Alan Jackson and George Strait declared the death of traditional country in 2000 with “Murder on Music Row.” “Ol’ Hank wouldn’t have a chance, / On today’s radio,” they lamented. So I turned off the radio and turned to alt-country and newgrass. Ten years later, I reflect upon Taylor Swift’s glam guitar, which probably outshines Maybelle Carter’s humble Gibson by 70 watts. At first glance, no artist today seems to give a flip about rural poverty, tight harmonies or that ol’ time religion. But rest assured, Ol’ Hank and his Opry pals might just have a resurrection.
In the age of Ke$ha, Patty Griffin’s “Downtown Church” sounds fresh as Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” clearing the musk of Restoration decadence. Griffin’s seventh album, consisting of country-gospel standards and two originals, harkens back to an era when faith and familial love triumph over adversity. What a message for these hard economic times — It’s the Great Depression meets the Great Recession!
Griffin’s opening track “House of Gold,” a Hank Williams cover, could serve as a lullaby for the Everyman gipped by Wall Street executives. “People steal, they cheat and lie,” she sings with unadorned realism, yet reminding the listener, “That their gold and silver will melt away.” The simple guitar strum and airy pedal steel evokes an outdoors revival on some Midwestern prairie. Perhaps there is salvation from the Vanity Fair of Lady Gaga.
Covering gospel classics is not an easy task, but Griffin shows off her pipes on standards like “Wade in the Water” and “Waiting for My Child.” Nevertheless, Griffin’s sweet bluesy twang just couldn’t match the rough power and breathy depth of Mavis Staples’ original. (Griffin had worked with Staples on the compilation album “Oh Happy Day” in 2009.) Although her interpretation of “Waiting for My Child” is bathed in tender sadness, she sounds like a Methodist singing a Baptist tune.
Griffin’s two originals, the ballad “Little Fire” and the lyric “Coming Home to Me,” blend perfectly into this album of 12 covers. Although these compositions may not be her strongest, they still shine with gentle beauty without sounding too Schlagermusik. (OK, the string section in “Coming Home to Me” does sound like a Ken Burns soundtrack.) But don’t worry: Country music matriarch Emmylou Harris lends her angelic voice, singing harmony on “Little Fire.”
What keeps “Downtown Church” interesting is the diversity of music on the album. Griffin does not simply settle into the comfort of the WASP hymnal. Her version of “Virgen de Gaudalupe,” with its lazy accordion and haunting cello, flutters with sadness. But when she falls back into the Protestant hymnal, her selection is also surprising. The closing track “All Creatures of Our God and King” – just voice and piano – almost shocked me with its earnestness, but I had heard it too many times as a high-churchy anthem blasted out from organs. Listening to Griffin, I thought I was hearing it anew.
I recommend “Downtown Church” for fans of “O Brother Where Art Thou,” Episcopal choristers and all who have a Bunyan-esque hatred of the Billboard charts.