Patty Griffin returned to Boulder on November 7 for the first time since September 2019. Since I was 16 I’d been eager to catch her in Colorado, so while I was undoubtedly the only audience member who needed to get my hands marked with black Xs upon entry, I felt inexplicably connected to that theater harboring 800 middle-aged Boulderites and one marvelous American singer.
Apart from The Chicks’ covers of “Top of the World,” “Let Him Fly” and “Truth No. 2,” the first song I heard by Griffin was “Mother of God” from her 2004 album Impossible Dream. I’m struck by that ballad every time I hear it: “I live too many miles from the ocean,” Griffin declares, “and I’m getting older, and odd.” She invites listeners into less of a performance and more of a spoken-word recollection of a life. The song wrestles with themes of family and faith, offering hopefulness in the midst of futility; Griffin tells us that wherever there’s a fault or crack, there’s a place for the light to get in. She reinstates this sentiment in much of her music.
Impossible Dream quickly became one of my favorite albums. Whenever I’d play that CD on the way to school, my brother would roll his eyes, dissatisfied with the yearning tension in “Kite Song” or the sappy selflessness in “When It Don’t Come Easy.”
“Sydney, seriously?” he’d say. “Are you 100 years old?” I always just laughed. Maybe I am.
Still, for almost five years I’ve been slowly unraveling the gems burrowed in Patty Griffin’s art; last August I was poring over my laptop at the local coffee shop, trying to squeeze another passage into my half-finished, lackadaisical novella. That was the first time I heard her song “Where I Come From” and I was enchanted by the indicative nature of those images of home. She’s so good at that: painting vignettes of places you’ll probably never visit, but you feel like you’ve been there somehow before.
At the Boulder Theater, Griffin took to the stage angelically, purple backlight haloing her curly hair. To aid her stories about wishes, self love and rivers running high, she tapped her foot, bobbed her head and drew back from the microphone when her voice, though raspy and aged, achieved power stronger than her brassy mandolin. The solemnity of her songs comically contrasted her banter.
“If you ever had a cranky redheaded waitress at a Florida diner in the ‘80s . . . I’m sorry,” she joked as she introduced “Mother of God.” “I hated that job.” The crowd laughed and she pressed down on the piano keys. As quickly as it had been relayed, the humorous relic transformed into something existential: she hadn’t just worked a dead-end service job; she’d uprooted herself from Maine when she was 18, sick of the cold. She’d “waited on old people waiting to die / waiting on them until [she] was.”
Just like Kacey Musgraves, Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile, Patty Griffin is a poet laureate. I would even compare her to Mary Oliver – both women tell stories drawing on intersections between loss, wonder and the natural world and have been inspiring me since I first knew their names. Because of them, I linger at bodies of water, refrain from pulling out my premature gray hairs and look at the world a little more discerningly. Griffin’s songwriting in particular transcends traditional country music and nestles inside the celestial (and sometimes mundane) web of connections that makes us human.
I never wanted Griffin’s show to end. I left the theater hesitant to go home, but so grateful to live in a world with music like hers.