

Patty grew up in Maine, the youngest of seven kids. Her world changed forever when her dad gave her a copy of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper record. Soon enough, she bought a $50 guitar and by the time She was 16, she was writing her own songs. An early marriage took her to Florida, but once it ended, she relocated to Boston, intent on becoming a a working musician.

She quickly made a name for herself in Boston’s thriving music scene. Patty recorded a demo and signed with A&M Records. Her music, a rich tapestry of Folk, Country and Rock was so fully developed, her songs so simple and eloquent, that the label only added a little piano and guitar, releasing her demo, almost as is. That debut, Living With Ghosts, released in 1996, signaled the arrival of a major talent. Critical acclaim was immediate.


Her sophomore effort, Flaming Red was a bit of a surprise. Veering from the blueprint of her debut, she folded trace elements of Trip-Hop into the mix. A&M rejected her next offering, Silver Bell, so Patty sought refuge at Dave Matthews’ artist-friendly Boutique label, ATO. It was there that she reconfigured some Silver Bell songs and added new ones, creating her watershed album, 2002’s 1000 Kisses.

Throughout the next decade, Patty burnished her reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. The (Dixie) Chicks, then at the height of their popularity, turned several of her songs into massive hits. Her songs have been recorded by everyone from Linda Ronstadt, Jessica Simpson and Solomon Burke to Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Kelly Clarkson and Bette Midler. Continuing on her own solo path, she released stellar records like A Kiss In Time, Impossible Dream, Children Running Through and an album of Gospel songs entitled Downtown Church.

In 2010 along with Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott, Marco Giovino and Byron House, she was recruited by leonine ex-Led Zeppelin front-man Robert Plant, for his latest project, Band Of Joy. Having just come off Raising Sand, his triumphant collaboration with Alison Krauss (which netted six Grammy wins), he was looking to conquer new territory. Their self-titled debut was a huge success, debuting at #5 on the American charts and #3 in the U.K.

The chemistry between Patty and the Golden God Of Rock first sparked onstage, and continued in real life as well. The pair set up housekeeping in Austin, Texas. Robert shared a couple of duets on Patty’s sublime seventh album, American Kid, which arrived in 2013. Sadly, their union didn’t last, Robert blamed it on his “Black Country moods.” Ironically, that same year, A&M Records finally saw fit to release Silver Bell, the album they’d rejected 13 years earlier.

By late 2015, she returned with another excellent album, Servant Of Love, this one was released through her own imprint, PGM Records. A trenchant collection of songs, it dealt with the fall-out from her break-up and included some rather pointed social commentary. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. Nearly four years elapsed between Servant…. and her self-titled album. Upon its release, Patty candidly revealed she had spent two years battling breast cancer. During treatment, she lost her voice and feared she would never sing again. But she persevered and managed to create her most intimate record to date. This time out, she won the Best Folk Album at the 62nd Grammy Awards ceremony During the pandemic, she began digging through her archives and found some long-forgotten songs that had been sidelined or put on the backburner. “Of course,” she said, “some of it was pretty boring, but I dug around some more.” She discovered some demos recorded at home as well as a few “from an in-studio demo session in Nashville that were pretty interesting. It all seemed worth listening to. Back then I didn’t think so, but I do now.” Consequently, she has cobbled together “TAPE: Home Recordings & Rarities”, a 10-song set that is being released to coincide as Patty has hit the road, opening for The Chicks. The record kicks into gear with the first single, “Get Lucky.” It’s a pretty intimate affair, just some Bluesy guitar chords, a taut rhythm, achieved by slapping the body of the guitar, and Patty’s mesmerizing voice. She starts out discouraged; “Somedays you hear the music and the song, some days you feel abused, and maybe you were wrong about everything, wrong about everything.” But by the final verse she acknowledges that life is shaped by chance and circumstance; “We can talk about the things no one really knows, or go out and sit on the front steps and let it all go, one more time, one more day, maybe we’ll get lucky along the way, maybe we’ll get lucky along the way.”

There’s a yin and yang energy at work on both “Strip Of Light” and “One Day We Could.” The former is a bit of a bitter kiss-off, a distaff variation on the He-Man Woman-Hater’s invective Bob Dylan perfected back in the mid ‘60s. Chiming acoustic notes accelerate to rapid-fire riff-age around Patty’s blunt but beatific vocals. She’s done with mansplaining, so she fires off a series of deadly bon mots that detonate like colloquial smart bombs; “So don’t talk to me like I don’t even know my mind, or what it is that I’m speaking of, well, you’re right, I may be getting past my prime, but I still never want any of your love, we can talk day and night, about who is wrong and who is right, but the problem is that baby, you’re a bore.”

The latter offers a vivid character sketch powered by eloquent see-saw guitars. Patty’s trilling voice dances across a dense narrative about a couple of strivers pinning their hopes to a roll of the dice; “Me and Jose, we got $300. between us, whatever we make, he says, we’ll put away, one day we could, you never know.” She doesn’t quite buy it, but what can she do; “I love him so much, it hurts me inside, Jose with the faraway look in his eyes, and trouble so deep, you’ll never get in, I put my head on his shoulder and hold him so tight, one day we could, you never know.” Bashing away on her guitar she lets the sweet arpeggios reverb and ring.

