Patty Griffin in Athens, Georgia...and Barack Obama in Boca Raton

Early in her solo set at the Melting Point in Athens, GA, Patty Griffin is belting a new song from a yet-to-be-released album (American Kid, due 2013), when she totally misses her note. It’s not just one word, either, but an entire phrase. She just completely misses it – opens her mouth, aims at the sound, and falls about a full half-step short of what she was going for. I can tell because her face flinches the way you do when you expect to take a sip of soda and it turns out the cup is full of milk. Besides, Patty Griffin is not one of those gals who inexplicably aims for a minor note in the middle of a major key. She is not a jazz singer. So far.

The mistake doesn't slow her down, though. The three or four words which slipped out that way fall behind, and she persists through a song which is emotional and honest. It’s called “Faithful Son” and it presents a moment wherein I’m reminded the world won’t end after the election. When all else fails, we’ll have a new album full of Patty Griffin songs to dive into next year. Songs about love and hope and transcendence and beauty, despite whatever dark and bleak crapstorm might befall us in the wake of this seemingly polarizing political shit-flinging we call an election season.

I’m reminded in that moment of an evening I spent alone in my old apartment back in Seattle, two weeks before the election of 2008. I was listening to Patty sing “Up to the Mountain” – a song I’d heard a million times before. Children Running Through was sort of a beacon for me during a time when I was wading through some rough waters – overcoming the trauma of 9/11, a breakup, a career shift.

“Stay on the ride,” Patty was singing right at me through my laptop speakers. “It’s gonna take you somewhere.”

But, I don’t know how I’d glossed over “Up to the Mountain” so many times. This particular night, I was feeling it. I listened to it a few times before deciding to look up Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech – the last one he ever gave, the one about which Griffin wrote that song. I sat there in my apartment and just cried that night, reading the speech, listening to the song, thinking about the Bush years and 9/11 and everything I was going through, and what it would mean for every American minority – the black community specifically, but really everyone – if Barack Obama managed to win that election.

I hadn’t been in a trusting mood when Obama showed up on the scene, certainly not for any politician. That he was asking for trust, for us to join him in a long crawl out of a reckless ocean, seemed so presumptuous to me. But by the time I was there on the floor of my living room, having my little moment with that Patty Griffin song, I had long since come to the conclusion that the previous decade had brought us some darkness. And, despite its deep and engrossing nature, all it takes to break the vast and seemingly ever-reaching darkness is a single struck match. And that’s hope. And that’s no small thing. That’s what Obama  was talking about, so I joined hands with that movement.

But I came even further to understand in that moment that Barack Obama was a single link in a very long chain – a chain which had begun long before he arrived, and which included Martin Luther King and Patty Griffin and Barack Obama and millions of other people whose names would never be known beyond their families, and me.  I started thinking about another speech Martin Luther King made, about how there would be small missteps and mistakes and places where the movement would be pushed back, but in the end, “We shall overcome.” (Of course, I had no idea yet that I would write a book about the woman who helped bring that song so far into the world that Dr. King - and President Johnson - would quote it.)

Now in 2012, four years later almost to the day, President Obama is meeting with CBS’s  Bob Scheiffer and his opponent Mitt Romney for their third and final debate, and I’m watching Patty Griffin move through a set of new and old songs. “Up to the Mountain” isn’t in her set list tonight, but it doesn’t need to be. The song is still important, provocative, and arresting – absolutely – but we’ve walked out of the depths into the shallow end these last few years. We’re not out of the water yet, but we’re heading that way.

She’s nearing the end of her set when she lights into “No Bad News” – a song about the lying jerk who done you wrong, presumably. But there seems to be a certain underlying spirit to the tune this night, in the middle of this election which has been so marred by negative ads and things like t-shirts that say “Put the white back in the White House.” We’re all sick of bad news, particularly this crowd of likeminded individuals in a state and a region presumed to be full of closed-minded bigots (it’s not – they’re just louder than the rest of us).

We won’t be afraid, we won’t be afraid
And though the darkness may come our way, we won’t be afraid to be alive anymore
And we’ll grow kindness in our hearts for all the strangers among us
Til there are no strangers anymore

She sings these lines and pauses for a solo on her chunky guitar. On the recording, there are horns here, other instruments, drums and whatnot, but tonight it’s just Griffin and her energy moving through the “solo”, and the energy in the room. The crowd is cranked up from this last verse and swells underneath her, carrying the song through to the end before erupting in screams and applause.

