As a child growing up in small-town Maine, Patty Griffin recalls, her Catholic folks would regularly take her to church on Sundays. But that's about all of her religious upbringing she can recollect — the rest feels hazy, vaguely surreal.
"So I would have to say that as a young girl, I loved to hear people singing in church," muses the soft-spoken folk singer. "But I remember being very confused about whether that was a dream I had, if I'd really heard the singing in church that the nuns were doing. And I think my sister was even singing in the choir at one point. But I was so little, I was thinking, 'Were these angels? Or really just people singing? Or was it just a dream?'"
One solid fact stuck with the artist through the years: In that acoustically-resonant chapel, those voices certainly carried. Griffin, who eventually moved away from organized religion, wound up singing and strumming guitar herself in her teens, then moved to Boston and was eventually discovered. She was 32 when she finally released her hushed, poetic debut, Living With Ghosts. Now, at 46, she's returned to her roots with Downtown Church, an album of sacred standards — plus two moving originals — recorded in a 160-year-old Nashville house of worship.
Buddy Miller produced this seventh set for Griffin. The sessions at the Downtown Presbyterian Church lasted a week, with stellar guest stars dropping by, such as Julie Miller, Raul Malo, Jim Lauderdale, Ann and Regina McCrary, and longtime associate Emmylou Harris. The songs were timeless traditionals such as "Move Up," "Never Grow Old," "Wade in the Water" and "All Creatures of Our God and King," coupled with the singer's own "Little Fire" and "Coming Home to Me." And like a pastor ministering to his lapsed flock, Griffin sang every gospel-fiery phrase from a pulpit flanked by giant columns and stained-glass windows, facing row after arced row of pews.
"It was particularly great to go into a big room like that, where voices still carry," says Griffin. "I learned a lot about natural reverb in that place, because the place is actually built for your voice to carry. And for a singer that's just a delight."
The unusual project started last year, when Griffin and her idol Mavis Staples sang a devotional duet, "Waiting for My Child," featured on the album Oh Happy Day. After EMI's Peter York heard the song — and the way Griffin's warm, woodsy voice rose mightily to the gospel occasion — he suggested an entire gospel collection, an almost alternative move in an era of fundamentalist zealots to Catholic priest coverups.
"Because so many people are turned off by religiosity and the terminology — especially Christianity in this country — there's a huge vault of this music that's largely going untapped," notes Griffin, who was given over 100 spirituals by Miller to choose from.
"To me, 'gospel' just means 'good music.' And I think music is a big connector in the world. If people can appreciate each other's music, pop-culturally, then they can appreciate each other's different experiences, as well."