The very word “demo” (the abbreviation of “demonstration” as in “a record {a song or a piece of music} to demonstrate the music capabilities of a musical group or performer or as preparation for a full recording”), implies these songs might sound primitive or unfinished. But that’s definitely not the case, don’t forget, Patty’s debut, Living With Ghosts was essentially her original demo tape, slightly gussied up.

Consequently, the best songs here arrive fully formed. Take “Kiss Of A Man,” which opens tentatively with fluttery acoustic guitar and her plaintive voice. Lyrics paint a sepia-tinged portrait of a young, Depression-era girl growing up behind her parents’ bar, reacting to unwanted attention from the men in the community; “Sometimes they’d say hey, pretty girl what’s your name? Why don’t you come here and be pretty for us/Then my daddy would make like he’d reach for his gun and those boys would shake, or hush up and run.” But biology doesn’t lie; “Now, some of those boys, I noticed them too….sometimes at under the sheets, I’d cover myself from my head to my feet, and wait till my mama and daddy went to sleep, and though I was awake, dream a dream so sweet, dream a dream so sweet, all of me ached, close my eyes and pretend on the back of my hand, what it would be like, the kiss of a man.” It’s a tender evocation of adolescent dreams.

“Little Yellow House,” is a loping Folk/Blues charmer, one of two songs recorded in a Nashville studio with a five-piece band. The melody shares some musically DNA with a Bob Dylan deep cut, “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” Warm acoustic notes lattice atop burnished electric riffs, feathery pedal steel, flinty bass lines, Country-comfort tack piano are tethered to a galumphing beat. Patty effortlessly slips into the skin of an unfulfilled woman whose observance of an abandoned yellow house, triggers some deep-seated wanderlust; “Sometimes I dream that I’m the one who was driving away and I don’t know where I’m going/But it’s a long ways away, going down some country road, with the hay growing tall and the beautiful trees in all the colors of the fall, all that I need is right with me here, and I drive and I drive until I disappear.” A moment of clarity precedes the acapella coda; “Then I remember all those promises I made, all the ones depending on me, and so here is where I stay.”

Meanwhile, “Sundown” is as spare and stripped-down As “….Yellow House” is ornate. This poignant Torch song is anchored by doleful piano and Patty’s melancholy vocals. Plainspoken lyrics, weighted down with emotion, are suffused with sadness; “I guess I’ve stopped searching for you in the dark, oh, my old friend, this is what they call the end, this is where the rainbow bends across the sky.” Her melismatic croon stretches across the word “where,” and it’s clear that she is addressing a long-gone, dearly-departed friend. The ache and loneliness is palpable, echoing Rickie Lee Jones’ classic song of solitude, “Company.”

Finally, and more happily, the album’s centerpiece, is “Don’t Mind,” a rollicking duet with Robert Plant, cut, not to long after the pair first met. With a swingin’ four-piece behind them, the song kicks into gear with stinging electric riffs, flirty acoustic licks, molasses-thick organ, brisk bass lines and a snappy, shuffle-rhythm. Patty’s up first, as they trade verses, her mien is coquettish and come-hither as she throws down the gauntlet; “Your lips say ‘who’s gonna kiss me,’ your eyes say ‘look my way,’ I don’t mind if I do.” Robert parries and immediately ups the ante. By the chorus, the romantic frisson simply leaps off the grooves; “The world is so full of near misses, and not nearly enough of our kisses, all day long, I’ve been beating the drum, stop over baby, get next to me some, I don’t mind if I do.” Prickly electric guitars ripple with promise threading through hip-swiveling Hammond B3 runs. On the final verse, the flirty banter, tips over into some carnal call-and-response; “I wanna be the one patrolling your border, I wanna be the next one taking your order, I wanna be the one next to you in the corner, I don’t mind if I do.”

Other interesting tracks include the ticklish instrumental, “Octaves” and the delicate insomnia of “Night.” The record closes with “Forever Shall Be.” Something of an aching cri de couer, the instrumentation is a few bare-bones piano chords. Patty’s piquant phrasing is front and center, thick with emotion, ripe with regret, tenderly holding it all together. “Oh your eyes were like the deepest sea, so clear and beautiful to me, as it was and forever shall be.” A keen and mournful end to a great album.

Most of the tracks here feature just Patty, accompanying herself on piano or guitar. For the full-throttle band cuts, she is joined by Doug Lancio on guitar, John Deaderick on piano and Hammond B3, Frank Swart on bass, Marco Giovino on drums and Russ Pahl on pedal steel.

Although there’s a homemade, odds n’ sods feel to “Tape,” the 10 songs flow together like a coherent narrative. Nakedly vulnerable one minute, jubilant and frisky the next, these songs let it all hang out. The result is cutting and sublime. It’s always a pleasure to be in Patty’s company.