“I feel like a Beatle up here,” she says.  

She comes back for an encore and sings "Heavenly Day" and "I'm Gonna Miss You When You're Gone". She thanks the crowd for skipping the debate in order to see her return to performing solo. It's one of the best shows I've seen all year, and it's a shame this tour will be so short for her.

Sure, she flubbed that line on “Faithful Son” then struggled to tune her guitar later in the set, but who cares. 

“I listen to my old recordings sometimes,” she told the crowd, trying to tune her guitar, “and not everything is in tune, and I think – yes! It’s still beautiful! Not everything has to be in tune all the time.”

She's absolutely right. Allowing room for humanity to happen - to recognize that nobody's perfect, that imperfection is important sometimes - it reminds us to be forgiving and have some mercy on ourselves, mercy on each other. Music is there to remind us that even when a note is flat, the melody always moves forward.

Views: 2563

Comment by Clarence Boshamer on October 26, 2012 at 5:51am

What a way to start my morning.  Yet again your writing has blown me away and brought up so many thoughts and feelings.  I know I will carry this with me throughout the day.  Thank you.

Comment by Maryellen Collins on October 26, 2012 at 5:58am

Great posting Kim.  I adore Patti Griffin and just wish she were in the NY area more often.  Happy Friday!

Comment by Steve Rauworth on October 26, 2012 at 6:08am

Ah, but the world will end after the election. Not RIGHT after maybe, but we can all see it coming, with one candidate fanning the flames and the other fiddling while Rome... well, you know. But yes, we have Patty in the meantime, and what could be better?

Comment by Gretchen Peters on October 26, 2012 at 6:32am

Beautiful piece, Kim.

Comment by captroy on October 26, 2012 at 6:46am

Kim, Thank you for such inspiration this morning.  No, one is not always in tune. The flow moves forward though and the spirit of the music carries us ever upward and forward. Your lyrical piece is sweet music.

Comment by Don Freeman on October 26, 2012 at 7:21am

Wow! That was certainly more inspiring and confidence building than the debate. Thanks.  

Comment by Kim Ruehl on October 26, 2012 at 8:34am

@Ron - this was a personal story about my experience at a concert, and how it connected to things I think about even when I'm not listening to music. No Depression is a two-person company (me and a publisher) and, as an organization, is made up of music fans from around the world who voluntarily post on this site with all their myriad points of view and opinions. The publisher neither tells me what I can write nor what opinion I can have, and I don't ask any of the voluntary contributors to believe any specific thing or share any specific opinion. Music doesn't exist in a vacuum, and neither does my opinion of it. Patty talked about the election, people in the audience talked about the election, I talk about the election in my life, and I see no harm in talking about the way this person's music has moved me when I have struggled with ideas and experience - both personal and political. This isn't campaign rhetoric - far from it. If you're only interested in reading about music as if it is separate from everything else in the world, this might not be the best music site for you. Or, at the very least, I might not be the best writer for you to read. 

Comment by Rand Torman on October 26, 2012 at 9:50am

Kim, I am totally apolitical, and I thought this was a well written article, evoking your own thoughts and memories as they relate to a particular artist you so enjoy. I personally saw this as an article about all the bull crap political mudslinging, not an endorsement or a political piece. We all know politicians twist the statistics to show their own side as being "the truth". All lifelong politicians are the same, they just belong to different parties and have differing philosophies, but the common thread that runs through all of this is they all lie to benefit themselves, not 'we the people'.  Your response was astute, concise and directly to the point. Keep on keepin' on.

Comment by Dan Hunsinger on October 26, 2012 at 9:59am

@Ron -  Hardly biased analysis!  Kim, I appreciated the posting.   As a fellow southerner (Athens born and bred), I tend to be discouraged by the actions of others that get us all labeled as backward and bigoted.   I only wish I could be in Athens more often to see the likes of Patti Griffin, who lift us up with their song and spirit.   Beauty doesnt require perfection, and truth will overcome the occasional lapse by singer or politician alike.

Comment by Phillip Kushner on October 26, 2012 at 10:04am
I would normally be inclined to donate to a music site such as this. And I LOVE P. G's music.

I just joined with NO donation to demonstrate my disgust regarding the political crap here. I am especially offended you would throw in your inane political POV and state that if I don't like it than this site isn't for me. Up with Americana music, down with shrill, uneducated political POVs.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.