Patty Griffin – Gliding bird
It’s a mad mission
Under difficult conditions
Not everybody makes it
To the loving cup
It’s a mad mission
But I got the ambition
Mad, mad mission
Sign me up
— “Mad Mission”
On August 12, 2000, Patty Griffin stood in the wings of the cavernous Frank Erwin Center on the University of Texas campus and waited to step onstage. Although she had moved to the Texas capital two years earlier, after sojourns in Boston, Florida and Nashville, it didn’t feel much like home on this night. More like just another stop on the road.
But what a road.
The previous year, the Dixie Chicks had released Fly, their second album since the addition of singer Natalie Maines had catapulted them into multi-platinum territory. The album’s title derived from the closing track, a bittersweet farewell called “Let Him Fly”. A song penned by Patty Griffin.
The Chicks invited Griffin to open a host of dates on their tour, and their scorching ascent dragged the titian-haired, reserved, Maine-born singer-songwriter along like a kite tail tied to the space shuttle. Previously, her Austin fans had been more accustomed to seeing her in the cozy acoustic-music confines of the 150-seat Cactus Cafe. Oh, sure, she’d opened some local shows for the likes of Dwight Yoakam and Joan Armatrading, and she knew her way around a concert stage. But now she contemplated facing nearly 18,000 boisterous, pent-up Dixie Chicks fans, most of whom seemed to be willowy teenage girls in zebra-striped cowboy hats.
Anybody with a lick of sense could have been forgiven for thinking, Lord, I don’t want the ham OR the cheese. Just lemme out of the sandwich.
But Griffin, though diminutive in stature and slender as a coach whip, was made of sterner stuff. The voice was the tip-off: As soft and caressing as a lover’s kiss when applied to a ballad, it could also ring off the rafters with bluesy indignation or rock ‘n’ roll abandon. “Nervous” did not describe her frame of mind.
“It wasn’t even nerve-wracking,” she said much later. “It seems like you’re so far away from the audience, and that’s not my favorite way to play a show. It’s not,” she concluded, laughing, “my cup of tea.”
Maybe she was concentrating on her set list. Maybe she would rather have been back in the Cactus Cafe. Never mind…the lights went down. She heard her name. The crowd rumbled in the dark…
I hate to tell you baby, this is home
The wallpaper is a color called sea foam
— “Silver Bell”
Flash-forward three and a half years, to a morning about as far removed from August as Austin gets: a chilly gray latter-January day, its atonic light seemingly leaching all the color out of the surroundings.
There was damned little Sol filtering into El Sol y La Luna restaurant when Patty Griffin came striding through the door, but she lit up the place nonetheless. A pink sweater over black trousers, glittering dark eyes juxtaposed against an alabaster complexion, and her justly celebrated coif of red hair tied back into a neat ponytail made Griffin a one-woman riposte to the drab morning.
Griffin was temporarily in residence next door at the Austin Motel, a funky-chic holdover from the days when South Congress Avenue had served as the old San Antonio highway. Her house in the comfortable enclave of Hyde Park, just north of the University of Texas campus, was so ruinously transformed by repair work on the foundation that Griffin couldn’t even bring herself to refer to it as her residence; it was, for the time being, “that property that I own that I call my house,” she said with a laugh.
“It’s kind of like being on the vacation in my own town,” she continued, adding that she had just returned from another vacation of sorts. She and a photographer friend had recently journeyed out to White Sands National Monument in the New Mexico desert to photograph the cover art for Griffin’s forthcoming album, Impossible Dream. After the shoot, the pair decided to treat themselves to a New Age break at the ShaNah wellness spa outside of Santa Fe.
It didn’t take: “We’re not spa people,” Griffin surmised. One day of spiritual realignment, peerless natural beauty and wall-to-wall bliss was all they could suffer. The only sane response was…Road Trip! “We drove back to White Sands and took a left,” Griffin said. “We stopped off in Marfa. I fell in love with that area.”
That area — namely Marfa and the surrounding ranching communities of Alpine, Fort Davis and Marathon — is out in the far reaches of West Texas, in the Big Bend country. The cartographers and geologists call it the Trans-Pecos region. Spanish soldiers and the Comanches called it “despoblado” — the uninhabited land. Even native Texans’ jaws tend to drop when they cross into the region.
One can only imagine the first-time impact that mind-warping expanse of light and space and sky had on a woman raised in Old Town, Maine, a small mill community of about 8,500 perched on the edge of the Great North Woods, not far from Bangor.
She wants to go back, that much is certain. Get a cheap trailer, look for the mystical Marfa Lights. Go native.
First, though, there’s lots of work to do. Impossible Dream, due out April 20 on ATO Records, is more or less her sixth album (we’ll explain that later), and it is a project to which the words “eagerly anticipated” seem naturally attached. A hundred interviews and photo sessions loom. A thousand stages beckon. A woman’s work is never done.