What is gospel music? If you’re going by the book, the bible or the dictionary, you’re talking about music that expresses Christian beliefs. The music takes on many forms; gospel has been sung in black churches from Chicago to the deep South, to Harlem. It’s rung out from The Ryman Theater during broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and made its way into the juke boxes of truck stops and rural diners. Gospel has drifted from the barren churches of Appalachia and risen up in the most opulent cathedrals or our grandest cities. Patty Griffin’s take on gospel is more spiritual than religious, focusing more on powerful motivations in the secular world as opposed to the pew and pulpit. Her choice of songs is distinctly Americana, covering genres and regions that harbor gospel music, like a travelogue of voice and instrument.
Griffin begins her trek with an acoustic contemplative take on Hank Williams’ classic ballad “House of Gold.” “Move Up,” a traditional song that’s lived in the public domain for decades, is done in rock-a-billy fashion that harkens back to the early music of Elvis Presley and points out the close relationship between early rock and the church. Griffin’s choice of material is not conventional gospel fare, although she does a fine rendition of “Wade in the Water.” Half the songs come from the public domain, relatively unknown numbers like “Virgen de Guadalupe” with Raul Malo, “Death’s Got a Warrant” with Anne and Regina McCrary, and “Never Grow Old” with Buddy Miller. Additionally Griffin wrote 2 new songs for the release, “Little Fire” and “Coming Home to Me” which feature additional vocals from Emmylou Harris and Julie Miller.
Downtown Church was recorded at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, a cavernous structure that allows for echoing reverb and a live spontaneous spirit. Close your eyes and you can imagine sitting in the front pew, listening to slapping stand-up bass, chugging rhythm guitar, and wistful steel pedal. At the helm is producer and contributing musician Buddy Miller whose 2004 recording Univeral United House of Prayer also bridged the secular and sacred.
The real power of this recording is Griffin’s voice. Graced with an amazing talent that has stunned audiences with its agility and range, Griffin has used her years of performing to perfect her phrasing. Downtown Church begins and ends with songs that focus almost exclusively on that voice. With minimal accompaniment Griffin’s emotional connection to her subject matter is evident in its reverence and passion. Ending with the old-time hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” Griffin reminds us of why so many have chosen music as their avenue with which to honor a greater power.